By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…
— Exodus 20:4-5
FOR JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM, the problem of religious images was a matter of dispute for centuries. When does artistic representation of holy figures become forbidden “idolatry”? The Eastern Roman or “Byzantine” Empire was troubled by this “iconoclast controversy” during the eighth and ninth centuries.
Inevitably, the conflict was reflected in the design of their coinage.
The Solidi of Justinian II
The solidus, a coin of nearly pure gold weighing 4.5 grams maintained its value as the standard of international trade for over seven centuries (c. 310 – 1092 CE). Beginning with the reign of Heraclius (610 – 641) the usual reverse of the gold solidus was a cross potent on three steps. The “cross potent” is a cross with short cross-bars at the end of each arm. In 692, Justinian II, great-great grandson of Heraclius, commissioned his talented mint engraver to place a portrait of Christ on the coinage as a gesture of defiance to the empire’s enemies, the Muslims (who recognized Jesus as a prophet but denied His divinity).
In the historical novel Justinian (1998), H. N. Turteltaub imagines the scene when the Emperor received the first samples of the new coins:
When he handed me the first five nomismata he had struck, I brought them close to my face and squinted at them, hardly believing he had managed to include so much in so small a compass. I could make out the individual hairs, long and flowing, on Christ’s head and in His beard and mustache; I imagined I could read (though in truth I could not) the words on the book He was holding… I gave Cyril back the other four nomismata. “And you keep these. You did everything I wanted my coinage to do, and did it better than I imagined it could be done.” (Turteltaub, 198-9)
The Latin inscription on the obverse translates as “Jesus Christ, King of Those Who Rule”. On the reverse, the standing figure of the emperor holds a cross potent, surrounded by the inscription “Lord Justinian, Servant of Christ”. Although Greek was the spoken language of the empire, Latin continued to be used for centuries in inscriptions. Which seems out of place, but even today a Latin phrase–E PLURIBUS UNUM (“From Many, One”)–appears on American coins.
Overthrown by a palace coup and exiled in 695, Justinian returned to power in 705. On the coinage of his second reign, a very different image of Christ appears, with curly hair and a short beard. This image is similar to an illustration in the Rabula Gospels, a manuscript dated to 586 CE and now in the Vatican Library. Many believed it derived from a lifetime portrait painted by the Apostle Luke.
Justinian was overthrown in another palace coup in 711 and executed, along with his young son. The coinage of his successors returned to the simple cross potent as a standard reverse. The image of Christ would not return to the coinage for another 132 years.
Leo III called “Leo the Isaurian” was born around 685 CE in northern Syria (now part of Turkey). Isauria was a mountainous region notorious for its tough guerrilla fighters.
Of peasant origin, he rose through the ranks of the army and was entrusted with sensitive diplomatic missions by the short-lived successors of Justinian. In March 717, he deposed Theodosius III, a tax official who had very reluctantly taken the throne. The empire faced a serious crisis, as an invading Arab army besieged Constantinople. Leo masterfully organized the defense of the capital, decisively defeating the Arabs on land and at sea.
In his coinage, Leo was quite conservative. From 717 to 720, the reverse of his gold solidus was the traditional cross potent on three steps. In 720, he crowned his infant son, the future emperor Constantine V, as co-emperor. And so, for the rest of Leo’s reign (21 years), Constantine’s portrait appears on the reverse of the coins, first as a child, then as an adolescent and finally as a young man.
Troubled by the loss of so much Roman territory to the Muslims, Leo decided that God was displeased with the empire because of the growing cult of icons. In 726 he ordered the removal of an image of Christ over the main gate of the palace in Constantinople. This provoked a riot. Leo moved cautiously. Then, in 730, he issued an edict prohibiting the veneration of icons throughout the empire.
The First Restoration of Icons
When Leo died in June 741 CE, his son-in-law Artavasdus (or Artabasdos) seized the throne. Constantine V fled the capital and raised an army in the provinces. Considered a “usurper”, Artavasdus is often omitted from lists of emperors. He repealed Leo’s edict against icons. His gold coins are some of the greatest rarities of the entire Byzantine series. Initially he used the cross-on-steps reverse, but after he crowned his son Nicephorus (or Nikeforos) as co-emperor the reverse bears the youth’s portrait.
A civil war resulted in the victory of Constantine V in November 743, and Artavasdus and his sons were blinded (this made them ineligible to rule, and was considered more humane than execution).
The Second Wave of Iconoclasm
Constantine V was nicknamed Kopronymos (“the excrement-named”), supposedly because of an unfortunate mishap at his baptism. He enforced his father’s policies against icons so ferociously that icons earlier than his reign are very rare – most were destroyed. Hated by pro-icon monks (who wrote most of the surviving chronicles for this era), he was loved by the army, which he led to victories over the Arabs and the Bulgars. On his gold solidi, Constantine appears together with his son, the future Leo IV. On the reverse, as an emblem of dynastic continuity, his late father Leo III holds the cross potent.
Leo IV (ruled 775-780) was known as “Leo the Khazar” because his mother was a princess of that Turkic tribe, a longtime ally of the Byzantine empire. He appears with his son (the future Constantine VI) on his gold solidus. The reverse reinforced the theme of dynastic stability, bearing the portraits of the emperor’s father, Constantine V, and grandfather, Leo III.
Constantine VI was just 10 years old when his father Leo IV died. His mother, the beautiful and ruthless Empress Irene ruled as regent. The Byzantine elite were deeply suspicious of women exercising political power, but like many Orthodox women Irene favored icons and thus enjoyed the support of powerful monks.
On her coins, she initially appears beside her son, with a row of deceased ancestors on the reverse (Leo III, Constantine V and Leo IV). This is the largest number of imperial figures that appear on any Byzantine coin; the type is scarce and usually weakly struck.
Irene refused to give up power when her son came of age, and in 797 CE she staged a palace coup. Constantine VI was blinded so brutally that he soon died, and Irene reigned as sole empress. Having no successor to place on the reverse of her coinage, she displayed her crowned portrait on both sides of her solidus – as if to say, “Heads I win, tails you lose”. Although the coin is not extremely rare, it is in very high demand from collectors because of the dramatic story.
Irene convened a Church council in 787 that officially restored the veneration of icons.
In one of history’s great what-ifs, Irene briefly considered marriage to the Frankish king Charlemagne, a move that might have re-united the Eastern and Western empires. But she was overthrown in another palace coup in 802 and exiled, dying a year later.
Neither Irene nor any of her immediate successors (Nicephorus I and Michael I) were willing to risk the wrath of the army by placing iconic imagery on the coinage. Emperors reigning alone invariably used the cross on the reverse of their coinage. Emperors with sons put their portraits on the reverse. Leo V (ruled 813-820) attempted to reinstate iconoclast policies, but he proved so unpopular that he was stabbed to death in church on Christmas day.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy
One of the conspirators who had arranged Leo’s assassination, Michael II (ruled 820-829 CE) was neutral regarding icons. His son Theophilus (ruled 829-842), however, was a strong iconoclast. On his scarce sole reign coinage he placed the double-barred “patriarchal” cross – surrounded by the Greek inscription Kyrie boethe to so doulo: “Lord Help Thy Servant”. On the very common solidi of his long and prosperous reign the reverse bears portraits of two sons, Constantine, who died in childhood, and Michael III, who was crowned co-emperor in 840.
The empress Theodora, wife of Theophilus and mother of Michael III, was, like most elite Byzantine women, a strong supporter of icons:
One story holds that a servant witnessed her venerating her icons and reported her to the emperor. When her husband confronted her about the incident she stated that she had merely been “playing with dolls”.
On he death of her husband, Theodora became regent for her son. She convened a church council in March of 843 that repudiated iconoclasm once and for all but avoided direct condemnation of Theophilus. This event is celebrated as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” and Theodora is revered as a saint in the Orthodox church. This was reflected in the coinage in 856, when Michael III placed a portrait of Christ on his gold solidus. Compared to Justinian II’s first portrait of Christ, this image is rather crudely executed (after decades of persecution, skilled icon engravers were probably in short supply) but it was a decisive break with iconoclasm. In the coming centuries, images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, archangels and saints would become common features of the imperial coinage.
But that is a story for another day…
* * *
 After the accession of Emperor Anastasius I in 491, the Eastern Empire is conventionally called “Byzantine” by modern historians. But it always referred to itself as “Roman”, long after it lost control of the city of Rome.
 Emperors Philippicus (711-713 CE), Anastasius II (713-715) and Theodosius III (715-717). All their coins are scarce to rare.
 An example of the first issue sold for US$40,000 in CNG Auction 100 (7 October 2015), Lot 2041. An example of the second issue sold for over $57,000 (Sincona Auction 3, 25 October 2011, Lot 3439).
 According to legend, the iconoclast Leo IV found icons in Irene’s chambers and refused to share their marriage bed thereafter.
 A search on the CoinArchives Pro database found 74 examples, sold at prices ranging from $4,000 to $17,000 depending on grade, with an average around $7,000.
 An example of this handsome type sold for $2,800 in CNG’s Triton VI auction (14 January 2003), Lot 1207.
Barber, Charles. “The Truth in Painting: Iconoclasm and Identity in Early Medieval Art”,
Speculum 72 (1997)
Breckinridge, James. The Numismatic Iconography of Justinian II. New York: American Numismatic Society, 1959. Print.
Brubaker, Leslie. “Representation, c. 800: Arab, Byzantine, Carolingian”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 19 (2009)
Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of A Medieval Empire. Princeton (2007)
Hull, Vida. Icons and Iconoclasm. East Tennessee State University. Video (49:28): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZoLgwhwO0E
King, G.R.D. “Islam, Iconoclasm and the Declaration of Doctrine”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48 (1985)
Norwich, John. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Knopf (1989)
Norwich, John. Byzantium: The Apogee. Knopf (1993)
Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. Rutgers (1969)
Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. Spink (1986)
Turteltaub, H. N. Justinian. New York 1998
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