The Byzantine Anonymous Follis - CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

IN THE ANCIENT world, gold and silver were the coinage of the elite, but humble copper was the coinage of the common folk.

For over 120 years, the single denomination of copper coinage issued by the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire was “Anonymous”. The Anonymous follis did not bear the name or portrait of the ruler but instead bore an image of Jesus and a religious motto. Fifteen different types are known, though only about six are common, with affordable and collectible examples. These coins are often carelessly overstruck, and generations of painstaking research by numismatists have made it possible to reconstruct the sequence of this fascinating series.

Class A1 Anonymous Follis

Anonymous Ӕ. Constantinople, time of John I, 969-76 CE
Anonymous Ӕ. Constantinople, time of John I, 969-76 CE. + EMMANOVHΛ, facing bust of Christ Pantokrator; IC-XC across fields/ + IҺSЧS XRISTЧS ЬASILЄЧ ЬASILЄ, in four lines. Class A1, Sear 1793. 8.96g, 28mm, 6h. Roma Numismatics Ltd E-Sale 39 26 August 2017. Lot: 929. Realized: 260 GBP (approx. 335 USD).

Born about 925 CE, John Tzimiskes was a handsome aristocrat who rose to command the Byzantine army in Armenia at the age of 25. Empress Theophano fell in love with John and helped him murder his uncle, the emperor Nikeforos Phokas, in bed on the night of December 10-11, 969.

Perhaps in remorse, John became intensely devout, and his coinage reflects this. The copper follis, weighing seven to nine grams, typically purchased a loaf of bread. John’s “Class A1” follis bears the image of Christ Pantokrator (“ruler of all things”), His head surrounded by a halo containing a cross[1]. The Greek monogram for Jesus Christ, IC XC, appears in the field and + EMMANOVHΛ (a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us”) is inscribed around the edge. The reverse inscription in bold letters on four lines is +IҺSЧS / XRISTЧS / bASILЄЧ / bΑSILЄ (“Jesus Christ, King of Kings”). On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, this type is #99 (Berk, 124).

Class A2

John’s successor, Basil II (ruled 976-1025), continued the same design but increased the weight of the coins. Class A2 folles average about 15 grams, but exceptional specimens reach 20 grams or more. For comparison, the United States silver dollar weighed 26.73 grams.

A variety of different ornaments appear on the reverse of this common type. The high point on the obverse, subject to the most wear, is the nose of Jesus, so coins with a clearly visible nose command a premium.

Class B

Romanus III follis
Anonymous Æ time of Romanus III. Constantinople, circa 1028-34. Facing bust of Christ Pantokrator / + IS–XS – ЬA–ILЄ – ЬAS–ILЄ, in three lines divided by cross set on three steps. DOC B.1-64; Sear 1823. 14.85g, 30mm, 7h. Roma Numismatics Ltd E-Sale 18, 27 June 2015, Lot: 1237. Realized: 40 GBP (approx. 63 USD).

Class B, from the reign of Romanos III (1028-34), abbreviates the reverse inscription to IS XS / bASILE / bASILE and places it around a cross on three steps[2]. These are often overstruck on Class A coins.

Class C

Anonymous (attributed to Michael IV). Ca. 1034-41. Æ follis
Anonymous (attributed to Michael IV). Ca. 1034-41. Æ follis (28 mm, 8.74 g, 6 h). Constantinople mint. Christ Antiphonetes standing facing, holding Gospels / IC-XC/ NI-KA in two lines divided by jeweled cross with pellet at each extremity. DOC class C, 1-48; SB 1825. VF, brown patina, double-struck. Agora Auctions Numismatic Auction 35, 23 June 2015, Lot: 323. Realized: 95 USD.

On the Class C follis[3], from the reign of Michael IV (1034-41), the obverse is a 3/4-length standing figure based on a famous icon of Christ Antiphonetes (“He who responds”). The reverse is an elaborate jeweled cross with the inscription IC XC NI KA (“Jesus Christ Conquers”, the battle cry of Byzantine armies).

Class D

Anonymous Folles, time of Constantine IX, circa 1042-55
Anonymous Folles, time of Constantine IX, circa 1042-55. Follis (Bronze, 30.5 mm, 7.75 g, 6 h), Class D, Constantinople. IC XC Christ Pantokrator seated facing on throne, holding book of Gospels in his left hand and raising his right in blessing. Rev. -+-/ IS XS/ ЬASILЄ / ЬASIL/ – (crescent) – in five lines; all within dotted circle. DOC D 1-34. SB 1836. A clear example with a particularly attractive obverse. Very fine. Nomos AG obolos 15, 24 May 2020, Lot: 969. Realized: 140 CHF (approx. 144 USD).

On the Class D Anonymous follis[4], mainly from the reign of Constantine IX (1042-55), the obverse shows Christ enthroned, an image that also appears on gold coinage of this era. The reverse is a bold three-line inscription: IS XS / ЬASILЄ / ЬASIL’/.

Class G

Anonymous Folles. Time of Romanus IV, circa 1068-71. Æ Follis
Anonymous Folles. Time of Romanos IV, circa 1068-71. Æ Follis (28mm, 7.44 g, 5h). Constantinople mint. Facing half-length bust of Christ Pantokrator; barred IC-XC across field / Facing half-length bust of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary); orans; barred (MHP)-ӨV across field. DOC pp. 692-4, Class G; SB 1867. Good VF, brown patina. Classical Numismatic Group Electronic Auction 238, 11 August 2010, Lot: 645. Realized: 390 USD.

The elegant Class G coin, from the time of Romanos IV (1068-71), is scarce but highly prized by collectors. The obverse bears the image of Christ, while the reverse shows a half-length image of the Virgin Mary, her hands raised in prayer.

Many surviving coins are pierced for wear as religious medallions. A “good VF” example brought $390 in a 2010 US auction[5].

Class I

Anonymous Folles, time of Nicephorus III, circa 1078-81. Follis (Bronze, 22.5 mm, 4.43 g, 6 h), Class I
Anonymous Folles, time of Nicephorus III, circa 1078-81. Follis (Bronze, 22.5 mm, 4.43 g, 6 h), Class I, Constantinople. Facing bust of Christ Pantokrator. Rev. Latin cross set on floral scroll, with X on center, globus and two pellets at each end; two crescents to upper left and right fields. DOC I.1-64. SB 1889. Sharp and nicely patinated; a clear example with excellent details for type. Overstruck on an uncertain type, otherwise, nearly extremely fine. Nomos AG obolos 12, 31 March 2019, Lot: 929. Realized: 300 CHF (approx. 301 USD).

The Class I Anonymous follis, from the time of Nikeforos III (1078-81), bears the usual image of Christ on the obverse, and an elaborate cross on the reverse with no inscription[6]. By this time, the empire was under increasing economic stress, and the follis was down to five grams or less.

In 1081 a great reforming emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, came to the throne in Constantinople. He completely revised the currency, and the copper follis finally disappeared.

* * *

Notes

[1] Roma Numismatics E-sale 39, August 26, 2017, Lot 929. Realized UK£260 (about $335 USD; estimate £80).

[2] Roma Numismatics E-sale 18, June 27, 2015, Lot 1237. Realized £40 (about $63 USD; estimate £50).

[3] Agora Auction 35, June 23, 2015, Lot 323. Realized $95 USD (estimate $100).

[4] Nomos AG obolos 15, May 24, 2020, Lot 969. Realized CHF 140 (about $144 USD; estimate CHF 50).

[5] CNG Electronic Auction 238, August 11, 2010, Lot 645. Realized $390 USD (estimate $200).

[6] Nomos AG obolos 12, March 31, 2019, Lot 929. Realized CHF 300 (about $301 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 

References

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

Fitts, Prue. The Beginner’s Guide to Identifying Byzantine Coins. London (2015)

Grierson, Philip. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Volume 3 Part 2. Washington (1973)

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

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

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

2 COMMENTS

  1. What about the A3, E, F, H, J, and K? The E, F, H, and J are the rarities of the series, but still obtainable and all have unique artwork.

    I wrote an article on these a few years back that is online in the twin cities ancient coin club archives.

    • Thanks for your comment. You are quite correct – in a short article like this, I could only cover the most common types. I look forward to reading your article!

      Respectfully,
      Mike Markowitz

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