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
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. Another example brought €50,000 in a 2011 European auction.
2. Licinia Eudoxia Solidus
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. Michael IV Histamenon
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.
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.
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
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. A unique example brought over $165,000 in a 2010 Swiss auction.
5. Olybrius Tremissis
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.
6. Glycerius Solidus
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. Another example brought over $70,000 in another German sale in 2015.
7. Anastasius Consular Solidus
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. 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 (or Artabasdos) 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
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. In recent sales, other examples of this type have sold for $5,000-7,500 and up.
10. Michael III, Theodora & Thecla Solidus
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. 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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 Heritage Long Beach Sale, September 3, 2014, Lot 29646. Realized $190,000 USD (estimate $40,000).
 Lan Auction 153, December 12, 2011, Lot 706. Realized €50,000 (about $66,076 USD; estimate €50,000).
 NAC Auction 100, May 29, 2017, Lot 725. Realized CHF 220,000 (about $225,919 USD; estimate CHF 100,000).
 Sotheby’s (1998), Lot 516.
 Gemini Auction I, January 11, 2005, Lot 512.
 Numismatica Genevensis Auction 6, November 30, 2010, Lot 241. Realized CHF 165,000 (about $165,513 USD; estimate CHF 50,000).
 NAC Auction 34, November 24, 2006, Lot 120. Realized CHF 210,000 (about $173,554 USD; estimate CHF 35,000).
 H.D. Rauch Auction 91, December 5, 2012, Lot 872. Realized €160,000 (about $209.096 USD; estimate €150,000).
 Gorny & Mosch Auction 228, March 9, 2015, Lot 727. Realized €65,000 (about $70,499 USD; estimate €30,000).
 Stack’s Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini, January 12, 2009, Lot 3045. Realized $100,000 USD (estimate $80-90,000).
 CNG Auction 100, October 7, 2015, Lot 2041. Realized $40,000 USD (estimate $30,000).
 NAC Auction 84, May 20, 2015, Lot 1356. Realized CHF 40,000 (about $42,626 USD; estimate 20,000).
 NAC Auction 59, April 4, 2011, Lot 1248. Realized CHF 13,000 (about $14,134 USD; estimate CHF 5,000).
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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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.