Archives For Coins

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

Misplaced Values

March 30, 2016 — 14 Comments

lewis penAn elderly church usher just left his home as a bequest to his church. That isn’t uncommon, but the fact that his home was filled with a vast collection of toy cars accumulated during a lifetime, was rather unusual.

The church will doubtless reap unexpected treasure from the collection’s sale, along with that of a couple of well restored classic autos. That’s nice news for them, and for the other collectors who will find some rare treasures “recycled” into the hobby during the months ahead.

What disturbed me, was the first comment offered on the website in response to the story.

“I throw everything away, even photos people hand me. Keeps me living in the present.”

That comment is disturbing on several levels. First of all, it reveals an utter disregard for the people who give gifts, “even photos,” to the writer. I hope the person has the integrity to tell their acquaintances not to waste their time and money on offering him (or her) tokens of their concern.

Second, if taken literally, the statement that he (I’ll assume it’s a guy, since I have a difficult time picturing a woman this crass) “throw[s] everything away,” is criminal. While things like photographs rarely have value to anyone but those who know the people in them, virtually any other sort of item possesses some tangible value. To toss them in the garbage—presumably for one’s selfish convenience—is terrible, when every community has charities that could use unwanted possessions to generate support for worthy enterprises.

The third thing that offends me about this comment is the inference that people who do not dispose of things in a similar manner become incapable of “living in the present.” What an impoverished view of the power of images and objects to evoke powerful and valuable memories and sentiments!

We are not talking here about someone who is afflicted with “compulsive hoarding,” that has been recognized as a psychiatric disorder. We are talking about a collector with an innocent interest. Or, removing the comment from this specific context, we would be referring to anyone who bothered to retain a photograph of their nephew or niece they received from a sibling.

I love history. But I don’t expect others to share my interest in the same sorts of artifacts that I have gathered through the years. Still, holding a coin with the image of Constantine the Great, or a civil war token with the USS Monitor adorning the obverse, don’t confine me to the distant past.

Studying history does just the opposite. It enables me to live with greater wisdom and insight in the present. C.S. Lewis summarized this truth quite eloquently.

To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. (Selected Literary Essays, “De Descriptione Temporum”).

Another observation about history’s importance from the pen of Lewis is found in The Weight of Glory. He reveals how only through the study of history can we be delivered from the danger of believing that “living in the present” is being held prisoner to current cultural conventions.

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

Thank God that you are not one of those whose vision is restricted to the current age, with its cacophony of reality television and unbridled hedonism. (I can confidently make that observation based on your reading this column to its end.)

Obviously, it’s not necessary to handle or possess actual artifacts to appreciate history . . . although I occasionally take my civil war sabre down from the wall and think about how my great-grandfather wielded one just like it.

That said, who among us would not love to have in their personal library the very copy of a book that had come from C.S. Lewis’ own?

For an excellent exploration of the current disposition of C.S. Lewis manuscripts and legacy, check out the current post at the always excellent A Pilgrim in Narnia.

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The image above of pipe and pen is from a display at The Wade Center, at Wheaton College.

Misspelling Jesus

November 12, 2013 — 13 Comments

LesusTalk about embarrassing. In a nation that considers God to be its sovereign ruler, it seems rather inexcusable to misspell the name of Jesus.

And yet, that’s precisely what the Vatican has done.

Even more humbling, the error occurred on a very public medium—the principality’s coinage. And, if that was not enough to generate finger-pointing within the Curia, the coins bearing the defective spelling were minted to celebrate the first anniversary of Francis’ assumption of the papal throne.

Having collected coins since I was a young boy, I’m quite familiar with the frequency of minting errors. Typically they are caused by mistakes at the mint itself, where there is a mis-strike or a flaw in one of the dies. (I own a couple of ancient Roman “mules” where the mint workers accidentally used the mismatched obverses and reverses when they struck a particular piece.)

The legend (text) on the aforementioned medallions incorrectly reads “Lesus.” It seems to me that Western sources have mistakenly perceived this as the incorrect substitution of an “L” for the “J.”

The truth is . . . the inscription is in Latin, in which case it is actually an “I” that should appear in place of the “L.” If this is correct, Jesus’ name would be rendered IESUS.*

In actuality, the magnitude of this error was less significant than initially reported. It affected an anniversary medallion, rather than common, everyday coinage that would find its way into the hands of the masses. Also, the mistake was discovered early enough that only a handful of the medals were released; the “lucky” recipients are sure to see the worth of these treasures increase many times over, as their rarity causes the value of the medals to escalate.

Unlike Islam, which forbids images of Allah and Muhammad, Christianity has found iconography related to Jesus to be inspirational, throughout its two millennia history.

The Lord’s face has appeared on numerous coins throughout the years, and there is an entire series of Byzantine issues that cannot be specifically attributed to individual rulers because they did not include their own likeness or name, preferring to yield their place of honor to Christ.

In a 1942 letter to a nun with whom he corresponded, C.S. Lewis shared a poem he had written. I relate it here because of the exquisite reference to religious portraiture on coinage.

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories I have seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth in Thy behalf,

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who would’st give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, the thumb-worn image of Thy head;

From every thought, even from my thoughts of Thee,

Oh thou fair Silence! fall and set me free.

Lord of the straight way and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

A Thought for Writers

Everyone who has ever written something read by others understands the importance of proofreading. This is true for digital media such as emails. It’s even more true for print publications that cannot be easily amended.

That said, we can consider ourselves fortunate that our typographical mistakes are not inscribed for all time on precious metals.

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* Iesus in the nominative case. It’s more commonly seen as Iesu, and my Latin is too rusty to know how it should correctly be rendered in this inscription.

Nero 1We tend to caricature those we dislike. We usually do it with words, either dismissive or insulting. Sometimes we do it with images.

I wrote an essay once entitled “Demonizing Our Enemies,” and in this world of constant turmoil it includes a message we cannot afford to forget. If you’re interested in reading it, it’s on page fifty-four of the first issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and you can read (or download) it for free here.

Sometimes, however, what appears on the surface to be an insult . . . may simply be a reflection of accuracy. That, I think, is the case in the coin pictured above. It displays a portrait of the Emperor Nero, in all of his porcine grandeur. It is, in a single word, grotesque.

Nero 2Consider this image, of the emperor in his youth. It’s rather disgusting to see what he had become. But the fruits of unrelenting debauchery and murder do take a toll.

Still, one wonders how an image like this ever came to be. What emperor, in his right mind, would allow us a graphic reproduction of his ugliness? Especially when it would have been a simple thing to circulate at the mints an idealized portrait for official use. (That, of course, has been a common practice throughout history.)

As a bit of a numismatist, I was curious as to how it came to be. My first impression upon seeing the bizarre likeness of the imperator was that it must be a “barbarous” imitation of a Roman coin. Such counterfeits became fairly common in the fourth century, and they are usually identified by terribly garbled legends (inscriptions).

After doing enough research to determine this was a genuine imperial issue, I wondered if the celator (die-carver) might have been put to death for his presumption. No evidence of that, though it may have happened.

I have to assume that Nero was so self-consumed that he was oblivious to the way the corpulent image must have invited silent ridicule. He was, after all, despised by virtually everyone for his countless excesses.

So, ultimately, the doomed emperor unintentionally played the proverbial joke upon himself. By allowing an accurate portrayal of the imperial profile, he preserved for all time a true testimony to himself. He may have falsely blamed the Christians for Rome’s terrible fire, but he had no one other than himself to indict for his metallic legacy.

For those curious as to how I might work a Lewisian theme into this unusual post, allow me to include the following passing reference to the self-acclaimed master of the lyre. It appears in the essay “Learning in War-Time”

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. . . . At first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing. . . Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Now it seems to me that we shall not be able to answer these questions until we have put them by the side of certain other questions which every Christian ought to have asked himself in peace-time. I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.

And—lest any of us smugly nod in agreement that such an evil man most assuredly deserved his searing fate—here is another passage from Lewis that offers a sobering truth.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven [editor: they will not accept God’s forgiveness]. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

One caution, and I have done. In order to rouse modern minds to an understanding of the issues, I ventured to introduce in this chapter a picture of the sort of bad man whom we most easily perceive to be truly bad. But when the picture has done that work, the sooner it is forgotten the better.

In all discussions of Hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me. (The Problem of Pain).