By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

I collect Late Roman (c. 300-491 CE) and Byzantine (c. 491-1350 CE) gold coins. The tangled histories of these long-dead empires, and the often tragic stories of their rulers, are deeply meaningful to me because I was fortunate to have an inspirational Latin teacher in high school, and some outstanding history professors in college. When I began to collect these coins more than 20 years ago, they were considerably more affordable. Still, the best advice I ever got was, “Buy fewer, better coins.” Every serious collector has a “wish list” that evolves over time, so I was delighted when CoinWeek asked me to share my “Top Ten”.

All of these coins are rare and most are far beyond my means, but numismatists can dream, can’t they?

1. Zoë and Theodora Histamenon

Zoë and Theodora (1042). AV histamenon nomisma (27mm, 4.42 gm, 6h).  Constantinople, April-June 1042. + ΘKЄ RΘ TAC RACIΛICCIC / MP – ΘV, bust of the Virgin facing, orans, nimbate and wearing pallium with maphorium; before her, bust of infant Christ, with cruciform nimbus  / +ZωHN S ΘEOΔωP, facing busts of Zoë (on left) and Theodora, each wearing divitision and maniakion, and crown with pinnacles and pendilia, holding between them labarum. Sear 1827. DOC 1. BN p. 631 (this coin cited). One of the classic rarities of the Byzantine series! NGC (photo-certificate) Choice AU★ 5/5 – 5/5. From The Andre Constantine Dimitriadis Collection. Ex “An Important Private Collection of Byzantine Coins” (Sotheby’s, 2 November 1998), lot 517; William Herbert Hunt Collection (Sotheby’s New York, 5 December 1990), lot 765; Leu 15 (4 May 1976), lot 521; Hess-Leu 24 (16 April 1964), lot 453; Hess-Leu (2 April 1958), lot 440. Heritage World Coin Auctions > Long Beach Signature Sale 3035 Auction date: 3 September 2014, Lot number: 29646. Price realized: 190,000 USD.

A photo of this very rare coin, often reproduced, appears on the dust jacket of Philip Grierson’s Byzantine Coins (1982). This gold histamenon nomisma (“standard coin” in Greek) weighs about 4.4 grams and is 27 mm in diameter–a bit over one inch. It was issued for just seven-and-a-half weeks, from April to June 1042. About a dozen examples are known, with eight of those from a single hoard found in 1953.

Zoë and Theodora were sisters, the daughters of Constantine VIII (ruled 1025-28). Zoe married three emperors in succession: Romanos III (1028-34), Michael IV (1034-41), and Constantine IX (1042-50). After the death of Michael IV, his nephew ruled for a few months as Michael V until he was deposed by a mob, blinded, castrated, and exiled. The “game of thrones” in Constantinople was a rough sport.

The mob demanded that the sisters be enthroned as co-empresses, even though they hated each other. They appear together as half-length figures on the reverse holding a staff, the elder Zoë on the left, her hand above her sister’s. The obverse bears a half-length image of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, surrounded by a Greek inscription that translates as “God-Bearer, Help the Empresses”.

In a 2014 auction, an example from the William Herbert Hunt collection sold for $190,000 USD[1]. Another example brought €50,000 in a 2011 European auction[2].

2. Licinia Eudoxia Solidus

Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II and wife of Valentinian III. Solidus, Ravenna after 6th August 439, AV 4.43 g. LICINIA EVD – OXIA P F AVG Draped bust facing, wearing pearl necklace and a radiate crown. Rev. SALVS RE – I PVBLICAE Empress, nimbate, enthroned facing, holding cross on globe in r. hand and long cruciform scepter in l.; in the field, R – V. In exergue, COMOB. C 1. RIC 2023. Biaggi 2356 (this coin). LRC 870. Lacam vol. I, pl. V (this coin). Depeyrot 16/2. Extremely rare and possibly the finest specimen known. A wonderful and interesting portrait perfectly struck and centered on a full flan. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 100 29 May 2017, Lot: 725. Realized: 220,000 CHF (approx. 225,919 USD).

The priciest coin on my wish list is hardly a great work of art.

As the Roman Empire declined, the skill of engraving realistic portraits that peaked in the second century, was lost (although changing aesthetic tastes and spiritual values also had a lot to do with it). The facing portrait of Empress Licinia Eudoxia on this gold solidus struck at Ravenna about the year 439 is almost like a child’s drawing. Her egg-shaped face gazes out at us with a blank expression. The engraver was obsessively preoccupied with the strings of pearls encircling her neck and dangling from her spiked crown. The proportions of the stiffly enthroned full-length empress on the reverse are awkward, yet the coin nevertheless retains a sense of majesty.

The finest known example of this rare type, pedigreed to several famous collections, brought over $225,000 in a 2017 Swiss auction[3].

3. Michael IV Histamenon

Michael IV (1034 -1041). Gold histamenon nomisma (4.44 gm). +IhS XIS REX REgNANTIhM, Christ enthroned facing, raising right hand in benediction and holding book of Gospels in left / +MI-XAHL DESPOT, archangel Michael, winged, on left, and Michael, with short beard, on right, standing facing, holding between them labarum; the archangel wears tunic and mantle, while the emperor is clad in saccos and loros, and is crowned by the Hand of God. Berk 299. BN p. 630 (Constantinople). DO 2 (Michael IV, Thessalonica). Sear 1826 (Constantinople). J.M. Fagerlie, “A miliaresion of Romanus II and a nomisma of Michael IV,” ANSMN XI (1964), pp. 227-236. M.F. Hendy, “Michael IV and Harold Hardrada,” NC 1970, pp. 187-197. P. Grierson, “Harald Hardrada and Byzantine coin types in Denmark,” Byzantinische Forschungen 1966, pp. 134-135. Extremely rare: probably less than eight specimens exist. Nearly mint state/mint state. This histamenon is one of the great rarities of the Byzantine series, but its attribution is disputed. Grierson initially gave it to Michael V Calaphates, the young nephew and designated heir of Michael IV. Gemini, LLC > Auction I 11 January 2005, Lot: 512. Realized: 39,000 USD.

As a Michael, I’ve always been drawn to coins of rulers who shared my name. But there is disagreement over which Michael issued this magnificent coin, regarded by many collectors as the most beautiful single Byzantine gold piece.

The consensus is Michael IV “the Paphlagonian”, who ruled from 1034 to 1041, but there is an argument for Michael V “Calaphates”, who ruled from December 21, 1041, to April 13, 1042[4].

The image of Christ enthroned appears on the obverse, surrounded by the Latin inscription +IhS XIS REX REgNANTIhM (“Jesus Christ, King of Those Who Reign”). On the reverse, the Archangel Michael stands handing a staff to his namesake, the emperor. The simple Greek inscription in tiny letters is +MI-XAHL DESPOT (“Michael, Ruler”).

Fewer than 15 of these coins are known. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #100 (Berk, 125). In a 2005 New York auction a nearly mint state example sold for $39,000[5].

The design was copied (rather crudely) on a silver penny of the last Viking king of Denmark, Sweyn Estridsson (ruled 1047-76). Some Vikings of this era served in the Imperial Guard in Constantinople, and would have been familiar with Byzantine gold.

4. Ariadné Solidus

Aelia Ariadné, wife of Zéno. Solidus, Constantinople, 4.47g. AELh – ARIA-DNAE AVG Diademed and draped bust of Ariadne on the right crowned by the hand of God / VICTORI-A AVGGG / CONOB Victory standing on the left holding a long cross; in the right field, a star. RIC 933 var. and 936 var. ; MIRB 9 var. Kent does not list either this variation of the legend on the obverse or reverse where the dispensary is missing. Unique copy in private hands, the other three (of different types) are in museums. A unique and Superb currency. Numismatica Genevensis SA > Auction 6. Auction date: 30 November 2010, Lot number: 241. Price realized: 165,000 CHF (approx. 165,513 USD).

Born about 450 CE, Aelia Ariadné was the last empress of the divided Roman Empire and the first Byzantine empress. She was the daughter of a capable emperor, Leo I (ruled 457-474), and his wife Verina. At the age of 16, Ariadne married a powerful general, Tarasicodissa, an Isaurian. Isaurians were a fierce Anatolian mountain tribe who became prominent in the fifth-century imperial army. When he married Ariadné he changed his barbarian name to Zeno, which was more acceptable to the Greek-speaking population.

Ariadné bore a son, Leo II, who died in November 474. There are rare coins in the joint name of Leo II and Zeno. When Leo II died, Zeno became the sole emperor. He proved unpopular, and his reign was troubled by revolts. Zeno died in 491 and Ariadne chose his successor, a palace finance official named Anastasius, regarded by historians as the first Byzantine emperor. Ariadne died in 515.

Only a few coins in the name of Ariadné are known, one from the Sovana hoard, found in 2004, is in the National Archaeology Museum in Florence[6]. A unique example brought over $165,000 in a 2010 Swiss auction[7].

5. Olybrius Tremissis

Olybrius, 472 Tremissis, Mediolanum 472, 1.46 g. d=15 mm D N ANICIVS OLVBRIVS AVG Pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust r. Rev. Cross within wreath. RIC 3004. C 5. Mazzini 5 (these dies). Lacam 7 (these dies). Ulrich-Bansa pl. XIII, 147 (these dies). Vagi 3567. Biaggi 2385 (this coin). Depeyrot 33/1. Of the highest rarity, only the fifth specimen of this type and the twelfth coin of Olybrius to be known. Good very fine. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 34, 24 November 2006, Lot: 120. Realized: 210,000 CHF (approx. 173,554 USD).

Following the assassination of Roman emperor Valentinian III on March 16, 455, the West was ruled by a succession of obscure figures (Petronius Maximus, Avitus, Majorian, Libius Severus, Anthemius, Olybrius, Glycerius, Julius Nepos, and Romulus “Augustulus”) who were puppets or figureheads for the barbarian warlords who held actual power. Modern historians describe these two decades as the era of “Shadow Emperors”.

Anicius Olybrius was a member of Rome’s wealthy senatorial elite. He escaped to Constantinople when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455. In 462 he married Placidia “the Younger”, daughter of the late Valentinian III, and he was appointed consul in 464. Emperor Leo I dispatched Olybrius to Italy on a diplomatic mission in the Spring of 472, where he made such a good impression that the warlord, Ricimer, appointed him puppet Western emperor.

Olybrius lasted only about six months, dying in November, 472. The coinage of Olybrius, all in gold, is incredibly rare with only 12 examples known, three solidi and nine tremisses (the little tremissis was worth one-third of a solidus).

They were struck at Rome, Milan, or Ravenna. The only example to appear at auction in recent years is a tremissis that brought over $173,000 in a 2006 Swiss auction[8].

6. Glycerius Solidus

Glycerius (473-474) Solidus (4.34g), Ravenna, March 5, 473-24. June 474 CE Av .: D N GLVCER-IVS F P AVG, bust with pearl diadem, drapery, and cuirass to the right. Rev .: VICTORI-A AVGGG / R – V (in the fields) / COM OB (in the section), Emperor with cross, and Victoria on globus r. Foot on pedestal. RIC 3103 (R4), C 3 (350 Fr.), Lacam -. Small scratches on the back, light double strike in the back, small scratches in the front. Auktionshaus H. D. Rauch GmbH > Auction 91, 5 December 2012, Lot: 872. Realized: 160,000 EUR (approx. 209,096 USD).

The shaky imperial throne was vacant for a few months until the warlord Gundobad appointed his palace guard commander, Glycerius, as the new puppet emperor. He proved to be reasonably competent, repelling invasions by Visigoths and Ostrogoths during a reign of about 15 months. When Gundobad left Italy to become king of the Burgundians, Glycerius was forced to abdicate, and he lived out his life as bishop of Salona in his homeland, Dalmatia (near modern Split in Croatia).

Only about a dozen gold solidi of Glycerius are known, struck at Ravenna and Milan. Just three examples (one possibly a Visigothic imitation) have appeared at auction in recent years. The finest brought over $209,000 in a 2012 German sale[9]. Another example brought over $70,000 in another German sale in 2015[10].

7. Anastasius Consular Solidus

Anastasius I (491-518). Consular solidus. Constantinople, accession to the consulate, 507. DNANASTA SIVSPPAVC. Diademed bust l., wearing consular robes, and holding mappa and cruciform scepter. Rv. SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE; in exergue, CONOB. Anastasius, nimbate, enthroned facing, wearing consular robes and holding mappa and scepter surmounted by globus cruciger; to l., *. AV 4.47 grams, 6h. MIB Nb2; Sear 5A; NCirc 1980, p.135 = Lacam collection 1974, p.72, 2 [this coin]. Small scratch behind bust. Virtually FDC. (80,000-90,000) Ex Hunt Collection (Sotheby’s New York, December 1990, lot 39). Stack’s (pre-Feb 2011) > Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini, 12 January 2009, Lot: 3045. Realized: 100,000 USD.
In the Late Roman Empire, the Republican office of consul was reduced to a merely ceremonial honor. But it retained such enormous prestige that years continued to be dated by consulships in official documents. When emperors assumed this title, they occasionally issued special commemorative coins, depicting themselves in elaborate consular robes. Highly prized by collectors, some of these “Consular solidi” are very rare, and one of the rarest was struck for Anastasius when he assumed the consulship in 507.

The finest known example, pedigreed to the famed W. H. Hunt collection, brought $100,000 in a 2009 auction[11]. The richly detailed profile portrait on the obverse is executed with great care and is exceptionally lifelike for the period. The reverse is a majestic image of the emperor enthroned, with the reassuring Latin inscription SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE (“Security of the State”).

8. Artavasdus Solidus

Artavasdus. 741/2-743. AV Solidus (20mm, 4.46 g, 6h). Constantinople mint. Struck 741/2. 6 APτAЧA-SDOS MЧLτ, crowned facing bust, holding patriarchal cross / IhSЧS XRIS τЧS ҺICA, cross potent set on three steps; CONOB. DOC (1) = A. A. Boyce, “A Solidus of Artavasdus,” MN V, pp. 89-90, pl. XV, 1 = Füeg 1 (same dies); SB 1541. EF, scattered light marks. Extremely rare, perhaps the fourth known. The only example in CoinArchives (CNG 78 [14 May 2008], lot 1885) hammered for $42,000. Classical Numismatic Group > Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot number: 2041. Realized: 40,000 USD.
Artavasdus (or Artabasdos[12]) was a capable military commander who became the son-in-law of Emperor Leo III. After the emperor died in 741, Artavasdus attempted to seize the throne from his brother-in-law, Constantine V.

As a “usurper” he is often omitted from the list of Byzantine emperors. He captured Constantinople and issued a series of extremely rare coins. The rarest is his “sole reign” gold solidus, issued before Artavasdus crowned his son Nikeforos as co-emperor in 742, and placed his image on the reverse of his coins. The reverse of this coin bears a simple cross on three steps, surrounded by a Greek inscription that translates as “Jesus Christ Conquers”. Only about four examples of this type are known.

In a 2015 US auction one sold for $40,000[13. Defeated and captured by Constantine V, Artavasdus and his sons were blinded (Byzantines considered this more merciful than execution) and ended their days exiled to monasteries.

9. Michael I Solidus

Michael I Rhangabe, with Theophylactus, 811-813. Solidus (Gold, 20 mm, 4.44 g, 7 h), Constantinople. MIXA-HL bASILE’ Bearded bust of Michael I facing, wearing chlamys and crown with cross, holding a cross potent in his right hand and an akakia in his left; in field to left, pellet. Rev. ΘEOFVLA-CTOS DESP’E Beardless bust of Theophylactus facing, wearing loros and crown with cross, holding a globus cruciger in his right hand and a cross tipped scepter in his left. DOC 1b. Füeg 1.B. SB 1615. Very rare. Die break on the obverse and some roughness, otherwise, about extremely fine. From the Trausnitz Collection, ex Leu Numismatics & Numismatica Ars Classica, 26 May 1993, 213. Nomos AG > Auction 19, 17 November 2019, Lot: 433. Realized: 7,500 CHF (approx. 7,588 USD).

Like many rulers in history, Michael Rhangabe came to the throne by marrying the boss’s daughter. El jefe, in this case, was the emperor Nikeforos I (or Nicephorus), who was killed when his army was ambushed in a mountain pass by the Bulgars (July 26, 811). The Bulgar khan Krum famously had the skull of Nikephoros fashioned into a drinking cup.

The young heir to the throne, Staurakios (or Stauracius) was mortally wounded, so Michael deposed him in order to assume the crown, making his own son Theofylaktos, aged about 18, co-emperor. Father and son appear on the rare gold coins of this brief reign (October 2, 811 – July 11, 813). In the rigidly stereotyped style of the period, the emperor on the obverse wears the chlamys (a pleated cloak pinned at the shoulder with a brooch) and holds a cross, while his son on the reverse wears the loros (a jeweled wrap embroidered in a criss-cross pattern) and holds an orb and scepter. When his forces were defeated again by the Bulgars, Michael was forced to abdicate. He and his sons lived out the rest of their lives as monks.

The finest known example of this coin brought over $42,000 in a 2015 Swiss auction[14]. In recent sales, other examples of this type have sold for $5,000-7,500 and up.

10. Michael III, Theodora & Thecla Solidus

Michael III the Drunkard, Under the regency of his mother Theodora. Solidus 842-843 (?), AV 4.41 g. + ΘΕδΟRA – δΕSPVhSA Bust of Theodora facing, wearing crown and loros and holding patriarchal cross on globe and cruciform scepter. Rev. mIXHL S Θ – ECLA Facing bust of Michael III, beardless, on l., and half figure of Thecla, on r., both crowned; the emperor wears chlamys and holds globus cruciger, his sister wears loros and holds long patriarchal cross. DO 1d.3 var. Sear 1686. Very rare and in unusually fine condition for the issue. Light traces of overstriking, otherwise extremely fine. Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 59, 4 April 2011, Lot: 1248. Realized: 13,000 CHF (approx. 14,134 USD).

Poor Michael III.

Ruling from 842 to 867, Little Mikey definitely got a raw deal. He is known as “Michael the Drunkard” because later Byzantine historians were hostile to the memory of his Amorian dynasty. Born about 840 (the date is uncertain), he was made co-emperor as an infant by his father, Theofilos, the last of the “iconoclast” rulers. His mother Theodora was regent during his childhood.

A rare gold solidus struck about 843 depicts Theodora in full imperial garb on the obverse, and the child emperor with his elder sister Thecla on the reverse. An example brought over $14,000 in a 2011 Swiss auction[15]. The crude, cartoon-like portraits of these royals are charming in their simplicity.

Theodora was later made a saint of the Orthodox Church, in recognition of her role in restoring the veneration of icons. Young Michael was assassinated on the night of September 23/24, 867, by Basil “the Macedonian” a peasant he had befriended and promoted to the rank of co-emperor. Basil proved to be a competent emperor who ruled for 19 years, founding a dynasty that endured for almost two centuries.

Get your copy of Harlan J. Berk’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins: Second Edition from CoinWeek Supplies.

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Notes

[1] Heritage Long Beach Sale, September 3, 2014, Lot 29646. Realized $190,000 USD (estimate $40,000).

[2] Lan Auction 153, December 12, 2011, Lot 706. Realized €50,000 (about $66,076 USD; estimate €50,000).

[3] NAC Auction 100, May 29, 2017, Lot 725. Realized CHF 220,000 (about $225,919 USD; estimate CHF 100,000).

[4] Sotheby’s (1998), Lot 516.

[5] Gemini Auction I, January 11, 2005, Lot 512.

[6] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariadne_(empress)#/media/File:Tesoretto_di_sovana_129_solido_di_ariadne_(476-491),_zecca_di_costantinopoli.JPG

[7] Numismatica Genevensis Auction 6, November 30, 2010, Lot 241. Realized CHF 165,000 (about $165,513 USD; estimate CHF 50,000).

[8] NAC Auction 34, November 24, 2006, Lot 120. Realized CHF 210,000 (about $173,554 USD; estimate CHF 35,000).

[9] H.D. Rauch Auction 91, December 5, 2012, Lot 872. Realized €160,000 (about $209.096 USD; estimate €150,000).

[10] Gorny & Mosch Auction 228, March 9, 2015, Lot 727. Realized €65,000 (about $70,499 USD; estimate €30,000).

[11] Stack’s Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini, January 12, 2009, Lot 3045. Realized $100,000 USD (estimate $80-90,000).

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artabasdos

[13] CNG Auction 100, October 7, 2015, Lot 2041. Realized $40,000 USD (estimate $30,000).

[14] NAC Auction 84, May 20, 2015, Lot 1356. Realized CHF 40,000 (about $42,626 USD; estimate 20,000).

[15] NAC Auction 59, April 4, 2011, Lot 1248. Realized CHF 13,000 (about $14,134 USD; estimate CHF 5,000).
 

References

Bellinger, A., Philip Grierson, et. al. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. 5 vols. Washington (1966-1999)

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham, AL (2019)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. Berkeley, CA (1982)

Kent, J.P.C. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume X: The Divided Empire and the Fall of the Western Parts, 395-491. London (1994)

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

Sotheby’s. An Important Private Collection of Byzantine Coins. New York (1998)

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markowitz The Coinage of CarthageMike 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.
 

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