Category Archives: LETTER L

The Labarum of Constantine the Great

From the time of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great (306-337), it was the imperial and military banner (a vexillum). The original standard was first used by Constantine during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius (312) but the same name also refers to similar standards produced in imitation of the original one in the Late Antique world and later on.

A follis of Constantine (c. 337) showing a depiction of his labarum spearing a serpent on the reverse; the inscription reads SPES PVBLICA. Struck 337 AD. Constantinople mint. CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG, laureate head right SPES PVBLICA across field, labarum, with three medallions on drapery and crowned by a christogram, spearing serpent. CONS in exergue. RIC VII 19. According to RIC, this famous reverse type represents the defeat of tyranny by the death of Licinius. Yet, the scene also has powerful Christian imagery in that it allegorically portrays the power of Christianity over evil. Coin from CNG coins, through Wildwinds. Used with permission. Follis 337 Constantine. Photo and caption by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image enlarged; colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The origin of the word labarum is a matter of scientific debate. Some suggest it derived from the Latin word labarum. Others say it is a Gallic word because Gaul was the starting point for the war against Maxentius, and there were many Gauls in the army.

The emperor Honorius (393-423) holding a variant of the labarum – the Latin phrase on the cloth means “In the name of Christ [rendered by the Greek letters XPI] be ever victorious” and the Globus with the still pagan symbol the victory. Photo and caption by Marsyas (2006). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After a Christian author and an advisor to Roman emperor, Constantine I, Lactantius (240-320), shortly before the battle, the emperor fell into ecstasy, during which he received an order from Christ to place on the shields of soldiers the sign of heaven, consisting of the first two Greek letters of the word ‘Christ’ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) — Chi (χ) and Rho (ρ). This monogram is indeed found on coins and writings from the time of Constantine. Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339), a biographer of the emperor’s life, adds that at the moment of the start of the fight, the pagan ruler called for the help of the Christian God, as a result of which he saw in the daylight a radiant cross with the Greek words: ‘Through this sign you will win!’ The next night, Constantine saw Christ with the cross and was advised to have a banner made with the image of the cross, displaying the christogram of the ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol ☧. This banner is, of course, a labarum, made in the shape of the letter T, standing for the cross, and attached to the upper bar. As such it was henceforth carried by Constantine’s troops.

The day after his victory, on October 29, 312, Constantine rode triumphantly into Rome. The city gave him a wonderful party. As for the vaccination of Christianity, it was still until the end of his reign, a transitional period. But although Constantine chose not to tease the Roman pagans with a new religion in one God, he nonetheless openly manifested the origins of Christianism in the heart of the Western world by minting coins with the christogram of the ‘Chi-Rho’ while the labarum in the form of the cross flew over the ranks of his army.

Constantine’s labarum, with a wreathed Chi Rho from an antique silver medal. The “medallions” which are said to have shown portraits of Constantine and his sons are sometimes replaced by the three circles or dots. Drawing by Nordisk familjebok (1911), vol.14, p.1088. Uploaded in 2006. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Coin of Vetranio (350 AD.), a soldier is holding two labara. Notably, they differ from the labarum of Constantine in having the Chi-Rho depicted on the cloth rather than above it, and in having their staves decorated with phalerae as were earlier Roman military unit standards. Photo by Marsyas (2010). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: The emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055) (centre panel of a Byzantine enamelled crown) holding a miniature labarum. Photo by Andrew massyn (2008). Public domain. Image cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Labarum” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3tPYsM8>. [Accessed 12th February, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, pp. 69, 224. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Rops D. (1968). Kościół pierwszych wieków. pp. 477-480. [L’église des apôtres et des martyrs]. Ostrowska K. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX.