In 1092 CE, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus enacted sweeping coinage reforms. He stopped production of previous denominations and introduced five new ones: the gold hyperpyron (which served as the unit of account for the new money), the electrum aspron trachy, the billon (copper and silver) aspron trachy, the copper tetarteron, and the copper noummion or half-tetarteron. Three electrum aspra trachea equalled one hyperpyron.
Electrum is a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver and was the metal of choice for the Lydians of Asia Minor, who are generally agreed to have made the first coins in European history. When found in nature, the admixture of the two precious metals can differ depending on the geographical point of origin. But in the case of the aspron trachy, the Byzantines mixed the electrum themselves, with six karats of gold to 18 karats of silver.
This predominance of silver in the alloy gave the denomination the first part of its name; aspron was a Byzantine term meaning “white” when used in reference to silver. The second part (trachy) referred to the “rough” or uneven shape of the coin.
“Cupped”, in other words.
Starting in the early 11th century–almost 60 years before the reforms of Alexius–the Roman (Byzantine) Empire began to produce gold coins with a slight curve. Within a hundred years, the majority of Byzantine coinage in all metals and alloys was deeply cup-shaped. Exactly why has intrigued numismatists for generations, but according to CoinWeek’s Mike Markowitz, a thin and debased coinage became increasingly concave in order to improve its sturdiness and durability.
Design-wise, Byzantine cup-shaped (scyphate) coinage typically features an image of Jesus Christ on the obverse (the convex side), with the ruler featured on the reverse. The coin pictured above and below is a fully struck aspron trachy minted at Constantinople during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (ruled 1143-1180 CE).
The following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.
A bearded Christ stands on a dais facing the viewer, wearing a tunic known as a colobium and a full-body cloak called a pallium. A halo with a cross inside it (nimbus cruciger) surrounds His head. Two eight-pointed stars appear next to Him, one on each side. To the left of Jesus are the letters IC; to the right, the letters XC. In His left hand is a book of Gospels.
There appears to be a significant strike doubling of the halo and Christ’s left shoulder.
A bearded, front-facing and full-body image of Manuel I stands on the left while a similarly bearded, front-facing and full-body image of St. Theodore (presumably St. Theodore of Amasea, one of two military saints named Theodore in the Eastern Orthodox Church) stands on the right. Manuel appears to be closer to the ground than St. Theodore. Both men hold a Patriarchal cross (a version of the Christian cross with a second, smaller crossbar on top) between them, St. Theodore’s right hand above Manuel’s left. At the bottom of the cross is a ball or globus.
A halo surrounds Theodore’s head. The emperor wears a crown, along with a long, close-fitting military tunic (divitision). A long, embroidered, gem-encrusted scarf (loros) is wrapped around his abdomen. St. Theodore appears to be wearing some kind of military tunic, possibly armor, and boots. Both men rest their other hands on the handles of unsheathed swords.
The letters MANOVL are usually found to the left of the emperor, but on this example are practically illegible.
|Issuing Authority:||Manuel I|
|Date:||ca. 1143-1180 CE|
|Metal/Alloy:||Electrum (1:3 gold to silver)|
|Weight:||approx. 3.90 grams|
|Diameter:||approx. 31 mm|
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