CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: The Coinage of Trebizond

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

The coinage of Trebizond supplies an instance, not very rare in numismatics, of a currency of great abundance remaining unknown, or practically unknown, to collectors for several centuries (Wroth, lxxiv).

“…the coinage of the empire of Trebizond, that Cinderella of the late Byzantine coinage (Bendall, 4).”

THE SOUTHERN SHORE of the Black Sea is a narrow strip of fertile land–famed for excellent hazelnuts–between the sea and the rugged Anatolian plateau. The coastal fortress of Trebizond (“Trapezus” to the ancient Greeks and Romans, now Trabzon, Turkey) was the capital of a small, but remarkably durable medieval empire, remembered as the last independent outpost of Byzantine Civilization. We know something about the coinage of this lost empire thanks to diligent research by a handful of scholars and collectors during the past century, notably the great British numismatist Simon Bendall (1937-2019).

The Gabras Dukes

Theodore Gabras. Ruler of Trebizond, circa 1075-1098. Æ Follis (23mm, 4.81 g, 6h). Trebizond mint. Struck circa 1075-1085. Patriarchal cross set on step / Patriarchal cross set on step. S. Bendall, “The mint of Trebizond under Alexius I and the Gabrades,” NC 1977, issue 9, pl. 6, 9 (this coin illustrated); DOC 9; SB –. Green patina. VF. Very rare. From the collection of Simon Bendall. Classical Numismatic Group Auction 115. Auction date: 16 September 2020, Lot number: 779.
Empire of Trebizond. Andronicus I Gidon. 1222-1235. AR aspron trachy, (24 mm, 2.48 g, 6 h). The Virgin standing facing, placing hand on chest and extending the other in a gesture of benediction / Christ Chalkites, nimbate, standing facing, placing hand on chest and holding Gospels. Cf. S. Bendall, “An Early Coinage of the ‘Empire’ of Trebizond?” NCirc CX.3 (June 2002), 1 = DOC IV pl. XXXVII, El. 1; SB 2148 (uncertain of Nicaea). Good VF, small spot of encrustation on edge. Very rare.

Although traditionally attributed to Andronicus I Comnenus, the work of Simon Bendall has shown that this aspron trachy was struck by Andronicus I Gidon, the Emperor of Trebizond. The Empire of Trebizond was established by Alexius I Comnenus after the Crusaders seized Constantinople and much of Greece in 1204. However, Andronicus I Gidon appears to have been the first ruler of Trebizond to strike coins. Heritage World Coin Auctions ANA Signature Sale 3010. 12 August 2010, Lot: 20155. Realized: 750 USD.

The earliest medieval coins of Trebizond were issued in the 11th and early 12th centuries by semi-independent warlords, local dukes of the Gabras family. Perhaps there was a local shortage of small change due to the region’s distance from Constantinople. We also know the area had rich copper mines. Struck on irregular blanks weighing four to five grams and cut with shears from copper sheets, the coins bear a double-barred “patriarchal cross” on both sides. A coin of Theodore Gabras (ruled 1075-98) from the collection of the late Simon Bendall appeared in a recent CNG auction, realizing an extraordinary $4,500 against an estimate of $200![1] An example from the time of Constantine Gabras (1126-40) brought $288 in a recent European auction.

Andronikos Gidon

Empire of Trebizond. Andronicus I Gidon. 1222-1235. AR aspron trachy, (24 mm, 2.48 g, 6 h). The Virgin standing facing, placing hand on chest and extending the other in a gesture of benediction / Christ Chalkites, nimbate, standing facing, placing hand on chest and holding Gospels. Cf. S. Bendall, “An Early Coinage of the ‘Empire’ of Trebizond?” NCirc CX.3 (June 2002), 1 = DOC IV pl. XXXVII, El. 1; SB 2148 (uncertain of Nicaea). Good VF, small spot of encrustation on edge. Very rare.

Although traditionally attributed to Andronicus I Comnenus, the work of Simon Bendall has shown that this aspron trachy was struck by Andronicus I Gidon, the Emperor of Trebizond. The Empire of Trebizond was established by Alexius I Comnenus after the Crusaders seized Constantinople and much of Greece in 1204. However, Andronicus I Gidon appears to have been the first ruler of Trebizond to strike coins. Heritage World Coin Auctions ANA Signature Sale 3010 12 August 2010 Lot: 20155 realized: 750 USD.

In 1204, Constantinople was treacherously captured and sacked by the Venetian fleet and the knights of the Fourth Crusade, who established a short-lived “Latin” Empire (1204-61). Three Greek successor states emerged, each claiming the Byzantine imperial throne: The Empire of Nicaea in western Anatolia; the Empire of Epirus in the Balkans; and the Empire of Trebizond, established by a branch of the Komnenoi[2], the dynasty established by Emperor Alexios Komnenos[3] (ruled 1081-1118).

Andronicus I Gidon, 1222-1235 Aspron trachy, Trebizond 1222-1235, AR 3.99 g. +KЄR – HΘЄI Full length figure of the Virgin nimbate and orans, standing facing on dais wearing pallium and maphorium; on her breast, the Infant Christ nimbate and facing; in upper field, MP – ΘV. Rev. AN?P[…] – TωKO Andronicus on l. standing facing wearing divitision and chlamys and holding labarum and anexikakia crowned by Christ who stands facing on r. with decorated nimbus, wearing pallium and collobium and holding Book of Gospels; in field, IC – XC. DO –. Sear –. Bendall, “A hoard of coins of Andronicus I Gidon of Trebizond (?)”, Numismatic Circular vol. CXV, n. 1, February 2007, figs. 64-67. DOC Vol IV, p. 348, 2c (misattributed to Andronicus I Comnenus). C. Morrisson “Catalogue des monnaies byzantines de la Bibliothèque Nationale” Vol. II, p. 728, 62/Cp/El/03 (misattributed to Andronicus I Comnenus). Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 75. 18 November 2013. Lot: 891. Realized: 2,400 CHF   approx. 2,632 USD.
The first emperor of Trebizond to strike coins in his own name was Andronikos Gidon, who married a daughter of the empire’s founder, Alexios I, who died in 1222. Coins of Andronikos Gidon were unknown (or incorrectly attributed to Byzantine emperor Andronikos Komnenos) until 1975 when several hoards appeared. The most common type in silver[4] is an anonymous cup-shaped aspron trachy (nominally worth one third of a gold hyperpyron, but probably valued considerably less). The obverse (convex) bears a standing figure of the Virgin with the Greek monogram MP – ΘV, meaning “Mother of God”. The reverse (concave) bears the image of a famous ikon, Christ Chalkites, identified by an inscription on either side.

Another rare type copies the electrum aspron trachy of Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos (who was torn to pieces by a Constantinople mob in 1185), differing in its metal (pure silver, not electrum alloy) and cruder style[5].

Manuel I

EMPIRE OF TREBIZOND. Manuel I Comnenus (1238-1263). Asper. Obv: St. Eugenius standing facing, holding long cross; two pellets to inner left. Rev: Manuel standing facing, holding labarum and akakia; two pellets to inner left, manus Dei to upper right. Sear 2601. Extremely fine. Weight: 3.0 g. Diameter: 21 mm. Estimate: 100 EUR. Numismatik Naumann (formerly Gitbud & Naumann) Auction 66 3 June 2018 Lot: 777 realized: 180 EUR. approx. 210 USD.

Manuel I (ruled 1238-63) was a younger son of Alexios I, the empire’s founder. He succeeded his brother, Ioannes (John I Axuchos, ruled 1235-38) who died from a fall while playing polo. Trebizond became a vassal of the Mongol Empire (1243), avoiding destruction by paying tribute to the khan. After the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, Trebizond prospered, becoming an important terminus of the Silk Road.

Manuel’s prolific coinage introduced a new denomination, the asper, a flat coin of nearly pure silver weighing about three grams. The obverse bears the name and image of St. Eugenius, a local bishop martyred under the Roman tetrarch Diocletian (ruled 284-305 CE). The reverse shows a standing figure of the emperor being crowned by the hand of God[6]. Manuel’s aspers were widely imitated in Georgia, where crude copies were known as Kirmanouli (“Lord Manuel”), circulating in the region for decades after his death (Lang, 81-87).

George

Empire of Trebizond. George, 1266-1280. bronze trachy (3.3g). Nimbate half-length figure of St. George facing, in military attire. Rev. Facing stg. figures of George, on l., crowned and holding scepter and akakia, and St. Eugenius, on r., nimbate and holding long cross. Sear-Bendall 2606; Retowski 1. Very Fine and very rare, areas of corrosion on both sides. Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles > Auction 55 29 October 2009. Lot: 635. Realized: 480 USD.

Georgios (or George) was Manuel’s second son, succeeding his elder brother Andronikos II (ruled 1263-66), who died unmarried and without issue; no coins are known from this brief reign. Only rare copper coins[7] are known from George’s 14-year reign, many bearing the image of his namesake, St. George. In 1280, George was deposed in a palace coup under uncertain circumstances; his fate is unknown.

John II

John II. Emperor of Trebizond, 1280-1297. AR Asper (23mm, 2.93 g, 6h). St. Eugenius standing facing, holding long cross / John standing facing, holding labarum and akakia, being crowned by manus Dei. Retowski 50; SB 2609. VF, toned, slightly double struck. From the Johnson Family Collection, purchased from Numismatic Fine Arts (Joel Malter), 29 October 1966.

Another son of Manuel I, Ioannes (John II, nicknamed Kaloioannes, “Handsome John”) made a brilliant diplomatic marriage in 1282 to Eudokia, daughter of Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. She bore two sons who became emperors: Alexios II and Michael. To secure this marriage, John II renounced Trebizond’s historic claim to the Byzantine throne. John II ruled for 17 troubled years (1280-97) being briefly deposed by his half-sister Theodora. His silver aspers are relatively common, on some he holds a three-pointed scepter; on others, a long staff (labarum)[8]. During the reign of John II, in 1295, Marco Polo passed through Trebizond on his return to Europe.

Theodora

EMPIRE of TREBIZOND. Theodora. Circa 1285. AR Asper (2.85 gm). OAGIOC EUGENI/fontOC, St. Eugenius standing facing, holding long cross / QEOD/fontWPA H KOMHN NI, Theodora standing facing, holding globus cruciger, crowned by manus Dei. Retowski 1; SB 2618. EF, exceptionally sharp strike. Extremely rare in this condition. ($1000). Classical Numismatic Group > Triton VII Auction date: 12 January 2004. Lot number: 1134. Price realized: 2,600 USD

The only empress of Trebizond to issue coins, Theodora was the daughter of Manuel I. Her mother was a Georgian princess. In 1284, Theodora briefly seized the throne from her half-brother, John II. She issued rare aspers that depict her standing, wearing an elaborate Byzantine-style crown[9]. Her fate, after John II returned to power in 1285, is unknown.

Alexios II

Alexius II. Emperor of Trebizond, 1297-1330. AR Asper (2.12 g, 7h). St. Eugenius, holding long cross, on horseback right / Alexius, holding scepter, on horseback right; manus Dei to upper right. Retowski -; SB 2619. Good VF, lightly toned. The manus Dei is not recorded as a sigla for this issue. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XIII 5 January 2010. Lot: 1706. Realized: 475 USD.

Eldest son of John II, Alexios II came to the throne at the age of 14 and ruled for 33 years. He made a major change in the coinage, depicting both himself and St. Eugenius, the empire’s patron saint, on horseback[10]. This became the standard coin design for the rest of the empire’s history. It might reflect the influence of Trebizond’s Mongol overlords or Turkic neighbors, descended from horse nomads who commonly represented their rulers mounted. The silver content of the coins fell by about 15%.

Alexios’ wife, a Georgian princess, bore four sons and two daughters. Two of the sons became emperors, and one daughter, Anna, briefly seized the throne during a chaotic civil war that disrupted the empire in the second quarter of the 14th century.

Andronikos III

Andronicus III. Emperor of Trebizond, 1330-1332. AR Asper (20mm, 1.66 g, 5h). St. Eugenius, holding cruciform scepter, on horseback right / Andronicus, holding lis-tipped scepter, on horseback right. Retowski 3; SB 2620. Areas of weak strike. VF. Estimate: 200 USD Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 472. 15 July 2020. Lot: 354. Realized: 300 USD

Alexios II died of plague on May 3, 1330, and his eldest son became emperor as Andronikos III. To secure his position, he murdered two of his brothers; a third brother, the future emperor Basil, escaped death only because he was in Constantinople.

Coins from the brief reign of Andronikos III closely follow his father’s types, but the weight declines and the workmanship is poor[11].

Basil

BASIL, 1332-1340 Mint of Trebizond Silver-Asper. Obv. St. Eugenius on horse to r. Rev. Emperor with sceptre on horse to r. Sear 2622. Ret. 1-11. 1.83 g. Very rare. Very fine. Purchased from Baldwin’s, London in 2009. SINCONA AG > Auction 37 16 May 2017. Lot: 530. Realized: 425 CHF (approx. 431 USD).

Andronikos III died of plague in January 1332 and his infant son Manuel II was installed as emperor for a few months before Basil returned to seize the throne. Young Manuel II was packed off to a monastery and murdered a few years later. In 1334 Basil married Irene, an illegitimate daughter of Byzantine emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (legitimate Byzantine princesses were generally reserved as brides for sons of more important kings). Apparently, Basil preferred the company of his mistress (also named Irene – medieval Greeks suffered from a serious shortage of female personal names, an endless source of confusion for historians). On April 6, 1340, Basil was poisoned by his wife, who briefly seized the tottering throne.

Coins of Basil’s eight-year reign are scarce[12], most known examples come from a single hoard that turned up in 1983.

John III

EMPIRE OF TREBIZOND. John III (1342-1344). Trachy. Obv: St. Eugenius standing facing, holding long cross. Rev: John standing facing, holding trefoil-tipped sceptre and globus. Sear 2624. Near very fine. Weight: 0.73 g. Diameter: 15 mm. Estimate: 80 EUR. Numismatik Naumann (formerly Gitbud & Naumann) > Auction 79 7 July 2019. Lot: 829. Realized: 325 EUR (approx. 365 USD).

John III was the son of Michael, a Trebizond royal, exiled in Constantinople. Installed with the help of a Byzantine army, the 19-year-old John III soon proved incapable of ruling. His father seized the throne in 1344 and exiled John back to Constantinople. No silver asper of John’s brief reign was known until Simon Bendall identified one in 2004 (Bendall, 57). A few very crude copper coins attributed to John III have appeared recently on the market[13].

Michael

Michael. Emperor of Trebizond, 1344-1349. AR Asper (20mm, 1.80 g, 6h). St. Eugenius on horseback right / Michael on horseback right. Retowski 4; SB 2625. Near VF. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 318 15 January 2014. Lot: 899. Realized: 1,600 USD.

During Michael’s troubled reign of five years, the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) decimated the population. He faced conflicts internally with factions of nobles and externally with the Turks and the Genoese. Forced to abdicate in 1349, he was exiled to Constantinople. His aspers are rare — a “near VF” example that appeared in a 2014 US auction brought $1,600.

Alexios III

EMPIRE OF TREBIZOND. Alexius III (1349-1390). Asper. Obv: St. Eugenius, holding cruciform sceptre and with head facing, riding horse right; plant below. Rev: Alexius, holding cruciform sceptre and with head facing, riding horse right; plant below. Sear 2628. Good very fine.: 2.04 g.: 19 mm. Estimate: 100 EUR. Numismatik Naumann (formerly Gitbud & Naumann) Auction 71. Auction date: 4 November 2018. Lot number: 690. Price realized: 325 EUR (approx. 370 USD) .

The son of Emperor Basil, Alexios III came to the throne at the age of 11 and ruled for a remarkable 40 years. His wife Theodora was a relative of Byzantine emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (ruled 1347-54.) The most important source for the history of Trebizond is a chronicle written by a member of his court, Michael Panaretos[14].

The coinage of Alexios III was abundant, nearly full weight (a bit less than three grams), and well-struck in good metal[15].

Manuel III

Manuel III. Emperor of Trebizond, 1390-1417. AR Asper (14mm, 0.79 g, 6h). St. Eugenius, holding long cross, on horseback right; star below horse / Emperor, holding scepter, on horseback right; [trilobe below horse]. Cf. Retowski 18 (for type); SB 2637. Good VF, spot of verdigris on the obverse. Rare. Classical Numismatic Group > Electronic Auction 372. 6 April 2016. Lot number: 569. Price realized: 320 USD.
Son of Alexios III, Manuel III reigned for 27 years (1390-1417). The looming Ottoman Turkish threat to his empire was relieved for several decades in 1402 when Tamerlane’s Mongols crushed the army of Sultan Bayezid at Ankara in 1402. Manuel’s last years were troubled by conflict with his heir, the future Alexios IV, who may have poisoned his father – the usual Byzantine suspicion whenever a ruler suffered a fatal tummyache. Reflecting the empire’s fading fortunes, Manuel’s silver aspers are very crudely struck and so low in weight, that some sources describe them as half- or even quarter-aspers[16].

Alexios IV

Alexius IV, emperor of Trebizond, 1417-1446. Asper (Silver, 15.5 mm, 0.92 g, 6 h). O-A YΓ St. Eugenius on horseback to right holding long cross; upper right, monogram; below horse, B. Rev. AΛΕ Alexius on horseback right; upper right, monogram; below horse, B. Retowski 2. SB 2641. Well-struck, toned and attractive. Good very fine. Starting Price: 75 CHF. Nomos AG > obolos 14 15 December 2019. Lot: 646, Realized: 240 CHF (approx. 244 US).

Born about 1379, Alexios IV ruled for 12 chaotic years. He fought against the Genoese, who increasingly dominated Black Sea regional trade. Trebizond survived an Ottoman attack only because the Turkish assault fleet was driven ashore by storms. He gave his daughter Maria in marriage to the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos (ruled 1425-48). His son John rose in revolt against Alexios in 1429 and had him murdered.

Silver aspers of this troubled reign often weigh less than a gram[17].

John IV

John IV, Trebizond. 1/4 Asper; John IV, Trebizond; 1446-1458 AD. Asper, 0.78g. Sear-2642. Obv: St. Eugenius on horse walking r. Rx: John seated on horse r.Poorly struck. VF. Harlan J. Berk, Ltd. Buy or Bid Sale 209 5 December 2019. Lot: 422. Realized: 200 USD.

The last emperor of Trebizond to issue coins, John IV ruled from 1429 to 1460. He came to the throne by having his father assassinated – the game of thrones in Trebizond was played by harsh Byzantine rules.

John’s coins are abysmally struck, on blanks too small for the dies. Surviving examples aren’t much to look at. But a case can be made that these sad little pieces are, in fact, the last imperial “Roman” or “Byzantine” coins. John died about 1459 (the date is uncertain), and his brother David ruled briefly until the empire was finally exterminated by the Ottoman Turks in 1461. No coins are known in the name of this last emperor.

Collecting Trebizond

In major ancient coin auctions, only a few coins of Trebizond typically appear at one time, so this is a challenging series to collect. Except for great rarities, the silver aspers generally sell for a few hundred dollars or less. The copper coins are rarely offered but are mostly very inexpensive. In English, the essential reference is a slim booklet: Bendall (2015). Older references like Wroth (1911) are seriously outdated.

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Notes

[1] CNG Auction 115, September 17, 2020, Lot 779. Realized $4,500 USD (estimate $200).

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komnenos

[3] Often written as “Alexius Comnenus” in Western sources, following Latin spelling.

[4] Heritage Sale 3010, August 12, 2010, Lot 20155. Realized $750 USD (estimate $1,000-$1,500).

[5] NAC Auction 75, November 18, 2013, Lot 891. Realized $2,632 USD (estimate CHF 3,000).

[6] Numismatic Naumann Auction 66, June 3, 2018, Lot 777. Realized $210 USD (estimate €100).

[7] Goldberg Auction 55, October 29, 2009, Lot 635. Realized $480 USD (estimate $150-225).

[8] CNG Electronc Auction 445, June 5, 2019, Lot 545. Realized $240 USD (estimate $100).

[9] CNG Triton VII, January 12, 2004, Lot 1134. Realized $2,600 USD (estimate $1,000).

[10] CNG Triton XIII, January 5, 2010, Lot 1706. Realized $475 USD (estimate $200).

[11] CNG Electronic Auction 472, July 15, 2020, Lot 354. Realized $300 USD (estimate $200).

[12] Sincona Auction 37, May 16, 2017, Lot 530. Realized $431 USD (estimate CHF 350).

[13] Numismatik Naumann Auction 79, July 7, 2019, Lot 829. Realized $365 USD (estimate €80).

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Panaretos

[15] Numismatik Naumann Auction 71,November 4, 2018, Lot 690. Realized €325 (about $370 USD; estimate €100).

[16] CNG Electronic Auction 372, April 6 2016, Lot 569. Realized $320 USD (estimate: $200).

[17] Nomos obolos 14 Auction, December 15, 2019, Lot 646. Realized CHF 240 (about $244 USD; estimate CHF 75).
 

References

Bendall, Simon. An Introduction to the Coinage of the Empire of Trebizond. London (2015)

Bendall, Simon. “A Hoard of Early Fourteenth Century Aspers of Trebizond”, Numismatic Chronicle 145. (1985)

Georganteli, Euridice. “Trapezuntine Money in the Balkans, Anatolia and the Black Sea, 13th-15th centuries”, Trebizond and the Black Sea (T. Kyriakides, ed.). Thessaloniki. (2010)

Lang, David. Studies in the Numismatic History of Georgia in Transcaucasia. New York (1955)

Miller, William. Trebizond: The last Greek Empire of the Byzantine Era: 1204–1461. Chicago, (1969 reprint of 1926 edition)

Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. London (1987)

Williams, Kelsey J. “A Genealogy of the Grand Komnenoi of Trebizond”, Foundations 2. (2006)

Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of the Coins of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Lombards, and of the Empires of Thessalonica, Nicaea and Trebizond in the British Museum. London (1911)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
 

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