CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
THE LOMBARDS, A tribe that traced their origin to Scandinavia, migrated into Eastern Europe in the fifth century CE, earning a reputation for ferocity in that war-torn land. Under their king Alboin (reigned c. 560-572), they invaded northern Italy around 568, where their name endures today in the region known as Lombardy. In Latin, Lombards were known as Langobardi, and the kingdom was called Langobardia, a reference to the long beards of the men.
The Iron Crown of Lombardy, believed to contain metal from a nail of the Crucifixion, was given to the cathedral of Monza (near Milan) by Queen Theodelinda, wife of two successive Lombard kings, Autari (ruled 584-590) and Agilulf (ruled 591-616).
In the Name of Justinian
To meet the modest needs of a devastated and shrunken economy, the Lombards copied the existing coinage of their newly conquered land. This consisted largely of gold tremisses (about 1.5 grams) struck at Ravenna in the name of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565. In Roman tradition and law, gold coinage was the exclusive prerogative of the emperor, and even when the emerging barbarian kingdoms were at war with the emperor, they continue to issue coins in his name. The inscriptions are often garbled, and the style is crude but these coins were close enough to be accepted in circulation.
Warwick Wroth, who compiled the first definitive catalog in English of this coinage in 1911 wrote:
…[T]he money of the Ostrogoths displays, on the whole, not only neatness in execution but a certain elegance in design. The Lombard coinage, on the contrary, remains, almost till the fall of the kingdom, both rude in workmanship and poor in conception (Wroth, ivii).
Some Lombard kings issued tiny silver fractions (half a gram or less), described by modern numismatists as “half-. or quarter-siliquae,” although we don’t know what they were called by contemporary users, of what their value was in relation to the gold.
In the Name of Justin II
Pseudo-imperial Lombard tremisses in the name of Emperor Justin II (ruled 565-578) are relatively common. They closely copy contemporary Byzantine issues from the mint of Ravenna, with a thick, raised circular border on both sides, and rounded letterforms in the inscription. And because the Lombards were often at war with the current emperor in Constantinople, their coins often bore the name of long-dead previous emperors — coins in the name of Justin II were still being issued as late as 690, more than a century after his death!
In the Name of Maurice
Another group of Lombard tremisses was issued in the name of Byzantine emperor Maurice Tiberius (reigned 582-602). Struck on large, thin blanks, these coins have a “dished” appearance, slightly convex on the obverse and concave on the reverse. The reverse inscription degenerates into a collection of meaningless strokes, and the figure of Victory is reduced to an almost abstract line drawing.
In the Name of Heraclius
A large group of Lombard tremisses copy coins of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610 to 641. The reverse is a simple “cross potent” (a cross with a short bar at the end of each arm). The crude profile head on the obverse is generic and certainly not an imperial portrait since Heraclius was bearded.
The Lombards gradually converted to Christianity during the fifth century, but the ruling elite adopted the Arian heresy, which brought them into conflict with the Church of Rome. Aripert, who came to the throne in 653 following the death of the lecherous King Rodoald (assassinated by the husband of one of his lovers, after ruling for just six months). Aripert was the first Lombard king to accept Catholicism. His very rare coinage broke with “pseudo-imperial” tradition, placing his own name and portrait on the obverse, and a standing figure of the Archangel Michael (adopted as the Lombard patron saint) on the reverse.
Aripert divided his kingdom between his two sons: Perctarit to rule from Milan, and Godepert to rule from Pavia. Predictably, this arrangement soon broke down, and a decade of bitter civil war ensued.
Perctarit regained his throne in 671 and ruled for 17 years. His monogram appears on rare, tiny silver coins (0.19 gram). From an uncertain mint in Tuscany, these are apparently the only coins issued in his name. Many of these come from a single hoard of over 1,600 coins found at Biella in Piedmont.
…[I]t was not till the (sole) reign of Cunincpert (688-700) that the coinage became distinctive. Cunincpert’s tremissis is in fabric and style a kind of caricature of the Imperial coins of Ravenna, but … he inscribed it with his own name and introduced as the reverse-type the winged figure of St. Michael, the patron saint of the Lombards (Wroth, ivii).
Cunincpert (or Cunibert) was the son of Perctarit. Because the rare portrait coins of Aripert were once considered fake, he is often credited as the first Lombard king to strike coins bearing his own name and image. After a reign of 11 years, troubled by repeated revolts of unruly nobles, Cunincpert left the kingdom to his son, Liutpert who was overthrown by Raginpert, a grandson of Aripert. When Raginpert died soon afterward, his son became king as Aripert II.
Aripert II, described as “cruel and tyrannical” (Grierson and Blackburn, 57), had the deposed King Liutpert strangled in the bath (Lombards played the game of thrones as a full-contact sport). A “delicately toned, superb extremely fine” gold tremissis of Aripert II sold for $3,400 USD (against an estimate of $2,500) in a 2016 New York auction. On many Lombard royal coins, a single bold letter (M, S, G, T, N, V, H, or B) appears in the field before the ruler’s portrait. The meaning is uncertain – some might be mint marks, but others correspond to no obvious location.
The long reign of Liutprand (717-744) saw a decline in the weight of the gold tremissis to around 1.25 grams, or even less, and the fineness of the gold fell from 70% to as low as 50%. On a very rare example, the name of the “moneyer” (the mint official or contractor who struck the coin) Aufermo appears along with the king’s name. This was evidently a brief experiment that was not repeated.
When he died at the age of about 65 in 744, he left the kingdom to his nephew, Hildeprand “the Useless”, who was overthrown after a few months by his cousin, Ratchis.
During a reign of about five years, Ratchis issued coins with a facing portrait rather than the usual profile bust. The finest known example (“virtually as struck”) of this rare type brought over $50,000 in a 2016 Swiss auction, apparently a record price for a Lombard coin.
Ratchis was overthrown by a revolt of the nobles, who installed his brother Aistulf as king. Ratchis became a monk and retired to the monastery of Montecassino.
Aistulf made war against the Byzantine outpost of Ravenna and the territories of Popes Zachary (reigned 741-752) and Stephen II (reigned 752-757). He finally captured Ravenna in 750 and issued Byzantine-style bronze folles there. The British Museum has a unique Ravenna silver “siliqua” (probably intended to pass as a debased gold tremissis) issued at Ravenna with a bearded, facing portrait of Aistulf.
The rare regular gold coinage of Aistulf bears a monogram of the word CRUX (“Cross” in Latin) rather than his portrait.
In response to Aistulf’s aggression, the Pope called on the Frankish king Pepin “the Short” (ruled 751-768) for help. Pepin subsequently invaded Northern Italy, forcing the Lombards to relinquish their conquests. When Aistulf was killed in a hunting accident in 756 (a common fate for medieval aristocrats), the nobles chose the duke of Tuscany, Desiderius, as king.
Born about 720, Desiderius came to the throne at the age of 36. He unwisely went to war against Pope Adrian I (reigned 772-795) who called on the Frankish king Karl, son of Pepin–better known by his French name Charlemagne–for aid. Karl invaded Italy and besieged Pavia, the Lombard capital. Forced to surrender and abdicate in 774, Desiderius lived out the rest of his life in exile at a French monastery. Karl added “King of the Lombards” to his titles.
Desiderius issued debased gold tremisses of novel design at several mints. The obverse bears a “starburst in circle” design surrounded by the mint name, to which the honorific FLAVIA (of uncertain meaning) is added. The reverse bears a cross potent, surrounded by the king’s name and title.
The Lombard duchy of Benevento continued to exist in southern Italy as vassals of the Franks for almost three centuries, striking increasingly debased gold coins in Byzantine style. But that is a story for another day.
Collecting the Lombard Coins
Counting some very short-lived usurpers, there were 24 Lombard kings, but only a few issued coins in their own names and some of these are extremely rare. Lombard coins appear frequently in the auctions of major Italian dealers, and occasionally in American and other European sales.
Standard references for Lombard coinage are the catalogs compiled by Italian numismatists Ermanno Arslan (1978) and Ernesto Bernareggi (1983). In English, the most accessible reference is Grierson and Blackburn (1986). The British Museum catalog by Wroth (1911) is outdated but still useful.
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 Auctiones eAuction 57, September 17, 2017, Lot 91. Realized CHF 1,200 (about $1,250 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1270. Realized CHF 400 (about $403 USD; estimate CHF 450).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1273. Realized CHF 2,250 (about $2,267 USD; estimate CHF 1,000).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1279. Realized CHF 1,110 (about $1,108 USD; estimate CHF 1,250).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1297. Realized CHF 15,000 (about $15,110 USD; estimate CHF 8,000).
 Gorny & Mosch Auction 224, October 13, 2014, Lot 807. Realized €850 (about $1,078 USD; estimate €850).
 New York Sale LI, January 12, 2021, Lot 188. Realized $2,700 USD (estimate $500).
 New York Sale XXXVII, January 5, 2016, Lot 774. Realized $3,400 USD (estimate $2,500).
 CNG Sale 61, September 25, 2002, Lot 2191. Realized $620 USD (estimate $600).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1311. Realized CHF 15,000 (about $15,110 USD; estimate CHF 6,000).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1314. Realized CHF 50,000 (about $50,368; estimate CHF 20,000).
 CNG Triton XII, January 5, 2009, Lot 860. Realized $5,750 USD (estimate $5,000).
 NAC Auction 93, May 24, 2016, Lot 1316. Realized CHF 25,000 (about $25,184 USD; estimate CHF 8,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XII, September 29, 2016, Lot 1108. Realized £12,000 (about $15,578 USD; estimate £15,000).
Arslan, Ermanno. Le monete di Ostrogoti, Longobardi e Vandali: Catalogo delle Civiche Raccolte Numismatiche di Milano. Milan (1978)
Bernareggi, Ernesto. Moneta Langobardorum. Milan (1983)
Grierson, Philip and Mark Blackburn. Medieval European Coinage. Cambridge (1986)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Paul the Deacon. History of the Langobards. William D. Foulke, transl. Philadelphia (1907)
Wroth, Warwick. Catalogue of the Coins of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Lombards. London (1911)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” 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, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.