4. State and Faith

AD 100–700

Religion gradually developed into a defining aspect of empires and states during this period. Some rulers at this time attempted to impose religious conformity on their subjects, while others practised tolerance towards their multi-faith populations. Regardless, rulers often chose to associate themselves personally with a particular faith or deity, at times asserting their legitimacy by claiming descent from a god or claiming to have divine sanction to rule. Coinage was circulated widely across empires and was, therefore, an ideal medium on which to advertise the bond between the ruler and their faith.

Three powers, the Hindu Guptas, the Zoroastrian Sassanians and the Christian Roman Empire, all used coins to spread religious imagery while advertising the ruler’s devotion to the faith.  In contrast, Islam brought a new style of coinage which emphasised that it was the word of god, rather than the ruler, that held the empire together.

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Gupta dinar of Samudragupta

Gold
About AD 335–380
Central India
CSMVS, Mumbai

The visual language of Hinduism was established in the Gupta period around AD 400. The coin of Samudragupta’s reign shows the horse before a sacrificial post on one side and the queen with a flywhisk on the other. The horse is symbolic of the Ashwamedha yajña, an elaborate, and very public, vedic rite of kingship that was revived by the Gupta kings to assert themselves as a Brahmanical monarchy.

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Gupta dinar of Chandragupta II

Gold
AD 385–414
Central India
CSMVS

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Sasanian coin of Shapur II

Gold
AD 309–379
Iran
British Museum

 

Zoroastrianism was the state faith of the Sasanian Empire, which ruled Iran and modern Iraq from AD 224 to 651. Zoroastrians believe fire is a sacred and visible representation of Ahura Mazda, the wise lord in the religion. The symbolism on Sasanian coins emphasises the king’s position as god’s representative on earth. On one side of the coins is the image of the ruler. On the other side is the central image of Zoroastrianism, atar or fire.

Sasanian coin of Shapur II

Gold
AD 309–379
Iran
British Museum

Sasanian coin of Shapur II

Sasanian coin
Gold
AD 438–457
Iran
British Museum

Sasanian coin of Shapur II

Gold
AD 611
Iran
British Museum

 
 
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Roman coin of Romulus Augustulus

Gold
AD 475–476
Milan, Italy
British Museum

The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century. All subsequent Roman emperors, except one, proclaimed Christianity as their personal faith and began to advertise their Christian allegiance on their coins. Roman imperial coinage traditionally featured the emperor’s portrait alongside an image of a pagan deity. This format persisted, with pagan deities replaced by Christian symbols. Images such as the cross on coins helped spread the message that Christianity was now the state religion.

Roman coin of Romulus Augustulus

Gold
AD 475–476
Arles, France
British Museum

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Byzantine coin of Justinian I

Copper alloy
AD 527–565
Sicily
British Museum

 

The Byzantine Empire is the name given to the eastern state which survived the fall of the Roman west in AD 476. It continued to uphold Christianity as the official religion.

Byzantine coins combined traditional Roman imperial and Christian images. This is a copper coin of Emperor Justinian I (527–565 AD), holding a cross set on a globe, replacing the traditional regalia of a Victory statuette atop a globe.

Visigoth coin in the name of Anastasius I

Gold
AD 491–518
France
British Museum

 

The Visigoths were a Germanic people who ruled much of Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Their coins were made to deliberately resemble Roman coins, showing the image of a Roman ruler on one side and Christian imagery on the reverse. Up until AD 580, the Visigoths imitated Roman coins as a way of presenting themselves as legitimate rulers to their subjects and to widen the acceptance of their money.

Visigoth coin in the name of Anastasius I

Gold
AD 491–518
France
British Museum

Aksumite coin of Za-ya'abiyo la madhen negus

Silver
About AD 520–550
Ethiopia
British Museum

The Kingdom of Aksum (about AD 1–940) was centred around northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Christianity was adopted as the state religion of Aksum in about AD 330. Aksumite coins were the first to show the Christian cross on one of their sides. On the other side, coins featured stylised images of the rulers, sometimes accompanied by an inscription which read, ‘the king who exalts the saviour’.

Aksumite coin of Za-ya'abiyo la madhen negus

Silver
About AD 520–550
Ethiopia
British Museum

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Aksumite coin of Za-ya'abiyo la madhen negus

Copper
AD 340–540
Ethiopia
British Museum

Aksumite coin of Za-ya'abiyo la madhen negus

Copper
AD 340–540
Ethiopia      
British Museum

Pallava coin

Copper
About AD 550–620
Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, India
National Museum, New Delhi

                   

The Pallavas were a South Indian dynasty that existed from about AD 275 to 897.The Pallava coin has a humped bull on one side. This bull is Rishabha, or Nandi, the mount of the god Shiva. The reverse of the coin bears the wheel, which is symbolic of the chakravartin or the universal monarch. It is also a symbol of Vishnu. This tiny coin, therefore, asserts kingship as the vehicle or carrier of divine will. Equally, it makes clear that kingship is carried by faith.

Chalukya coin

Gold
About AD 650–700
Karnataka, India
National Museum, New Delhi (59.152/1)

 

The lion with his raised paw on the front of the uninscribed Chalukyan coin is symbolic of kingly power, while the temple on the other side is an indicator of Hindu faith. Several trading guilds emerged during the period of the Chalukyas (about AD 543–566). The most famous of them was the Chalukya consortium, a league of ‘500 lords of Ayyavolu’, that hailed from their capital at Aihole in Karnataka. These trading consortiums were instrumental in spreading Hindu religious ideas in Southeast Asia.

Tang dynasty coin

Bronze
AD 621
China      
British Museum

Coins minted in China are different from those issued from South Asia to Europe. Images of rulers and religious symbols are entirely absent. Coins bear an inscription confirming their economic value and legitimacy. The square hole in the middle allowed them to be strung together, a convenient design feature that continued from the fourth century BC to recent times. It was adopted over a vast geographical area that stretched from Japan to Central Asia.

Tang dynasty coin

Bronze
AD 621
China
British Museum

Arab-Byzantine dinar showing a standing emperor and sons

Gold
AD 625–675
Probably Syria
British Museum

The earliest Islamic coins were copies of the coins of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine coins showed the emperor and his sons on one side, and the Christian cross on the other. The Arab gold dinars struck during the time of the Umayyad caliph 'Abd al-Malik still showed the same emperor, but the reverse was altered. The cross was transformed into a post and the shahada, an Arabic inscription declaring the belief that there is one god and Muhammad is his prophet, was added.

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Arab-Byzantine dinar showing a standing emperor and sons

Gold
AD 620
Syria
British Museum

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Umayyad dinar of ‘Abd Al-Malik

Gold
AD 700–701
Probably minted in Damascus, Syria
British Museum

Umayyad dinar of ‘Abd Al-Malik

Gold
AD 697-698
Probably minted in Damascus, Syria
British Museum

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Umayyad dinar of ‘Abd Al-Malik

Gold
AD 698
Probably minted in Damascus, Syria
British Museum

Umayyad dinar of ‘Abd Al-Malik

Gold
AD 707
Probably minted in Damascus, Syria
British Museum

Miliaresion of Emperor Leo III

Silver        
AD 717–741
Minted in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey
British Museum

In 720 Emperor Leo III (reigned 717–741) introduced a new silver coin. On the front is a Greek inscription naming Leo and his son Constantine as ‘emperors through god’, while the reverse depicts a cross and the legend ‘May Jesus Christ conquer’.

This coinage was associated with the inauguration of a co-emperor and was principally ceremonial, marking this important change in the political order and reflecting the religious foundations of the Byzantine Empire.

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Miliaresion of Emperor Leo III

Silver        
AD 717–741
Minted in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey
British Museum