HomeAncient CoinsCoins of Justinian II: The Emperor Who Lost His Nose

Coins of Justinian II: The Emperor Who Lost His Nose

The Coins of Justinian II
The Coins of Justinian II

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

Constantine IV was barely seventeen when his wife Anastasia had given birth to their son. It was a mistake to name the baby Justinian, for the obstreperous youth who inherited the throne sixteen years later was determined to model himself on his namesake. In some respects he was to succeed, intelligent and energetic he showed all the makings of a capable ruler. Unfortunately he had inherited that streak of insanity that had clouded the last years of Heraclius… (Norwich, 102)

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OUT OF ALL the 91 individuals who wore the crown of the Eastern Roman (or “Byzantine”) Empire, perhaps the most extraordinary story, and some of the most remarkable coinage, belongs to Justinian II, who became emperor at the age of 16 on July 10, 685 CE.

During Justinian II’s troubled reign, a group of talented engravers worked at the imperial mint in Constantinople, creating coin portraits that were far more realistic and artistic than the crude stick-figure designs on so many previous – and subsequent – Byzantine issues.

Early Coins of Justinian II

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.27, Constantinople, 685/6. Nomos AG. Auction 14. 17 May 2017.Lot: 470. Realized: 4,200 CHF (approx. $4,291).
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.27, Constantinople, 685/6. Nomos AG. Auction 14. 17 May 2017.
Lot: 470. Realized: 4,200 CHF (approx. $4,291).

Justinian’s earliest appearance on a coin is as a beardless adolescent, with sharp features and large, protruding eyes, on a fairly rare gold solidus[1]. The emperor holds the globus cruciger or “orb” – a golden sphere topped by a cross, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over the world. The obverse inscription (in Latin) simply translates to “Justinian, Perpetual Emperor”. The reverse is a cross on three steps–the traditional mark of value for the solidus–surrounded by the acclamation “Victory of the Emperor”, and the mint mark CONOB meaning “Constantinople, Pure Gold”. High grade examples of this coin typically bring a few thousand dollars at auction.

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.40g. Constantinople, 686/7. CNG. Auction 117. 19 May 2021.Lot: 662. Realized: $3,000.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.40g. Constantinople, 686/7. CNG. Auction 117. 19 May 2021.
Lot: 662. Realized: $3,000.

A year or two later, the young emperor had grown a short, neat beard, and this change is reflected in his coin portrait. Examples of this coin are more common than the earlier beardless issue[2].

Servant of Christ

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.49g. Constantinople, 692-695. CNG. Auction 123. 23 May 2023. Lot: 738. Realized: $5,000.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Solidus, 4.49g. Constantinople, 692-695. CNG. Auction 123. 23 May 2023. Lot: 738. Realized: $5,000.

About the year 692, there is a dramatic change in the coinage. This was probably a defiant response to the empire’s long-time rival, the Umayyad Caliphate[3], which had placed a standing figure of the Muslim caliph on their gold coinage, along with an Arabic religious inscription. Justinian’s master engraver created a majestic portrait of Christ for the obverse, with the inscription “Jesus Christ, King of Those Who Reign”. The arms of a cross appear behind the head of Christ, with no surrounding “nimbus” or halo. With minor variations, this image would appear on Byzantine coins for centuries to come, except during the two intervals of “Iconoclast” emperors (726-787 and 814-842), when religious imagery was forbidden.

In his historical novel Justinian, H.N. Turteltaub imagines the scene when the emperor receives the first samples of the new coins:

When he handed me the first five nomismata he had struck, I brought them close to my face and squinted at them, hardly believing he had managed to include so much in so small a compass. I could make out the individual hairs, long and flowing, on Christ’s head and in His beard and mustache; I imagined I could read (though in truth I could not) the words on the book He was holding… I gave Cyril back the other four nomismata. “And you keep these. You did everything I wanted my coinage to do, and did it better than I imagined it could be done.” (Turtletaub, 198-199)

Justinian modestly placed his own standing figure on the reverse, with the inscription “Lord Justinian, Servant of Christ”. The emperor holds the cross on three steps, which was the traditional mark of value for the solidus[4]. On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #77 (Berk, 122).

Silver Coins of Justinian II

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Silver Hexagram, 6.55g. Constantinople, 692-695. CNG. Triton XXIII. 14 January 2020. Lot: 925. Realized: $22,500.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Silver Hexagram, 6.55g. Constantinople, 692-695. CNG. Triton XXIII. 14 January 2020. Lot: 925. Realized: $22,500.

By the reign of Justinian II, silver coinage had almost disappeared from circulation in the Empire, but the reasons for this are not fully understood. Very rare 2-3 gram “ceremonial” silver coins were issued, probably to throw to the crowds on festive imperial occasions. Some heavy (about 6.5 grams) silver hexagrams were struck, with the same dies used to strike gold solidi[5].

Fractional Gold

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Semissis, 2.16g. Constantinople, 687-692. CNG. Keystone Auction 11. 3 March 2023. Lot: 351. Realized: $800.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Gold Semissis, 2.16g. Constantinople, 687-692. CNG. Keystone Auction 11. 3 March 2023. Lot: 351. Realized: $800.

Fractional gold coins, the semissis valued at one-half solidus, and the tremissis, worth one-third, were struck with the same obverse design as the solidus. The reverse of the semissis bore a cross on globe as its mark of value[6]. The tremissis bore a simple “cross potent” (a cross with short crossbars at the end of each arm). The reverse Latin inscription VICTORIA AUG translates as “Victory of the Emperor”.

Copper Coins of Justinian II

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Follis, 11.44g. Constantinople, 686-687. Leu Numismatik AG. Web Auction 20. 16 July 2022. Lot: 2947. Realized: 420 CHF (approx. $429).
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Follis, 11.44g. Constantinople, 686-687. Leu Numismatik AG. Web Auction 20. 16 July 2022. Lot: 2947. Realized: 420 CHF (approx. $429).

Near the end of his reign, Justinian’s father, Constantine IV, had attempted to reform the copper coinage, which had deteriorated badly in weight and workmanship. Constantine issued a series of heavy copper folles, but these proved to be impractical, being produced by the mint at a net loss (rather like the current U.S. cent, which cost 2.72 cents to produce in 2022). Justinian initially continued issuing heavy folles (ranging from 8.5 to over 11 grams). The reverse bears a large M, the Greek numeral for 40, because the follis was valued at 40 units called nummi. Almost all known examples are dated to Year 2 of his reign[7] (686/7).

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Half Follis, 3.52g. Constantinople, 686-687. CNG. Electronic Auction. 15 January 2014. Lot: 879. Realized: $60.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Half Follis, 3.52g. Constantinople, 686-687. CNG. Electronic Auction. 15 January 2014. Lot: 879. Realized: $60.

Justinian II’s most common copper coin was the half-follis, marked with a large K, the Greek numeral indicating its value of 20 nummi. These were issued from several mints throughout his reign, including Carthage, Syracuse, and Sardinia, as well as Constantinople. The half follis is usually crudely overstruck on quartered large coppers of earlier reigns[8].

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Decanummium, 1.89g. Constantinople, 686-687. CNG. Electronic Auction 494. 23 June 2021. Lot: 465. Realized: $90.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Decanummium, 1.89g. Constantinople, 686-687. CNG. Electronic Auction 494. 23 June 2021. Lot: 465. Realized: $90.

The smallest denomination issued by Justinian was the decanummium (or dekanummion), marked with a large I, the Greek numeral indicating its value of 10 nummi. Weighing less than two grams, these pieces were crudely overstruck on scraps of copper cut from earlier coins[9].

Byzantine Italy

Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Solidus, 4.44g. Naples?. CNG. Triton VIII. 11 January 2005. Lot: 1393. Realized: $4,250.
Justinian II, first reign, 685-695. Solidus, 4.44g. Naples?. CNG. Triton VIII. 11 January 2005. Lot: 1393. Realized: $4,250.

A number of cities in Italy were held precariously by the Empire during this era, including Naples, Ravenna, and Rome (which was almost a ghost town, retaining only a shadow of its former population and glory). Rare gold coins, struck in a distinctive local style, were issued from uncertain mints, probably to pay the troops[10].

A Very Different Christ

Justinian II, second reign, c. 705. Solidus, 4.42g. Constantinople. CNG. Electric Auction 521. 3 August 2022. Lot: 483. Realized: $3,250.
Justinian II, second reign, c. 705. Solidus, 4.42g. Constantinople. CNG. Electric Auction 521. 3 August 2022. Lot: 483. Realized: $3,250.

In 695, Leontios, a general who had been disgraced and imprisoned after losing a battle against the Muslims, led a coup that seized the imperial palace. Mutilated[11] and exiled to the remote outpost of Cherson[12] (near modern Sevastopol in Crimea on the Black Sea), Justinian had his nose somehow restored. One theory is that an itinerant Indian surgeon reconstructed his nose using a flap of skin and flesh from the forehead. Another version is that he had an artificial golden nose fabricated. He formed an alliance with the ruler of the Khazars, a powerful Turkic tribe based on the lower Volga River, and married a Khazar princess who converted to Orthodox Christianity. She bore him a son named Tiberios.

In 705, with a few loyal followers, Justinian escaped in a small boat, surviving a violent storm at sea. Landing on the coast of Bulgaria, he gained the assistance of the Bulgar khan, Tervel. He covertly entered Constantinople through the channel of a disused aqueduct and seized power in a sudden coup, deposing Emperor Tiberios III Apsimar, who had overthrown, mutilated and imprisoned the hapless Leontios.

Both of these usurpers were executed.

On the coinage of Justinian’s second reign, a very different image of Christ appears, one with curly hair and a short beard[13]. This image is similar to an illustration in the Rabbula Gospels[14], a manuscript dated to 586 CE and now in the Vatican Library. Some believe it was derived from a lifetime portrait painted by the Apostle Luke.

On the reverse, Justinian holds the traditional cross on steps, and an orb inscribed with the Latin word PAX (meaning “Peace”). The abbreviated Latin inscription translates as “Our Lord Justinian, Many Years.”

Justinian and Tiberios

Justinian II, second reign, 705-711. Solidus, 4.50g. Constantinople. Roma. Auction XXI. 24 March 2021. Lot: 947. Realized: $10,977.
Justinian II, second reign, 705-711. Solidus, 4.50g. Constantinople. Roma. Auction XXI. 24 March 2021. Lot: 947. Realized: $10,977.

Early in his second reign, Justinian II crowned his young son Tiberios as co-emperor and added his image to the gold coins[15]. Father and son appear side by side on the coin’s reverse, holding a cross on steps between them. The facing portrait of Tiberios clearly shows him as a child, not just a smaller, beardless adult.The reverse inscription (which usually falls partly off the edge of the coin because the blanks were too small for the dies) translates as “Our Lords Justinian and Tiberios Perpetual Emperors”. On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #93 (Berk, 123).

Justinian II, second reign, 705-711. Solidus, 4.03g. Italian Mint. CNG. Auction 87. 18 May 2011. Lot: 1281. Realized: $11,000.
Justinian II, second reign, 705-711. Solidus, 4.03g. Italian Mint. CNG. Auction 87. 18 May 2011. Lot: 1281. Realized: $11,000.

The Byzantine mint in southern Italy (probably Naples) copied this design in a crude local style. The coins are noticeably lighter in weight than regular issues of Constantinople. An example of this very rare coin brought $11,000 in a 2011 US auction[16].

Justinian’s return to the throne unleashed a brutal and bloody reign of terror in which he sought revenge against anyone who had ever offended him. Exiled general Philippikos Bardanes led a revolt in 711 that captured Constantinople. Justinian was hunted down and beheaded. His little son, who had taken sanctuary in a church, was dragged from the altar and butchered. It was the end of the “Heraclian” dynasty that had ruled the empire for a century. The name “Justinian” became so unpopular that it was no longer given to boys, and no subsequent emperor bore the name.

Collecting the Coins of Justinian II

The coinage of Justinian II is generally scarce. In a typical major coin auction there may be only three to six examples. The first-reign Christ portrait coin is in the highest demand from collectors and usually brings a strong price. The standard references for this coinage, usually cited in auction listings, are still Sear (1987) and Volume 2 of the massive Dumbarton Oaks catalog (Grierson, 1968), although these are in need of updating. Breckinridge (1959) is a classic study of the sources for the imagery on the coins.

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Mike gives an excellent breakdown of Byzantine coinage that even beginners can understand in Episode 165 of the CoinWeek Podcast:

 

 

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Notes

[1] Nomos Auction 14, May 17, 2017, Lot 470. Realized CHF 4,200 (about $4,291 USD; estimate CHF 2,800).

[2] CNG Auction 117, May 19, 2021, Lot 662. Ralized $3,000 USD (estimate $1,500).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umayyad_Caliphate

[4] CNG Auction 123, May 23, 2023, Lot 738. Realized $5,000 USD (estimate $3,000).

[5] CNG Triton XXIII, January 14 2020, Lot 925. Realized $22,500 USD (estimate $10,000).

[6] CNG Keystone Auction 11, March 3, 2023, Lot 351. Realized $800 USD (estimate $500).

[7] Leu Numismatik Web Auction 20, July 16, 2022, Lot 2947. Realized CHF 420 (about $429 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[8] CNG Electronic Auction 318, January 15, 2014, Lot 879. Realized $60 USD (estimate $100).

[9] CNG Electronic Auction 494, June 23, 2021, Lot 465. Realized $90 USD (estimate $150).

[10] CNG Triton VIII, January 11, 2005, Lot 1393. Realized $4,250 USD (estimate $3,000).

[11] Mutilation or blinding, which rendered the victim ineligible for the throne, was considered more “merciful” than execution.

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

[13] CNG E-Auction 521,August 3, 2022, Lot 483. Realized $3,250 USD (estimate: $1,500).

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbula_Gospels

[15] Roma Numismatics Auction XXI, March 24, 2021, Lot 947. Realized £8,000 (about $10,977 USD; estimate £2,500).

[16] CNG Auction 87, May 18, 2011, Lot 1281. Realized $11,000 USD (estimate $2,000).
 

References

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

Breckinridge, James. The Numismatic Iconography of Justinian II. New York (1959)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. Berkeley (1982)

–. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. Volume 2, Part 2. Washington (1968)

Head, Constance. Justinian II of Byzantium. Madison, WI (1972)

Norwich, John. A Short History of Byzantium. New York (1997)

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

Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values, 2nd edition. London (1987)

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford (1999)

Turteltaub, H. N. Justinian. New York (1998)

Whitting. P. D. Byzantine Coins. New York (1973)

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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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