"Valeria, Fausta and Helena: Domestic Tragedies on the Bronze Follis, c.295 - c.326"
Brutally forceful or quaint and charming, the stylised 'portraits' on the bronze coins of Diocletian's tetrarchy and Constantine the Great afford a teasing glimpse into a momentous time in history, beginning with the 'Great Persecution' of Diocletian and ending with the acceptance of Christianity within the Empire and the founding of a new imperial capital at Constantinople. This talk summarises the contemporary account by Lactantius: De Mortibus Persecutorum ('Concerning the Deaths of the Persecutors'), with its hair-raising stories of imperial deaths and suicides:
"God struck Galerius with an incurable malady. A malign ulcer appeared on the lower part of his genitals and spread more widely… His entrails putrefied from the outside, and his whole seat dissolved in decay… worms were born inside him. The smell pervaded not just the palace but the whole city... Of the doctors some were unable to endure the overpowering and extraordinary stench, and were executed on the spot."
The historical events are set alongside the coins, with a particular focus on the three empresses: Valeria, daughter of Diocletian and wife of Galerius; Fausta, daughter of Maximianus and wife of Constantine; and Helena, divorced wife of Constantius I and mother of Constantine. These women were passed between fathers and husbands as political pawns, and their stories mix garish melodrama with poignant tragedy.