HomeBorn Into the Purple: The Coinage of Constantine VII

Born Into the Purple: The Coinage of Constantine VII

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

His constitution was sickly and he was indeed invalid throughout his life. His father’s birth was doubtful; and he was himself born out of regular wedlock, although his legitimacy was afterwards grudgingly recognized. From his eighth to his 16th year he was the pawn, by turns of his malignant uncle, Alexander, of his mother, of the patriarch Nicholas, and of the lord admiral Romanus Lecapenus… It was not until January of the year 945 at the age of nearly forty that, with the aid of a clique of guards officers devoted to his house, he was able to expel the Lecapenid usurpers and seat himself in sole majesty on the throne that was rightfully his (Moravcsik, 7).

THE FOURTH BYZANTINE emperor of the “Macedonian dynasty”, Constantine VII is remembered as Porphyrogenitus, meaning “Born in the Purple”. The term applied to rulers born while their fathers held the throne. The palace in Constantinople even had a “Purple Chamber” where the empress would give birth, its walls lined with slabs of porphyry[1], a prized reddish purple marble quarried in Egypt.

Constantine’s father Leo VI (“Leo the Wise”, ruled 886-912), like the future English king Henry VIII, had terrible luck fathering a male heir. Three successive wives died without delivering a son. Leo’s mistress, Zoe Karbounopsina (“She of the Coal-Black Eyes”) bore Constantine on May 17, 905. The Orthodox Church disapproved of third marriages, and absolutely forbade fourth marriages. Defying the Church, Leo married Zoe on January 9, 906, making her his empress. Young Constantine was formally crowned as co-emperor at the age of two.

Leo and Constantine

Leo VI the Wise, with Constantine VII. 886-912. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.
Leo VI the Wise, with Constantine VII. 886-912. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.

Constantine’s first appearance on a coin, alongside his father, dates to that coronation. On the reverse, the infant boy is depicted – rather hopefully – as a beardless adolescent, only slightly smaller than Leo. They stand in imperial garb, holding a double-barred patriarchal cross[2] between them[3].

The eminent American numismatist Wayne Sayles described this coin as a “masterpiece”:

The care with which this die was engraved is exceptional. The composition is balanced with perfect symmetry and the inscription is carefully placed and executed (Sayles, 173).

The coin’s obverse shows Christ enthroned with the Latin inscription “Jesus Christ, King of Those Who Reign” (+IHS XPS REX REGNANTIUM*), which had been used on the gold coinage since the reign of Constantine’s grandfather, Basil I (ruled 867-886). When Leo died, his dissolute brother Alexander took the throne, pushing Constantine aside and exiling Zoe to a convent. Alexander died after a year, from excessive eating and drinking. Coins of his brief reign are very rare.

Constantine and Zoe

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Zoe. 913-959. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Zoe. 913-959. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.

In 914, Zoe escaped from the convent wherein she had been detained, and with the aid of loyal palace officials, took up the regency for her nine-year-old son. Zoe and Constantine appear side by side on a rare gold solidus[4]. Zoe wears the loros, which is an elaborate jeweled wrap reserved for rulers, and a heavy crown with dangling strings of pearls. Constantine, beardless, wears the chlamys, which is a pleated garment fastened with a round gold brooch. Only about a dozen examples of this coin have appeared on the market in recent years.

Constantine VII and Romanus I, with Zoe, Æ Follis. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Constantine VII and Romanus I, with Zoe, Æ Follis. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Mother and son also appear on a quite affordable copper follis[5], the reverse inscribed “Constantine and Zoe, Emperors of the Romans”.

Constantine and Romanus I

Constantinus VII and Romanus I Solidus 920/921. Image: Sincona.
Constantinus VII and Romanus I Solidus 920/921. Image: Sincona.

In 919, Romanus Lecapenus (or “Romanos Lekapenos[6]”), Admiral of the Fleet, staged a palace coup, and Zoe was packed off to a convent where she later died. Romanus had his daughter Helena marry Constantine, and he then ruled as the young emperor’s father-in law.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I. 913-959. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I. 913-959. AV Solidus. Image: CNG.

In December 920, Romanus was crowned as co-emperor. He appears beside Constantine on a gold solidus[7], both wearing the imperial loros, but a beardless Constantine stands in the senior position on Romanus’ right, with his hand above the older man’s hand on the shaft of the cross they hold between them. Constantine’s name also comes first on the inscription. These visual cues communicated important political messages to a Byzantine elite that was obsessed with protocol and ceremony. A short time later (c. 921-923), Romanus took the senior position on the coinage[8], and Constantine was demoted. He appears wearing the less prestigious chlamys.

Romanus, Christopher, and Constantine

Constantine VII, with Romanus I and Christopher. Gold Solidus. Image: Goldbergs.
Constantine VII, with Romanus I and Christopher. Gold Solidus. Image: Goldbergs.

Romanus crowned his own eldest son, Christopher, as co-emperor in 921. Christopher’s date of birth is uncertain – some time between 890 and 895. On a special issue celebrating the crowning, half-length figures of Christopher and Constantine stand side by side on the reverse, holding the usual cross, while full-length figures of Romanus being crowned by Christ fill the obverse, with the inscription “Lord Help the Despot Romanus”[9]. For Byzantines the title of “Despot” did not imply that the ruler was a brutal tyrant, but it clearly communicated that he was the Boss.

Romanus I, Constantine VII and Christopher (921-931). Solidus. Image: Stack's.
Romanus I, Constantine VII and Christopher (921-931). Solidus. Image: Stack’s.

An exceptionally rare issue dated to c. 930 bears the standing figure of Romanus holding a sceptre, flanked on either side by Constantine and Christopher. An example of this coin from the collection of famous Parisian coin dealer Nadia Kapamadji (1901-1978) brought $40,000 USD in a 2009 American auction[10].

Romanus and Christopher

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I and Christopher, AV Histamenon Nomisma. Constantinople, 924-931 CE. Image: Roma.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I and Christopher, AV Histamenon Nomisma. Constantinople, 924-931 CE. Image: Roma.

The dispute over precedence between Constantine and Christopher was solved by the introduction of this class, which excluded Constantine from the gold coinage altogether… the coins are exceedingly common (Grierson, 534).

Dated to c. 924-931, this is one of the most affordable gold coins of the reign. On many examples, the imperial figures on the reverse have peculiar, cartoon-like triangular heads (apparently, the die engravers lacked the skill to create realistic portraits).

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I, Stephen, and Constantine . 913-959. AR Miliaresion. Image: CNG.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, with Romanus I, Stephen, and Constantine . 913-959. AR Miliaresion. Image: CNG.

In 924, Christopher’s younger brothers, Stephen and Constantine Lecapenus, were crowned as co-emperors by their father on Christmas day. After Christopher died in 931, the names of Stephen and Constantine Lecapenus appear on the silver miliaresion[11], but their names and images never appear on the gold coinage. These two disgruntled sons staged a palace coup that deposed their father on December 20, 944, forcing him to become a monk and exiling him to an island monastery. A few weeks later, on January 27, 945, Constantine VII–with the aid of loyal palace guards–mounted a counter-coup, and the rebellious sons joined their father in exile.

Constantine Alone

Constantinus VII Sole Reign Solidus 27 January – 6 April 945. Image: CNG.
Constantinus VII Sole Reign Solidus 27 January – 6 April 945. Image: CNG.

After more than three decades of marginalization, Constantine VII was finally sole ruler of the empire. To commemorate this, he issued one of the most remarkable Byzantine gold coins ever made, bearing his strikingly realistic portrait[12]. Extremely rare, and highly prized by collectors, examples currently bring $15,000 to $30,000 when one appears at auction.

The obverse bears a facing bust of Christ holding a Gospel book. The reverse shows the emperor’s somber, crowned, facing image, with a long beard. The inscription translates to “Constantine Autocrat, Emperor of the Romans”. The portrait is modeled closely on an equally rare issue of his father Leo VI but executed with even greater skill. Constantine placed a similar portrait, though far more crudely executed, on the humble copper follis[13], with a four-line inscription on the reverse: “Constantine in God, Emperor of the Romans”.

Constantine and Romanus II

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. 913-959. Æ Follis. Image: CNG.
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. 913-959. Æ Follis. Image: CNG.

Born about 937, the only son of Constantine VII was named Romanus after his maternal grandfather. At the age of six (Easter, April 6, 945) he was crowned co-emperor. This was commemorated on a rare gold solidus[14] that recalls the coin that Leo VI issued for young Constantine’s coronation. On the reverse, full-length figures of the emperor and his son stand side by side holding a long cross between them.

The name of young Romanus also appears the silver miliaresion beginning in 945[15]. The abbreviated five-line reverse inscription translates as “Constantine Porphyrogenitus and Romanus, in Christ, Faithful Emperors of the Romans”. This was the first Byzantine coin to feature the word meaning “Born in the Purple”, but it would not be the last.

Constantinus VII with Romanus II Solidus. Image: Sincona.
Constantinus VII with Romanus II Solidus. Image: Sincona.

Constantine died on November 9, 959, at the age of 54. There were rumors that he was poisoned by Theophano, the beautiful and ruthless wife of Romanus II, but modern historians doubt this.

As a man, Constantine VII was one of the best of the Byzantine emperors. He was a skilled musician and an artist of considerable merit and he has left behind him the memory of a kindly accomplished gentleman … His reign was free from any great disaster, and his gentle manners endeared him to his subjects (Goodacre, 196).

Collecting Constantine VII

Assembling a complete set of the Byzantine coins of Constantine VII would be a challenge for a very wealthy and patient collector. Sear (1987), the standard reference cited in most auction catalogs, lists 11 basic types in gold, six in silver, and five in copper. Key issues for the series are the very rare solidi of the joint reign of Romanus, Constantine, and Christopher (Sear 1742), and the sole reign (Sear 1747).

The definitive history of Constantine VII’s reign is by the prolific British historian Arnold Toynbee (1973). Some of Constantine’s own writings have been translated into English (Moravcsik, 1967; Moffat and Tall, 2012).

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Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyry_(geology)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarchal_cross

[3] CNG Auction 120, May 11, 2022, Lot 1007. Realized $10,000 USD (estimate $5,000).

[4] CNG Triton X, January 9, 2007, Lot 856. Realized $29,000 USD (estimate $20,000).

[5 Roma Numismatics e-Sale 94, February 24, 2022, Lot 1171. Realized £45 (about $61 USD; estimate £75).

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanos_I_Lekapenos

[7] Sincona Auction 3, October 25, 2011, Lot 3504. Realized CHF 7,000 (about $7,946 USD; estimate CHF 4,000).

[8] CNG e-Auction 455, October 30, 2019, Lot 432. Realized $1,300 USD (estimate $1,000).

[9] Goldberg Auction 120, February 2, 2021, Lot 1194. Realized $4,400 USD (estimate $2,500).

[10] Stacks, Moneta Imperii auction, January 12, 2009, Lot 3228. Realized $40,000 USD (estimate $35 – 40,000).

[11] CNG e-Auction 472, July 15,2020, Lot 349. Realized $300 USD (estimate $100).

[12] Sincona Auction 3, October 25, 2011, Lot 3511. Realized CHF 25,000 (about $28,380 USD; estimate CHF 12,000).

[13] CNG e-Auction 465, April 8, 2020, Lot 594. Realized $300 USD (estimate $100).

[14] Sincona Auction 3, October 25, 2011, Lot 3512. Realized CHF 4,200 (about $4,768 USD; estimate CHF 4,000).

[15] Leu Web Auction 19, February 26, 2022, Lot 3341. Realized CHF 170 (about $183 USD; estimate CHF 50).

References

Bellinger, Alfred. “The Coins of Constantine Porphyrogennitus and His Associates”, ANS Museum Notes 13 (1967)

Füeg, Franz. Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713-976. Lancaster, PA (2007)

Goodacre, Hugh. A Handbook of the Coinage of the Byzantine Empire. London (1960)

Gregory, Timothy E. “The Gold Coinage of the Emperor Constantine VII”, ANS Museum Notes 19 (1974)

Grierson, Philip. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Volume 3. Washington (1973)

Lis, L.J. “The coins of Constantine VII reflect political changes in the empire”, The Celator 11 (1997)

Mathews, Jane T. “The Source for the Solidus Issued by Constantine VII in 945”, ANS Museum Notes 24 (1979)

Moffat, Ann and Maxeme Tall (translators). Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus: The Book of Ceremonies. Canberra (2012)

Moravcsik, G. and R.J.H. Jenkins. Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. Washington (1967)

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Apogee. New York (1991)

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

Sayles, Wayne G. Ancient Coin Collecting V: The Romaion/Byzantine Culture. Iola, WI (1998)

Toynbee, Arnold. Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World. Oxford (1973)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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.

 

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
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.

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