By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The Roman Empire began on January 16, 27 BCE when the Roman Senate conferred the titles Augustus and Princeps on Octavian; it ended on May 29, 1453 CE when the imperial capital in Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The last emperor of the Romans, Constantine XI Palaiologos (reigned 1449-1453), died fighting the Turks after they breached the city walls.
Contemporary sources made it clear that Constantine XI struck coins during his reign, but it was not until 1974 – more than five centuries after Constantine’s death – that any of his coins became known.
In that year Simon Bendall, the leading expert on the coins of the Palaiologian Dynasty, published a paper identifying two half stavrata that belonged to Constantine XI. One of those coins had appeared in an auction the previous year, where it was misidentified as a coin of Constantine’s brother, John VIII Palaiologos (reigned 1421-1448).
In 1991 Bendall identified an additional 90 coins of Constantine XI. These were part of what has become known as the “Constantine XI Hoard”, which was unearthed in or around Istanbul (the modern name for Constantinople) circa 1989. The hoard was probably buried in late May 1453, just before or just after the fall of the city.
The Stavraton of the Last Roman Emperor
The Constantine XI Hoard included 35 stavrata of Constantine XI and 24 stavrata of his brother John VIII. The stavraton was introduced (probably) by their grandfather, John V (reigned 1341-1391). The original stavraton weighed about 8.5 g, twice as much as the largest silver coins then circulating in Europe; the stavrata of Constantine XI and John VIII weigh a bit less. Averaging about 6.5 g, they were still substantially heavier than contemporary European groats and grossi.
Constantine’s original stavraton coinage may have been substantial. The 35 stavrata in the Constantine XI Hoard were struck using 18 different obverse dies and 11 different reverse dies. Even if these were the only dies used, it suggests that the original mintage would have been well in excess of 150,000 coins.
While all of Constantine’s stavrata are crude in appearance, some are much better struck than others. Numismatist Harlan Berk, who was involved with the dispersal of the coins of the Constantine IX Hoard, has suggested that about half of Constantine’s stavrata were probably struck very early in his reign, perhaps as a coronation issue, with the remainder being struck during the final siege of Constantinople.
Five of Constantine’s 35 stavrata display a symbol (CΠ) that is identical to the symbol on the last stavraton of John VIII. The first stavraton of John VIII shares a symbol with the last stavraton of his father, Manuel II (reigned 1391-1425), which suggests that it was customary for an emperor to link his first coinage with the last coinage of his predecessor. The stavrata of Constantine IX with the symbol CΠ do not have the same rushed appearance as his eighth stavrata, which were almost certainly struck during the final siege of Constantinople. All of this lends support to the theory that a portion of Constantine’s stavrata were indeed struck early in his reign, with the remainder being struck during the siege.
The Half Stavraton
Constantine XI’s half stavraton is the rarest of his coins: the Constantine XI Hoard included just five half stavrata of Constantine XI which, with the two half stavrata identified in 1974, gives a total known population of just seven coins. All seven share a common reverse die. This suggests, but does not prove, a very small mintage.
One of Constantine’s half stavrata shares an obverse die with a half stavraton of John VIII; Constantine’s coin also uses the same special symbol CΠ that appeared on the last coins of John VIII (the Constantine XI Hoard also includes six half stravata of John VIII, two of which have that same symbol). All of this suggests very strongly that Constantine struck his half stavraton, like his stavraton, early in his reign.
There are three recorded auction sales of Constantine’s half stavraton, all involving the coin shown here. It sold for 11,500 Swiss francs in April 1990 (equivalent to $7,778.80 USD at the time), rising to $11,000 in December 2000, and then for £14,000 in September 2016 (equivalent to $18,214.20 at the time).
The Eighth Stavraton
The Constantine IX Hoard contained 50 eighth stavrata of Constantine IX; there were also two eighth stavrata of John V, 12 of Manuel II and four of John VIII.
The reverse legends on the eighth stavrata are varied, both in the letters used and in how they are displayed. Twenty of Constantine’s coins, like the one pictured here, include only the letters KC spread across the field; others include the letters KTTN in various arrangements, or KCTN, or KITN, or KN, or KT. A few do not display any lettering, probably due to centering issues when striking the coins.
In general, the more letters that are visible, the more desirable (and pricier) the coin.
The quality of the silver in Constantine’s eighth stavrata is surprisingly high, at approximately .930 fineness. Contemporary reports state that Constantine “borrowed” silver chalices, altarpieces, and other treasures from the Church in order to strike coins to pay soldiers and workmen during the final siege of Constantinople; this would explain why his nearly bankrupt empire was able to strike coins in relatively pure silver.
Collecting the Last Coins of the Roman Empire
With just 92 recorded examples spread across three denominations, the coins of Emperor Constantine XI are rare and pricy.
The stavrata tend to bring prices at auction in the range of $18,000 to $23,000, with premiums for coins that display Constantine’s full name.
The half stavrata appear on the market very infrequently, but each appearance brings a higher price.
The eighth stavrata are a bit more affordable, with some selling at auction for prices (slightly) below $3,000. However, individual specimens have sold for as much as $30,000; as with the stavrata, the lengthier and more legible the inscription on an eighth stavraton, the more it will sell for.
Standard references for the last Roman coins of the last Roman emperor are Bendall (1974 and 1991) and Grierson (1999). Runciman (1965) provides a wonderful description of the siege and fall of Constantinople.
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Bendall, Simon. “A Coin of Constantine XI”, Numismatic Circular 82. 188-189 (1974).
–. “The Coinage of Constantine XI”, Revue Numismatique 33. 134-142 (1991).
–, and P.J. Donald. The Later Palaeologan Coinage. Bristol: AH Baldwin & Sons, Ltd. 1979.
Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. London: Methuen & Co. 1982.
–. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume 5, Michael VIII to Constantine XI, 1258-1453. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks. 1999.
Runciman, Steven. The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. London: B.A. Seaby Ltd. 1987.
Images of Stavraton and Eighth Stavraton courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG).
Image of Half Stavraton courtesy and copyright of Roma Numismatics Ltd., Auction XX Day 2, Lot 761.