By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
“What was the last ancient coin?”
The question is unanswerable. There was no “last” ancient coin, just as there was no “last” ancient person. Classical antiquity didn’t just stop — it morphed gradually into the medieval world, which morphed, in turn, into what we understand as the modern world.
Although the question is unanswerable, that doesn’t make it uninteresting or meaningless. The search for the “last ancient” leads us down some fascinating byways of numismatics and into neglected corners of history.
Many of us memorized 476 CE as the accepted date for the “Fall of Rome“. But Rome never “fell”. In fact, it’s still there, although some parts look a little worse for wear.
Here’s what actually happened in 476:
As the empire grew more and more dependent on barbarian mercenaries, emperors (in whose names the coinage was issued) were reduced to figureheads – aristocratic puppets under the control of tough Germanic warriors.
In August 475, Orestes, the commander of the Roman Army (magister militum) staged a coup in the capital, Ravenna. The emperor, Julius Nepos, fled across the Adriatic to his stronghold in Dalmatia, and Orestes placed his own son Romulus on the throne. The boy may have been as young as 10 or as old as 14. Because Romulus was born in Rome to a Roman mother, Orestes (being part barbarian himself) might have considered his son more acceptable to the Senate and the Roman elite.
Gold solidi and tremisses were struck in Romulus’ name at Ravenna, Milan, Rome and (very rare) Arles in southern France. For over a century, portraits on Roman coins had been generic images of an ideal emperor, with no attempt to represent the incumbent’s actual features, but on the best tremissis dies, we can imagine the engraver was trying to depict a child.
On August 23, 476, German mercenaries led by Odoacer (or Odovacar) overthrew and killed Orestes, and deposed Romulus, who was then exiled to Campania (near Naples) with a generous pension. The dethroned Romulus then disappears from history. All coinage in his name is quite rare. Since he was regarded for centuries as the “last Roman emperor” (technically he was a usurper, never recognized by the senior emperor in Constantinople), these coins are in high demand. The solidi typically sell for $30,000 to $50,000 USD and up; an exceptional example from the famous Evans collection brought $125,000 in 2012. In recent auctions, the tremisses have sold for $20,000 to $50,000 and up.
After his eviction from Ravenna by Orestes, Julius Nepos survived in Dalmatia until 480, when he was stabbed to death by his own troops–possibly at the instigation of another former emperor, Glycerius (reigned 473-474). Modern historians generally agree that Nepos was the last legitimate emperor of the Western Roman Empire. His coinage is rare, and almost all in gold — except for a silver half-siliqua — from Ravenna or Milan. In recent auctions, solidi have sold for $10,000 to $15,000; the tremisses for perhaps a bit less. There are many barbaric (or “pseudo-imperial”) imitations.
Odoacer ruled as de facto king of Italy until he was killed by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric in 493. Except for some small bronzes that bear his monogram, Odoacer’s coins were struck in the name of Zeno, the eastern emperor ruling in distant Constantinople.
Zeno (c. 425 – 491) was an Isaurian, which has nothing to do with reptiles. Isaurians were a warlike tribe from the mountains of southern Anatolia. His original name was Tarasis. A successful military commander, he married Aelia Ariadne, daughter of Eastern Emperor Leo (reigned 457-474). He chose the name Zeno, which sounded more familiar to his Greek subjects.
For 17 years he held the empire together, weathering war and revolt, until dying peacefully without an heir on April 9, 491. His widow chose Anastasius, a heretofore obscure tax official, as the new emperor. Anastasius is considered the first “Byzantine” emperor, which makes Zeno the last “Roman”. Zeno’s coinage is abundant in gold; silver is scarce and the miserable little bronzes are rarely found in a collectible grade. Gold solidi sell for around $500 or less in VF, and tremisses can sometimes be found for under $250. Rare solidi struck by Odoacer at Rome are highly prized; in 2012 an example brought $4,250 at auction. Barbaric imitations are common.
Born on January 25, 750, Leo IV was the son of Emperor Constantine V and Irene of Khazaria, a princess of the Turkic tribe of Khazars who lived on the steppes north of the Black Sea. He is often called “Leo the Khazar”. As an infant, Leo was crowned co-emperor. At the age of 19, he married Irene of Athens (there are a lot of Irenes, Theodoras, and Zoes in Byzantine history, get used to it).
Like his father and grandfather, Leo was an iconoclast, believing that veneration of religious images violated Biblical prohibitions on idolatry. Unfortunately, and like most Byzantine women of her era, Irene was an “iconodule”, or one who cherished the holy images. The controversy troubled the empire for over a century (726-787, and again 814-842.)
The Roman church consistently favored icons, and this was a source of tension between Greek East and Latin West. Since Rome was part of the Empire, well into the eighth century some increasingly crude and debased coinage was issued at Rome in the name of the emperor ruling in Constantinople. This ended in 780 when Leo died, possibly poisoned by Irene. The last type issued in Leo’s name at Rome is rare. Nominally a gold solidus, it is actually gilded copper. On surviving examples, the gold leaf is mostly gone. One sold in 2009 for $1,350.
After the death of Leo IV, his widow Irene ruled as regent for their son Constantine VI. Mother and son appear together on rare gold solidi; in 2010 a superb example brought $33,000. Their names also appear together on common silver miliaresia, many overstruck on recycled Islamic dirhems.
Irene enjoyed power. In 797 she staged a palace coup, deposed Constantine, and had him blinded so brutally that he soon died (in the Byzantine mind, blinding, which rendered the victim ineligible for the throne, was more merciful than decapitation). With no co-emperor to share the reverse of her solidi, Irene modestly placed her portrait on both sides. These notorious sole-reign coins are coveted by collectors and typically sell for $7,500 to $12,000, although prices have apparently eased in recent years with the dispersal of some large hoards.
In the West, it was unacceptable for a woman to rule in her own name. Pope Leo III declared the imperial throne vacat (“it is free / it is empty”), and on Christmas day in 800 he crowned Karl, King of the Franks, as “Holy Roman Emperor”. Some historians regard this as the end of Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. That makes the joint coins of Constantine VI and Irene the “last ancients”.
By the mid-15th century, the Byzantine Empire was reduced to the walled city of Constantinople and a few scattered islands and fortresses. The rising mercantile powers of Venice and Genoa dominated its trade, and the powerful Ottoman Turks dictated its politics. Gold florins from Florence and ducats from Venice had become the main international currency, while the local coinage of Constantinople consisted of a silver stavraton of about 6.5 grams and its fractions (half, quarter and eighth). For centuries, numismatists believed that Constantine XI issued no coins. He died on the city walls fighting the final Turkish assault on May 29, 1453.
In the 1980s, a hoard of about 80 pieces turned up in Istanbul. These were evidently siege coins, struck from crude dies on recycled silver from church altar vessels in order to pay mercenaries. On the obverse is a sketchy stick figure of Christ; on the reverse is an even sketchier image of the emperor, with an inscription that translates to “Despot Constantine Palaiologos, by the Grace of God, Emperor of the Romans.” The coins closely resemble the common issues of John VIII, Constantine’s late elder brother, but as the very “last” Byzantine coins they command high prices. An exceptionally clear specimen brought $80,000 in the Gemini VII sale (January 9, 2011). In recent auctions the little one-eighth stavrata have gone for $22,000 to $30,000.
But the story isn’t quite finished…
After the Turkish capture of Constantinople, a Byzantine dynasty survived a few more years at Trebizond on the southern coast of the Black Sea. Nominally independent since 1204, Trebizond had grown rich as a terminus of the Silk Road. Trebizond was famed for its beautiful princesses, who made brilliant diplomatic marriages.
The coinage of Trebizond consisted of silver aspers, bearing the image of the emperor on one side and St. Eugenius (a local patron, martyred under Diocletian, circa 305) on the other. Beginning in the 14th century, both figures are shown on horseback. David, the last emperor of Trebizond, surrendered to Sultan Mehmet II in 1461 and was executed two years later. The last ruler to issue coinage was David’s elder brother, Iohannes IV, who died in 1458. While not common, they are relatively inexpensive when they appear. The most costly example I could find sold for $433 in 2014; the cheapest sold for $80. The designs are crude stick figures, abysmally struck, and mostly on blanks too small for the dies. Surviving examples aren’t much to look at. But a strong case can be made that these sad little pieces are, in fact, the last “ancient” coins.
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Bendall, Simon. “The Coinage of Constantine XI.” Revue Numismatique 6:33. (1991)
Grierson, Philip and Melinda Mays. Catalog of Late Roman Coins. Dumbarton Oaks (1992)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. Seaby (1991)
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Mike 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.