This week’s featured object is a small bronze coin of the Roman Emperor Constantius II. That may not be a name that jumps out from the pages of history the way Roman Emperors like Augustus, Nero or Hadrian do but in his own way Constantius II was a remarkable ruler.
Born in what is now Serbia to Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, and the Empress Fausta, he was one of three sons, along with his brothers Constantine II and Constans. Constantine I elevated Constantius to the rank of Caesar in AD 324. While serving in this role Constantius fought against barbarian incursions along the Danube frontier and gained valuable experience that would serve him later.
Upon the death of his father Constantine I, who by any measure was surely one of the most remarkable, energetic and dynamic figures in Roman history, the three sons met to divide the Roman domains among themselves as co-emperors. A purge had taken place upon Constantine’s death that included the murder of two male cousins whom Constantine had apparently intended to serve as co-rulers with his sons. Roman commentators place the blame for this purge squarely on Constantius but the bias in these sources makes this less than certain. Constantius’ share of the Empire included the Balkans and Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor (modern Turkey), while the European and North African provinces were governed by his brothers.
In the years that followed, Constantius demonstrated great vigor as both a military leader and an administrator. Clearly, the trust his late father Constantine had placed in him was justified. In addition to managing a long and bloody (though inconclusive) war against the resurgent Persian Empire in the east, he countered numerous barbarian thrusts into the west along the Rhine and Danube frontiers and put down multiple serious revolts led by usurper would-be emperors in Europe. At a time when the allegiance of the legions to the legitimate Emperor or a usurper was never a sure thing, the reverse legend on this coin – GLORIA EXERCITUS or Glory of the Army — conveyed the image of loyalty and stability. The mint mark visible on the bottom, reading SMANAI, refers to Antioch, then in the province of Syria (now in modern Turkey), where Constantius spent considerable time during his campaigns against the Persians.
Constantius ruled as sole legitimate Emperor from AD 353 until his death in 361 but in total, from his elevation to the rank of Caesar in 324, he ruled for 29 years, making him one of the longest reigning Roman Emperors. He reigned in a troubled period of Roman history, one in which lesser men might have floundered. Whatever his shortcomings, he did hold the Empire together against many threats both internal and external. This tiny coin, worth very little in its day and still quite inexpensive today, as these were made in their countless thousands by the Imperial mints and a great many survive in excellent condition, tells part of that story.
Marble portrait of Constantius II excavated in Syria and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology
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