Every ancient coin tells a story. On Facebook every once in a while I like to post a “story coin”–a coin from my collection with a little vignette about its context. The challenge is to keep these vignettes brief and engaging for a nonspecialist audience. I posted this one today about my Magnentius Chi-Rho reverse. I thought I’d also post it here. Feel free to add to the story if there are any cool details I’ve omitted, or if there’s a different “reading” of this coin from the one I’ve offered.
So the year is 350 A.D. There are two Roman emperors: Constantius II in the East and Constans in the West, both sons of Constantine the Great. Magnentius, a former imperial guard commander, arose in the West and usurped the rule of Constans, who was soon trapped and killed near the Pyrenees. Magnentius had to act fast to solidify his base of power because rivals in the West (such as Vetranio) were gathering troops, and soon Constantius would arrive from the East to avenge his brother. Perhaps as a genuine gesture of piety, or perhaps as a crass means of rallying the support of the Christian faction, Magnentius had this coin struck featuring a large Chi-Rho monogram. (It also features a portrait that makes Magnentius look like Conway Twitty.) While the Chi-Rho had been featured in small details of Constantinian coinage, never had it held such prominence. The iconographical message is startling: Magnentius, not the sons of Constantine, was the true heir to Christian Empire. After all, his Chi-Rho was bigger than their Chi-Rho. Sadly for Magnentius, his Chi-Rho couldn’t save him, at least not physically. He was soundly defeated by Constantius at the Battle of Mursa Major in Croatia in 351. (Magnentius personally led his troops into battle; Constantius left the battle to pray.) Magnentius’s forces suffered a final defeat in southern France at the Battle of Mons Seleucus, after which Magnentius died the “Roman death” by falling on his sword in 353.