Bronze nummus of Magnentius with Christogram

Roman, mid-4th century AD
Minted at Ambianum (Amiens in northern France)

The first symbol of the Christian faith

For most of the fourth century AD, Roman society was a curious mix of the traditional pagan and the official state religion of Christianity. The first sign of Christianity to appear on Roman coins was not a cross, the most important symbol of modern Christianity, but a device called the Christogram or the chi-rho symbol.

The example illustrated shows the Christogram in its fullest form. The first two letters of Christ's name in Greek, chi and rho, are superimposed to form the main symbol. Flanking this are alpha and omega, the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet, another symbol of Christ - 'I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last' (Revelation 1:8). Though the western provinces of the Roman Empire were Latin-speaking, and the Greek letters would have been meaningless to most people, the symbolism would have been instantly recognized.

Subsequently, another form of the Christogram became more popular, where the rho was superimposed with a cross, and then again in the fifth century by a cross alone. It is possible that people were initially unwilling to use the sign of the cross because of the shame attached to crucifixion, which was reserved for the execution of criminals. This link disappeared when the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great replaced crucifixion with burning at the stake. He claimed to have been converted in 312 by a sign from God on the eve of battle. It is most likely that the sign Constantine had in mind would have been the chi-rho symbol.

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More information

Bibliography

R. Reece, The later Roman Empire: an arc (Tempus, 1999)

J. Williams (ed.), Money: a history (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)

P. Bastien, Le monnayage de Magnence, 350- (Wetteren, 1964)

A.M. Burnett, Coinage in the Roman world (London, Seaby, 1987)

Dimensions

Diameter: 28.000 mm
Weight: 8.420 g

Museum number

CM PCR 1365

not found on MERLIN

Location

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