CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
 

Imperial Byzantine coinage served both economic and propaganda purposes. The coins routinely identified the reigning emperor or empress by name and title, and usually portrayed the ruler in some vigorous pose that demonstrated power and authority.

One great exception was the copper coinage that began to appear circa 969 and endured until circa 1092. The “Anonymous Folles” bore neither name nor portrait, nor any other identifying information about the ruler who struck them. In fact, there is no bronze or copper coinage that names or portrays any Byzantine ruler from John I Tzimiskes (reigned 969-976) through Isaac I Komnenos (reigned 1057-1059).

Anonymous Folles continued to appear alongside “named” bronze coinage of the emperors Constantine X (reigned 1059-1067), Romanos IV Diogenes (reigned 1068-1071), Michael VII Dukas (reigned 1071-1078), Nikephoros III Botaniates (reigned 1078-1081), and Alexios I Komnenos (reigned 1081-1118). The series finally ended with the coinage reform that Alexios I launched in 1092.

Eleven different alphabetical classes of Anonymous Folles have been identified, with Class A including three sub-classes. All of the coins are religious in nature, each type displaying a portrait of Christ on its obverse, and two types include portraits of the Virgin Mary on their reverses. All of the inscriptions are pious in nature.

Many Anonymous Folles are overstruck on earlier coins, which has made it possible to establish the chronological sequence of the different classes. Many of the coins include design details that also appear on coins that do identify the issuing emperor, making it possible to attribute most of the classes with a high degree of confidence to the emperor or emperors who actually issued them.

Class A1

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

Contemporary records indicate that the first Anonymous Folles appeared during the reign of John I, who became emperor following the murder of his uncle, Nikephoros II Phokas (reigned 963-969). John was engaged in very naughty behavior with Nikephoros’ bored wife Theophano prior to the murder. John was a devout and pious man (murder and adultery notwithstanding), and his piety (if not his guilty conscience) seems to have led him to introduce the first Anonymous Folles.

The obverse of the very first type, Class A1, depicts a facing haloed bust of Christ, who holds a book of Gospels; there are two pellets in each limb of the halo. An inscription at the top reads + ЄMMANOVH (“God With Us”), while the letters IC XC (“Jesus Christ”) are spread across the field. The reverse design consists of a four-line inscription reading + IҺSЧS XRISTЧS ЬASILЄЧ ЬASILЄ (“Jesus Christ King of Kings”).

Coins of Class A1 are attributed to John I and to the early years of the joint reign of Basil II (reigned 976-1025) and his brother, Constantine VIII (reigned 976-1028). These coins have small, thin planchets, and typically weigh five to eight grams and measure 20-25 mm; the coin shown here measures 25 mm and weighs 5.9 g. Class A1 folles were often overstruck on coins of Constantine VII (reigned 913-959), Romanos I (reigned 920-944), or Nikephoros II. These folles are commonly available for prices of $100 USD or less, although particularly nice specimens may reach up to $300. This particular coin sold for a fixed sale price of $135.

Class A2

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

Coins of Class A2 are attributed to the joint reign of Basil II and Constantine VIII. These follow the same general design as Class A1 but include many ornaments (privy marks) on the book of Gospels, in the limbs of the halo’s cross, and surrounding the reverse inscription. The purpose of the ornaments is unknown; it has been suggested that they are mintmarks, but this seems unlikely. Grierson (1982) suggests that these may be date markers; the number and variety of ornaments lends support to his supposition.

Class A2 folles are struck on larger planchets than Class A1, usually measuring 25-30 mm and weighing 11-14 g, although some exceptional specimens are as large as 35 mm and weigh as much as 20 g; the coin shown here measures 33 mm and weighs 19.35 g.

These folles do not seem to have been overstruck on earlier coins, but this means that their designs and inscriptions are often much more legible than those on Class A1. Class A2 folles sell for prices slightly higher than those for Class A1; the coin shown here sold for $240 at an auction in May 2012.

Class A3

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

Metcalf (1970) identified Class A3 as a separate sub-class of Class A. The Dumbarton Oaks catalogue (1973) did not list these coins as a separate sub-class, but the market accepts them as such.

Class A3 follows the same general design as Class A2, but Class A3 coins typically weigh nine to 10 grams, putting them in between the coins of Class A1 and Class A2; the example shown here weighs 9.43 g. Metcalf dated the weight reduction from Class A2 to around 1020, and the coins are accordingly attributed to the last years of the joint reign of Basil II and Constantine VIII and continuing through to the end of the sole reign of Constantine VIII in 1028.

Class A3 folles sell for prices comparable to those for Class A2. However, the exceptional coin shown here sold for $1,275 at January 2009 auction.

Class B

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

The obverse design of Class B follows that of Class A1, with the addition of small squares at the end of each limb of the cross in Christ’s halo, a pellet in each of the upper quarters of the cross, and a pattern of five dots on the book of Gospels. The reverse design consists of an inscription in three lines reading + IS XS ЬASILЄ (“Jesus Christ King of Kings”), divided by a Cross Potent set on two steps. This inscription is an abbreviated version of the inscription used on Class A coins.

Class B coins are often overstruck on Class A2 folles. They are usually attributed to Romanos III (reigned 1028-1034), although Grierson in the Dumbarton Oaks catalogue delayed their introduction to Michael IV (reigned 1034-1041). These coins are easily obtained for prices below $100, even for coins in very nice condition. This coin sold for $120 at a September 2013 auction.

Class C

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

The obverse of the Class C follis depicts Christ Antiphonetes (“Christ the One Who Responds”). The obverse inscriptions are the same as on the earlier classes. The reverse design consists of the inscription IC XC NI KA (“May Jesus Christ Conquer”) in two lines, divided by a jeweled cross with a pellet at the end of each arm of the cross.

The icon of Christ Antiphonetes was a special favorite of Constantine VIII’s daughter Zoe. She reigned as empress with her sister Theodora for a few months in 1042 and was married to three ruling emperors from 1028 until her death in 1050. According to legend, the icon responded to Zoe’s questions about the future by changing color. Zoe’s veneration of this icon, together with the Class C folles often being found overstruck on Class B folles, has led to the attribution of Class C folles to the time of Michael IV, Zoe’s second husband. The Dumbarton Oaks catalogue, on the other hand, attributed Class C to Zoe’s third husband, Constantine IX (reigned 1041-1055).

Class C folles are common and can be easily obtained for prices below $100, although it can be difficult to find clear specimens due to the overstriking. The specimen shown here sold for $170 against a $100 estimate at an auction in October 2021.

Class D

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

The obverse of the Class D follis depicts a facing haloed Christ seated on a throne and holding a book of Gospels, with IC XC written across the field. The reverse presents a cross over the inscription IS XS ЬASILЄ ЬASIL in three lines, with a crescent at the bottom. Class D folles are often found overstruck on Class C folles and are attributed to Constantine IX.

In the Dumbarton Oaks catalogue, Grierson suggested that Class D first appeared after Zoe died in 1050 and continued in use through the brief reigns of Theodora (reigned 1055-1056), Michael VI Stratioticus (reigned 1056-1057), and Isaac I Komnenos (reigned 1057-1059).

The obverse image is probably based upon an icon from that period, and appears on some of the gold coins of Constantine IX and Isaac I. These folles are common, and nice specimens are usually readily available for prices in the $100 to $200 range. The coin shown here sold for a fixed sale price of $165.

Class E

CoinWeek Ancient Coins - The Anonymous Folles of Byzantium

The obverse of the Class E follis presents a facing haloed bust of Christ raising his hand in blessing while holding a book of Gospels. The only inscription is the IC XC across the field. The reverse design is similar to that on Class D.

Thompson (1954) developed the modern alphabetical system of classifying the Anonymous Folles. She attributed Class E to Isaac I, whose reign ended in 1059, but Johnson (1969) recorded a Class E follis overstruck on a follis that names Isaac’s successor, Constantine X (reigned 1059-1067) as emperor, and Class E is now attributed to Constantine X.

The Class E Anonymous Follis is somewhat rare, compared to the earlier classes. As it happens, Constantine X was the first emperor in over a century to strike folles that give his name and titles, and the relative rarity of the Class E follis is probably due to the mint’s focus on producing large numbers of “named” folles during his reign.

The relative rarity of the anonymous coins is not reflected in their prices, however. Although they do not often come on the market, when they do they typically sell for prices below $100. The specimen shown here sold at auction in April 2004 for $78, against a $75 estimate.

Class F

The obverse of the Class F follis depicts Christ seated on a backless throne, raising his right hand in blessing while holding a book of Gospels in his left. As with Class E, the only inscription is the IC XC across the field. The reverse design is similar to that on Class D and Class E, except that the crescent on the bottom is replaced by a cross.

The Class F follis, like the Class E follis, is attributed to Constantine X. And like the Class E follis, it is somewhat rare, but when it comes on the market it generally brings prices in the $100 – $200 range.

Class G

The obverse of the Class G follis depicts a haloed half-length facing bust of Christ, raising a hand in benediction and holding scroll, with a barred IC XC across the field. The reverse presents a haloed half-length bust of Mary as the Theotokos (usually translated, not entirely accurately, as “Mother of God”) with her hands in the orans praying position. The reverse inscription reads (MHP) ӨV, an abbreviation of Μήτηρ Θεοῦ, which actually does translate to “Mother of God”. The Class G follis was the first bronze or copper coin to portray the Theotokos.

Class G folles are often found overstruck on folles that name Constantine X or Romanos IV (reigned 1068-1071), and they are attributed to Romanos IV. As with the Class E and Class F folles, the Class G folles are scarce, but nice specimens can be obtained for less than $200. The coin shown here, which has an exceptionally crisp portrait of Mary, sold for $425 against a $150 estimate at a November 2011 auction.

Class H

The obverse design of the Class H follis resembles that of the Class G follis, except that Christ holds a book instead of a scroll. The reverse is unlike any of the previous classes, depicting a Patriarchal Cross with globules and pellets at the ends, against a floral ornament. There is no reverse inscription.

These coins are attributed to Michael VII (reigned 1071-1078). They are sometimes found overstruck on folles of Class F, which were struck by Michael’s father, Constantine X. Beginning with Class H, the folles begin to shrink: the coins of Classes B through G typically weigh about 13 g, but the coins of Classes H through K usually weigh about 6 g. The Class H follis shown here weighs 6.16 g.

The Class H follis is another scarce issue. It can sometimes be obtained for less than $100, but very nice specimens will command prices closer to $200. The coin shown here sold for $180 against a $150 estimate at an October 2013 auction.

Class I

The Class I follis is generally attributed to Nikephoros III (reigned 1078-1081), who also struck folles that give his name and titles. The obverse design follows the design of Class H. The reverse presents an ornate Latin Cross with an “X” (or what could be a flower) at the center and a globule and two pellets at the end of each limb. At the bottom, there is a floral ornament resembling a fleur de lis on each side of the cross, while at the top a crescent appears at either side of the cross.

Nikephoros was a 75-year-old general who became emperor by deposing Michael VII. After taking the throne, Nikephoros also took Michael’s wife, Maria. But Nikephoros didn’t stop there: Class I folles are sometimes found overstruck on Michael’s folles, as well.

Class I folles continue the pattern of a rather scarce coin that carries a modest price tag: the exceptionally nice example shown here sold at a September 2013 auction for $120 against a $200 estimate.

Class J

The reign of Nikephoros III was beset by multiple revolts. With the help of his brilliant general Alexios Komnenos, Nikephoros successfully put down separate revolts led by Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Basiliakes. A revolt led by Nikephoros Melissenos proved more troublesome: this Nikephoros happened to be the brother-in-law of Alexios Komnenos, who refused to march against him. Alexios and Nikephoros Melissenos came to an understanding that led ultimately to Nikephoros III abdicating the throne and becoming a monk, with Alexios becoming emperor as Alexios I.

“Nikephoros” presents an interesting curiosity. The name itself means “bringer of victory”, but the Nikephori were not particularly victorious. Nikephoros I (reigned 802-811) was killed in battle against the Bulgars, whose Khan used Nikephoros’ skull as a drinking cup. As seen above, Nikephoros II was murdered by his nephew, who was having an affair with his wife. Nikephoros III was forced to abdicate and enter a monastery. Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Basiliakes were both blinded after their defeats, and Nikephoros Melissenos failed in his attempt to claim the throne… though he did manage to keep both eyes, and faithfully served Alexios I for 23 years.

The Class J follis is attributed to Alexios I. The obverse presents a facing bust of Christ, his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a book of Gospels. There is a cross behind his head with crescents in each angle, and the letters IC XC are spread across the field. The reverse depicts a cross with a globule and two pellets at each extremity; there is a large crescent below the cross and four globules outside the angles of the cross, each globule surrounded by pellets.

The follis shown here is overstruck on a Class I follis; folles of Class J are also sometimes found overstruck on folles struck in the name of Nikephoros III.

Once again, this a very scarce follis – it rarely appears on the market – but when it does appear it generally brings a price under $100. The coin shown here brought $45 against a $45 estimate at a March 2017 auction.

Class K

Class K folles were struck during the reign of Alexios I. The obverse depicts another image of the facing bust of Christ with IC XC across the field, with a beaded edge. The reverse presents a facing half-length figure of Mary as the Theotokos with her arms in the orans position. The reverse inscription consists of the letters M Θ, either spelled out or in monogram form.

These coins are scarce as well, but generally can be obtained – when available – for modest prices. The specimen shown here sold at a June 2012 auction for $130 against a $100 estimate.

More (?) Anonymous Folles

The Dumbarton Oaks catalogue listed additional Classes L, M, and N; these are also referenced in Sear (1987) and elsewhere. These three Classes are extremely rare – the Dumbarton Oaks catalogue notes the existence of just two folles of Class N, three of Class M, and “fewer than a half dozen” of Class L.

Grierson (1982) determined that none of these were, in fact, “Anonymous Folles”. Classes L and M were actually local coinages from Trebizond, a Byzantine city on the southern shore of the Black Sea that was the site of the last surviving remnant of the Byzantine Empire until it, too, fell to the Ottoman Turks (1461). Class N is not actually “anonymous”, as it identifies an emperor by the name of “Nikephoros”. It is somewhat open as to whether the “Nikephoros” is Nikephoros III or one of the unsuccessful Nikephori who revolted against him; the prevailing sentiment is that it is Nikephoros Basiliakes.

Collecting Anonymous Folles

A basic “type set” of Anonymous Folles would comprise just 13 coins, one from each of the 10 classes B through K, and one coin of each of the three sub-classes of Class A. An ambitious collector could try to obtain examples displaying the myriad “ornaments” that occur on the Class A2 folles – Grierson (1982) notes 66 different combinations, and that list is probably incomplete.

Most of the coins are fairly common, easy to obtain, and not at all expensive. The scarcer classes are difficult to find, but when they do turn up, they are generally inexpensive. The greatest challenge is to find coins with nice surfaces and clear designs – these coins are often well-worn, having actively circulated 1,000 years ago, and the practice of overstriking “new” coins on older ones often resulted in smudged designs. But it is nonetheless a fascinating series from a fascinating period of history that is well worth investigating.

Sear (1987) is an excellent reference catalog for the general collector, providing good descriptions of the coins accompanied by very nice plates. For more advanced numismatists, Volume III Part One of the Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue offers more detailed descriptions and many more plates, with significant background information. Grierson (1982) provides a thorough overview of the coinage.

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References

Grierson, P. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Vol. III, Part 2: Leo III to Nicephorus III 717-1081. Washington, D.C. Dumbarton Oaks. (1973)

Grierson. P. Byzantine Coins. London. Methuen & Co. (1982)

Johnson, A.F. “A New Anonymous Bronze of Constantine X”, American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 25. (1969)

Metcalf, D.M. “Early Anonymous Folles from Antioch and the Chronology of Class A”, American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 21. (1976)

Sear, D.R. Byzantine Coins and Their Values (2nd Edition). London. Seaby. (1987)

Thompson, M. The Athenian Agora, Vol. II: Coins from the Roman through the Venetian Period. Princeton. (1954)

Photographs of Folles under Classes A1, A2, A3, B, C, D, E, G, H, I and K, courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group LLC, www.cngcoins.com

Photograph of Class F Follis courtesy and copyright of Pegasi Numismatics, www.pegasionline.com

Photograph of Class J Follis courtesy and copyright of Agora Auctions LLC, www.Agoraauctions.com

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About the Author

Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.
 

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks to Mr. Shutterly once more for another fascinating and thorough explanation of a class of coins that had been an enigma to me.

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