Commandeering a Symbol of God: Reevaluating the Use of the Chi-Rho in Roman Britain as a Sign of Imperial Authority

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Bennett-Flammer, Briar
Christianity , Britain , Roman , Chi-rho , Constantine , Archaeology
The Chi-Rho (☧), or Christian monogram, is one of the most common religious symbols in Christian art. Traditional archaeology has considered the presence of a chi-rho to be an indicator of a Christian artifact, as a result of a long-standing association with the figure of Christ. As a result, artefacts adorned with the chi-rho have been consistently used as evidence for Christian activity in Roman Britain. An association with imperial figures, however, has created a need to question the validity of these assumptions in certain contexts. After his “Divine Revelation” Emperor Constantine adopted the chi-rho as his personal sign of military triumph and political authority, giving the symbol dual functions representing both religion and imperial power. In Britain, Constantine’s many personal and military connections may have increased the chi-rho’s imperial role. The symbol appears in the province as architectural decoration, graffiti, and on objects as original ornamentation. When this material evidence is reevaluated with consideration for function, context, potential as a religious and/or secular artefact, and the purpose of the chi-rho as part of the objects’ decoration, the Romano-British chi-rho is demonstrated to be a symbol with an ambivalent nature. While in some cases the symbols are religious and/or ritual in function, often the chi-rho is clearly used as an imperial emblem on objects associated with the administrative system, the military, or those displaying fealty to the imperial family.
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