This past week, I listened to stellar papers at the ILAN conference held at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. One of my favorites was also the last: Fabian Stroth (Heidelberg) delved eloquently into the complex monograms on the capitals in Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. I hadn’t really thought very much about monograms generally, and though it wasn’t the focus of the paper, I began to wonder about the inception and evolution of this form of writing.
First, the word monogram combines the Greek word monos (one, sole) with gramma (letter). As such, those monogrammed towels people get with three letters are often just initials, not monograms (please let your friends know, for I am sure they care). Some of the earliest forms of monograms I have been able to find (at least in the West), have been on Greek coins, particularly from the fifth century BCE onward. The Greek town of Anactorium minted Corinthian staters with monograms indicating the municipality. Monograms were also commonly found on the Alexander coinage, and usually signify the mint from whence a coin came from, and perhaps the overseer or official in charge of the minting process. Space is tight on a coin, but these small monograms helped people to source the origins of their coinage (something imperative in societies on the gold/silver standard) and to recognize minting officials in charge of issuing the coins.
Monograms continued to appear particularly on coins, well into the Roman period. Eastern mints utilized them in particular, and rulers such as Rhoemetalces and even Herod employed monograms to advertise their legitimacy and potency. Monograms were also employed on weights, it seems. I have had no luck in tracking down monograms on Roman inscriptions in the Republican and Imperial periods (please send along if I am wrong!), but this does not mean they did not exist. We have but a fraction of the inscribed objects from antiquity, after all. The extant material record would suggest an emphasis on their use on numismatic media in particular at this time.
During the course of the third century, we perhaps begin to see monograms occurring as indicators of the Christian faith. Although arguments still abound, there does appear to have been the use of the chi-rho monogram [=CHR(istos)] in Phrygian inscriptions prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (Jensen 2000: 138; McLean 2002: 280). It notable that the chi-rho combo had occurred as ligatures prior to its Christian usage, and was thus not a completely new invention. To many scholars, it is only after Constantine’s ascension and the emperor’s adoption of the symbol that we see more widespread proliferation. Coins with the monogram making an earlier appearance than the first inscription using a clearly Christian chi-rho monogram post Constantine (Bardill 2011: 220).
Alison Cooley has (following Carletti) recently argued that the use of the monogram on funeral loculi occurred immediately at the time of burial and actually served as a way of inscribing protection over the grave of the deceased rather than announcing one’s faith (2012: 232). I would argue that it was likely a little bit of both. By the mid to late fourth century, the symbol was seen in a number of places. A personal favorite is this lead cistern from Icklingham dating to the fourth century CE and now at the British Museum.
The use of monograms grew and became more popular into the sixth century. We have a bourgeoning of their use on seals in the Byzantine empire, as well as on coins of the emperor. Notably, both Justin I and Theodoric were chided as being illiterate emperors forced to use a stencil, but as Karen Radner has pointed out, this might be due to the fact that writing out a monogram is rather complex (2014: 195). As this coin from Theodoric would support! I might need a stencil too.
Complex monograms also became particularly popular on jewelry in Late Antiquity, including silver rings and intaglios often with the owner’s name in the genitive. They could be used to validate important documents. They still held the symbolism of power, prestige, and status–but perhaps added an element of uniqueness that people enjoyed. To this day, it can be very difficult to unravel the complex lines of many monograms without knowing the original person’s name. Just as Romans enjoyed word games like palindromes (as I have argued before), they perhaps also enjoyed a good monogram puzzle.
Clearly, the use of monograms was not a distinctly Christian invention, but rather had a classical heritage that advertised potency and, at times, authenticity. Additionally, the love of contorting and playing with words would continue into the Carolingian period and beyond in the Medieval West, where Charlemagne employed a creative and–above all–distinct monogram, as did medieval popes. It also continued on in the Byzantine East, where they could be seen on seals, jewelry, coins and even pottery. Having our own little logo can certainly make us feel special and mark out what is ours, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find there was a long history of the monogram reaching back to the ancient Mediterranean.