By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
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The Iconoclastic Controversy was a period of near civil war in the Byzantine Empire that began in about 726 CE and lasted until about 787. It was revived in 814 and finally concluded in 843. The Controversy involved a religious dispute between Iconodules (“image servants”), who venerated icons – religious images of Jesus and the saints – and Iconoclasts (“image smashers”), who regarded the veneration of these images as idolatry and sought to destroy them wherever they could be found. The Iconoclastic period was marked by widespread destruction of religious images and the persecution of Iconodules. It was also marked by some very interesting coins.
Leo III – the First Iconoclast
Official governmental support of Iconoclasm began with Leo III, who became emperor in 717.
Leo came to the throne during a time of great stress. The Byzantine Empire had become extremely unstable; during the 25 years preceding Leo’s coronation, seven emperors had been removed from the throne–one of them twice. The Empire had also lost much of its territory to the Muslim Arabs, and a vast force led by the brother of the Umayyad caliph was about to launch a siege against Constantinople itself. In the West, another Muslim army was completing the conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom and was poised to march into the heart of Europe against the Frankish Kingdom as well.
Some scholars attribute Leo’s Iconoclastic policy to his belief that God was using the Muslims to punish Christians for disobeying the Biblical commandment against the use of “graven images”. There are a few holes in the argument. First, Leo and the Iconoclasts never seemed to object to graven images of the emperor himself. Second, from the standpoint of the Iconoclasts, the only thing that the Muslims got right was their objection to graven images, which raises the question of why God would favor the Muslims because of their position in this one narrow area, whereas in all other matters of theology – including the Muslim denial of the divinity of Jesus – the Iconoclasts believed the Muslims were wrong. Perhaps it is too much to expect consistency in matters of religion or politics.
Coins of the First Iconoclast
Leo’s gold solidus is fairly conventional – he followed the pattern of most of the emperors of the previous imperial dynasty, the Heraclians, in presenting himself and his son and heir on the reverse. Leo expressly did not follow the lead of Justinian II, the last Heraclian emperor, who, circa 692 and again in 705, had placed portraits of Jesus Christ on the obverses of his coins. Justinian, by the way, was the emperor who was deposed twice, losing his tongue and nose the first time, and his life the second; Leo would have seen that as part of God’s punishment for Justinian’s “idolatry”).
The obverse of this solidus depicts Leo with a short beard and an inscription reading dNO LЄON P A MVL (“Our Lord Leo Perpetual Emperor Many [Years]”). The reverse presents a beardless portrait of Leo’s son, Constantine V, and the inscription d N CONSTANTINVS MZ (“Our Lord Constantine Many [Years] 6”). The wish for “Many Years” is part of the acclamation shouted at the emperor’s coronation.
In earlier times, coins struck at the imperial mint in Constantinople were often identified by number the workshop in which they were struck. This practice was dying out by the time this coin was struck, but the mint continued to place random workshop numbers on the coins–such as the Z (“6”) at the end of the reverse inscription on this coin–apparently out of force of habit.
This solidus was struck in Constantinople circa 737-741. It is catalogued as Sear 1504 and sold for $1,200 USD at an auction in April 2014.
Leo was more revolutionary with his silver coinage.
In 720 he celebrated the coronation of two-year-old son Constantine as co-emperor by launching a new denomination: the miliaresion. This would become the standard silver coin of the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. The miliaresion resembled the contemporary Islamic dirham in that its design consists primarily of religious text with no portraiture at all – in fact, mililaresia were often overstruck on dirhams.
The obverse of this coin presents a Cross Potent on steps with the inscription IhSUS XRISTЧS ҺICA (“Jesus Christ Conquers”). The reverse design consists of an inscription in five lines reading LЄOҺ S COҺST AҺTIҺЄ Є C ΘЄЧ ЬA SILIS (“Leo and Constantine, by the Grace of God, Kings”). This coin was struck in Constantinople circa 720-741. It is catalogued as Sear 1512 and sold for $225 at an auction in September 2003.
The “Byzantine Empire” was really the surviving eastern portion of the Roman Empire.
The common language in this part of the Empire had always been Greek, and eventually Greek replaced Latin as the official language of the Empire. Leo’s miliaresion marks the first use of the Greek title Basileus for the emperor; the emperor’s title previously had always been the Latin Augustus. The use of Basileus reflected a long-term trend in imperial coin inscriptions: these were entirely in Latin during the sixth century, began to include a mixture of Greek and Latin words and letters during the seventh century, and would become almost entirely Greek by the end of the eighth century.
Leo’s bronze coinage continued the pattern of the previous century, during which the planchets of bronze coins became increasingly irregular, the imagery became more and more cartoonish, and the inscriptions more and more meaningless. The only inscriptions on this follis are the large letter “M” signifying the denomination (“M” is the Greek number “40”) and the monogram identifying Leo, who is portrayed on the obverse.
This coin was struck circa 717-720 in Syracuse, the capital of Byzantine Sicily. It is catalogued as Sear 1629 and sold for a fixed price of $1,750.
Coins of the Most Vigorous Iconoclast
Leo III died on June 18, 741. The throne should have passed peacefully to his son Constantine V, but the general Artabasdos, who was Leo’s best friend (and son-in-law) seized the throne for himself in June 741 or June 742 (sources differ) while Constantine was on campaign. Artabasdos revoked Leo’s Iconoclastic decrees, but the restoration of icons was short-lived: Constantine recaptured the throne in November 743 and renewed his father’s Iconoclastic polices with great ferocity.
The chronicler monk Theophanes – an Iconodule, as were most monks – tells us that Constantine’s hostility to holy images was foreshadowed at his Baptism, when the infant Constantine had an “accident” while being dipped in the baptismal font. From this incident, Constantine was known (to the Iconodules, at least) as Constantine Copronymous, which translates more or less to “Named for Shit”.
Constantine was one of the greatest of all Byzantine military commanders. He was enormously successful in fighting the Arabs and he recovered much territory for the Empire.
After his death, during a period when the Iconodules were in control and the Empire was enduring military disasters, imperial troops broke into his tomb and opened his sarcophagus, praying for Constantine to return to lead them to victory.
Constantine struck a gold solidus that was even more revolutionary than his father’s silver miliaresion.
The obverse of the new solidus is conventional enough, displaying a facing bust of Constantine V with a short beard and the inscription GN C ON STANTINU (“Our [Lord] Constantine”). The reverse was something else entirely: it featured a portrait of the deceased Leo III with an inscription reading G LE ON P A MULI (“Our Lord Leo Perpetual Emperor Many [Years]). This was the first time a deceased emperor appeared on Byzantine coins; it would not be the last.
The practice of placing the portrait of a deceased emperor on a coin has led to difficulties in attributing coins. Depicting deceased emperors on coinage was so unprecedented that coins such as the one shown here have sometimes been misdescribed as lifetime issues of Leo III. Careful die studies, review of such details as the type of clothing worn by the figures on the coins, and analysis of coin hoards have made it possible to attribute the coins accurately.
This coin demonstrates one slight concession Constantine made to the Iconodules: it portrays him as bearded, whereas in real life he was clean-shaven. The Orthodox Iconodules believed it sinful for an adult man to be beardless, and Constantine bowed (ever so slightly) to that tradition by portraying himself wearing a (slight) beard.
This coin was struck in Constantinople circa 742-745. It is catalogued as Sear 1550 and sold for $2,200 at an auction in April 2011.
Constantine’s son Leo IV was born in 750. Constantine proclaimed Leo his co-emperor in 751 and began placing the entire dynasty on the coinage. Constantine and Leo IV appear together on the obverse with the inscription CONSTANƮINOS S LЄON O NЄOS (“Constantine with Leo the Younger”), while the reverse presents a crowned facing bust of Leo III and the inscription G LЄON P A MVL Θ (“Leo the Father Many [Years]” 9).
This solidus was struck in Constantinople circa 756-764. It is catalogued as Sear 1551 and sold for $1,700 at an auction in May 2020.
As his father had done before him, Constantine V struck a miliaresion to mark the coronation of his son as co-emperor. The obverse depicts a Cross Potent on steps with the inscription IҺSЧS XRISTЧS ҺICA (“Jesus Christ Conquers”), while the reverse consists of the inscription Con SτAnτI nЄ S LЄOn ЄS ΘЄu bA SILIS • (“Constantine and Leo by the Grace of God Kings”) in five lines.
Constantine’s miliaresion closely follows Leo III’s, only reversing the order of the names of the co-emperors in the reverse inscription.
The coin shown was minted in Constantinople circa 751-775. It was overstruck on an Umayyad dirham (the Umayyad Caliphate fell to the Abbasids in 750) and is is the plate coin for Sear 1544. It sold for $282 at an auction in May 2010.
The Third Generation of Iconoclasm
Constantine V died on September 14, 775, leaving Leo IV as senior emperor. Seven years earlier, Leo IV had married Irene, a beautiful young Athenian noblewoman, who happened to be an ardent Iconodule. It is a mystery as to why the fiercely Iconoclastic Constantine V would have permitted this marriage. Leo IV himself was an Iconoclast, as his father and grandfather had been, but when he became senior emperor he was much more temperate than either of them. Whether this was because of Irene’s influence or simply a matter of his own preference is unknown.
In early 776, Leo crowned his five-year-old son Constantine VI as his co-Emperor. There are no coins known from the reign of Leo IV before the coronation of Constantine VI.
Leo IV carried on the tradition established by his father of placing deceased members of the dynasty on the reverse of his coins, with living members appearing on the obverse. The obverse of the solidus shown here depicts the facing busts of the living emperors Leo IV, with a short beard, and Constantine VI, beardless. The fragmented inscription reads [LЄOn VS S] EζζOn COnSTAnTinOS O NЄOSΘ (“Leo Son and Grandson Constantine the Younger”). The obverse depicts the deceased emperors Leo III and Constantine V with an inscription reading: LЄOn PAP COnSTAnTinO[S P]ATHR Θ (“Leo Grandfather Constantine Father 9”).
This coin was struck in the Constantinople mint sometime between 775 and 780. It is catalogued as Sear 1583 and sold for $2,200 at an auction in April 2011.
Following the examples of his father and grandfather, Leo IV struck miliaresia to commemorate the coronation of his son as co-emperor. The design of Leo IV’s miliaresion is virtually identical to that of Leo III: the obverse presents a Cross Potent on three steps with the inscription IhSUS XRISTЧS ҺICA (“Jesus Christ Conquers”) and the reverse consists of a five-line inscription reading LЄOҺ S COҺST AҺTIҺЄ Є C ΘЄЧ ЬA SILIS (“Leo and Constantine By the Grace of God Kings”). The major distinction between the coins of Leo III and Leo IV is in the shape of the Cross Potent on the obverse: on the coins of Leo III the cross is taller and narrower than on the coins of Leo IV, and the vertical bars at the ends of the horizontal cross bar on the coins of Leo III are longer than on the coins of Leo IV. Also, the steps on the coins of Leo III are somewhat narrower and more clearly separated than on the coins of Leo IV.
The miliaresion shown here was minted in Constantinople circa 776-780. It is catalogued as Sear 1585 and sold for $175 at an auction in March 2006.
Iconoclasm Takes a Break
Leo IV was a successful general, as his father and grandfather had been, but he suffered terribly from tuberculosis. He died at the age of 30, after a reign of just five years. His nine-year-old son Constantine VI was too young to rule on his own, and the regency was left with Constantine’s mother, the Dowager Empress Irene – an ardent Iconodule.
As regent for her son, Irene carried on the tradition of placing as many members of the dynasty on the coins as possible. Irene and Constantine VI appear together on the obverse of this solidus with an inscription reading S IRInI AVG MITHR (“Irene the Empress Mother”), while Constantine’s deceased father, grandfather and great-grandfather are crowded together on the reverse, with an inscription (usually incomplete) reading COnSTAnTInOS r B (“Constantine the King”).
What is remarkable about this coin is that the inscription begins on the reverse, identifying Constantine as the king (in Greek), and ends on the obverse, identifying Irene as empress and mother (in Latin). This has the effect of placing Irene’s name and titles on the obverse – the more important – side of the coin, and relegating Constantine to the reverse. Irene (or her agents at the mint) made it clear who was in charge.
This solidus was minted in Constantinople circa 780-790 and is catalogued as Sear 1593. Coins of this type that clearly depict all three of the deceased emperors sell for a premium. This specimen sold for $2,800 at an auction in September 2013.
Although Irene was not formally crowned as “co-emperor” as this time, she authorized (or rather, ordered) the imperial mint to strike a miliaresion commemorating the new regime. Once again, the miliaresion follows the pattern set by Leo III, simply changing the names of the “emperors” on the reverse – the inscription now reads COnS τAnτInO S IRInIЄ C ΘЄu bA SILIS + (“Constantine and Irene by the Grace of God Kings”) in five lines.
The specimen shown here was minted in Constantinople circa 780-797. It is overstruck on a dirham that cannot be identified and is catalogued as Sear 1595. It sold for $490 at an auction in May 2010.
Irene ended the first phase of the Iconoclastic Controversy in 787 when she called the Second Council of Nicaea, which condemned iconoclasm as heretical. Ten years later she deposed, blinded and (possibly) killed her son. Irene then ruled the Empire in her own right for five years. For her services to Orthodoxy she has been declared a saint in the Orthodox Church.
Collecting the Coins of the Iconoclasts
Sear (1987) is an excellent reference catalog for the general collector, providing good descriptions of well over 100 different coins of the first period of the Iconoclastic Controversy.
For more advanced numismatists, Volume Three, Part I of the Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue offers more detailed descriptions of the coins, accompanied by outstanding plates, with additional significant background information. Grierson (1982) provides a thorough overview of the coinage.
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Grierson, P. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Vol. Three, Part 1. Leo III to Michael III 717-867. Washington, D.C. Dumbarton Oaks. (1973)
–. Byzantine Coins. London. Methuen & Co. (1982)
Sear, D.R. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. 2nd Edition. London. Seaby. (1987)
Ostrogorsky, G. History of the Byzantine State (J. Hussey, translator). New Brunswick, NJ. Rutgers University Press. (1969)
Theophanes. Chronicle (H. Turtledove, editor and translator). Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press. (1982)
Image of an imperial argument about icons from the Skylitzis Chronicle courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photographs of the following coins all courtesy and copyright of Heritage Auctions (www.HA.com): solidus of Leo III, Sear 1404; solidus of Constantine V, Sear 1550; solidus of Leo IV, Sear 1583; and solidus of Constantine VI and Irene, Sear 1593.
Photographs of the following coins are all courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (www.cngcoins.com): miliaresion of Leo III and Constantine V, Sear 1512; follis of Leo III, Sear 1529; solidus of Constantine V, Sear 1551; miliaresion of Constantine V and Leo IV, Sear 1544; miliaresion of Leo IV and Constantine VI, Sear 1585; and miliaresion of Constantine VI and Irene, Sear 1595.
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About the Author
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.