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Coins of Ancient Christianity. Part 2 (2003)

This is the second part of a report of Coins and Christianity in the Holy land.  Click here for the first part of the report.

This is the second part of my report of the exhibition presented by my colleague, Mrs. Cecilia Meir, showing ancient coins that reflect Christianity in the Holy Land, from the Roman period to the time of the Crusades.

Very early on, Christianity took root among both Jews and the pagan majority in the Roman Empire.

The Romans tolerated various religions, but perhaps because of the messianic and missionary nature of Christianity, the Imperial attitude towards Christians was distrustful from the outset.

As early as 65 CE, during the reign of Nero, Christians were persecuted and accused of setting fire to Rome. From then until the 4th Century, Christians were barely tolerated or actively persecuted.

But after the death of Diocletian in 305 CE, the official attitude changed. After repeated changes of power, Constantine confronted his rival, Maxentius, at the MilvianBridge, near Rome, in 312. The night before the crucial battle, Constantine had a vision in which an angel instructed him to mark the standards and helmets of his soldiers with the Labarum, a monogram of the Greek letters Chi-Rho (X+P), the first two initials of the word Christ in Greek (“CRISTOS”).

Constantine did so, and won the battle.

And so did Christianity.

The new emperor erected large and important churches in the Holy Land, but more importantly, declared Christianity as a tolerated, legitimate, religion. Towards the end of his life, Constantine even converted to Christianity.

Later, in the time of Theodosius I (379-395), Christianity was even proclaimed the official religion of the empire, and the pagan shrines in Rome were demolished.

On the death of Theodosius I, the Roman Empire was divided into two. the Western Empire centered in Rome, and the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire centered aroundByzantium (Constantinople).

The Western Empire collapsed around 495 CE.

The coins minted in the 4th century CE reflect the changes in the imperial attitude towards Christianity. Coins issued by Constantine .the Great. reflected mixed images and included both the Roman pantheon of gods, as well as christograms such as the Labarum. By the 5th century CE, the cross and christograms were the primary types of images depicted on imperial coins.

Ancient bronze coin

Ancient silver coin

In the days of Justin II (685-695) a new iconographic development took place.

For the first time, his gold and silver coins show an image of Jesus himself. The trend continued until the 14th century. The practice may have been associated with the creation of Islam, the new monotheistic-messianic religion in the east in those days.

The Muslims conquered the Holy Land in 636-638 and repudiated all images. The Byzantine coins could have been an attempt to distinguish Christianity from the new rival religion.

Ancient gold coinAncient gold coin

A further development took place in the days of John I (969-976) when the bust of Jesus was depicted on bronze coins as well.

These issues replaced the folles (Byzantine bronze coins which bore imperial portraits) and were in circulation for almost a century.

The reverse of these new types read: IhSuS XRISTuS bASILEubASILE. “Jesus Christ king of kings”.

Ancient coin

In the 11th century CE the Seljuks gained power and threatened the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul).

In fear, the Byzantine emperor Alexius ICommenus appealed to Pope Urban II for help. But the Pope’s call to aid the Byzantines in 1095 became a declaration of a general Christian holy war against the Moslems, and it met with unprecedented response.

Multitudes of peasants and knights left farms and mansions and joined the First Crusade that set off in the summer of 1096.

Marching through Constantinople and Antioch in Syria, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.

The city was declared the capital of the Latinkingdom of Jerusalem, and it was under Crusaders control till 1187 CE.

The coins of the Crusades, struck mostly in Jerusalem and Acre, were influenced by Byzantine prototypes, as well as contemporary Islamic and European coins.

The first Crusader gold coins struck in Jerusalem imitated the gold Fatimid dinars and bore Arabic inscriptions.

Ancient coin

The gold coin above was struck in Acre in the early 12th century by the Crusaders. To make it valid in local and eastern markets, it imitated gold Fatimid dinars, but to such an extent that it even bore the text of the Islamic Shahda: “There is no God but Allah. He has no associates. Mohammed is his messenger”.

Only in the 13th century did the church authorities notice this self minted “blasphemy” and replaced the coin with new gold coins of the same value. Still inscribed in Arabic, the text now read “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost”, and a cross dominated the centre of the coin. Such coins were also struck in silver (below).

Ancient coin

Most of the silver and copper coins used during the period of the Crusaders’ rule were similar to those used in their homelands, particularly the thin billons (bronze coins coated with a thin layer of silver). The subjects depicted on these coins included important buildings in Jerusalem, such as the tower of David which became the city’s citadel during this time; the Dome of the Rock, identified by the Crusaders as the “Templum Domini” – the temple of the Lord; and the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred of Christian shrines in the city.

Billon from JerusalemThese coins were the last Christian coins minted in the Holy Land. The British, who had mandate rule in Israel from 1917 to 1948, minted coins with neutral or Jewish and Islamic images, but with no Christian images.

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all images © Collection of the Kadman numismatic Pavilion, Eretz-Isreal museum.