A coin which Ibrahim Abu Rakbeh (from St George’s Bazaar across from St George’s College in Jerusalem) asked me to read for him in mid-2016 proved to be rather interesting.
Here is what the coin looks like:
The official description of the coin, which was issued by Constantine I in 330–333 CE to commemorate the founding of his new capital, Constantinople, reads as follows:
18 x 19 mm. 3.0gm. OBV: VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. REV: She-wolf with circle on shoulder standing left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars. In ex. SMTSE (Signata Moneta, Thessalonica, 5th factory) [RIC VII Thessalonica 187]
In case it is easier for you to view, here is an example of an identical coin from the same mint:
It is interesting to note that 5 years after the Council of Nicea, Constantine is still issuing a coin that celebrates the myth of Rome’s founding by one of the two boys that had been abandoned in the forest but survived when suckled by a she-wolf.
The myth exists in several versions, including this one from Plutarch ca. 75 CE:
There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid … the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. [Plutarch, ca 75 CE]
More on the Romulus and Remus legend here.
This myth clearly had currency well into the beginning of the Byzantine period, and it may have been in Luke’s mind as he prepared his “orderly account” of the birth of Jesus for his high-placed Roman addressee, Theophilus.
As Luke tells the story, there are two boys who share similar miraculous signs: John and Jesus. In the biblical account they are cousins rather than siblings, but the Lukan infancy narrative may still have evoked the legend of the founding of Rome. When Luke addressed his elite Roman Christian audience represented by the ‘most excellent Theophilus’ (Luke 1:4), he was not so much seeking to describe the birth of Jesus as to celebrate the significance of the Christ Child.
One of these two boys—and Luke clearly indicates that it is Jesus, not John— is destined to establish the empire of God (basileia tou theou in Greek), to bring peace, and to be the Savior of the world. Again, this evokes the traditional imperial claims to be a son of God (F DIV on Roman coins), the Saviour (SERVATOS in Latin, soter in Greek) and the guarantor of peace (PAX). Luke is proclaiming the divinity of the Christ Child, as well as his destiny as the ruler of the empire of God. This is powerful ‘public theology’ that engages with and challenges the assumptions of privilege and power.
Note: This is a slightly edited version of a story was first published the St George’s College Jerusalem web site on 9 July 2016. I acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Peter Lewis in confirming my interpretation of this coin and also advising of the identity of the mint where it was issued.