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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series – Heraclius: The Greatest Emperor You’ve Never Heard of

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series  by Mike Markowitz …..
Of the characters conspicuous in history, that of Heraclius is one of the most extraordinary and inconsistent. In the first and last years of a long reign, the emperor appears to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, or of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of the public calamities. But the languid mists of the morning and evening are separated by the brightness of the meridian sun; […] Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.

Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)[1]

AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF the Roman Empire in the West (476 CE), the Eastern Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, survived for another 977 years. We call that empire “Byzantine”, but it called itself Roman, or rather Romaion, because its language was Greek, and its faith was Orthodox Christian.

Much of the credit for this survival goes to Heraclius (or Herakleios), who began his career as a rebel against a brutal tyrant, and ended it by founding a dynasty that endured four tumultuous generations.

The complex coinage of Heraclius is mostly common and affordable, offering endless challenge and delight for collectors. In 1982, the late great numismatist Philip Grierson wrote, “…the coins are of such slovenly fabric that they have been little sought after by collectors (p. 85).” The growing number of enthusiastic Byzantine collectors,and the strong bids these coins often bring at auction, indicate how this has changed.

Overthrow of Phocas

In the winter of 602, Byzantine troops on the Danube frontier rose in mutiny against the emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602). They chose Phocas, an officer of Gothic ancestry, as their leader. He overthrew Maurice, murdering him and his family.

Phocas. 602-610. AV Solidus
Phocas. 602-610. AV Solidus (21mm, 4.48 g, 6h). Constantinople mint, 8th officina. Struck 603-607. Crowned and cuirassed bust facing, holding globus cruciger / Angel standing facing, holding staff surmounted by staurogram and globus cruciger; H//CONOB. DOC 5h; MIBE 7; SB 618.

For eight years Phocas held the throne through a reign of terror, while the Avars and Slavs overran much of the Balkans and the Sasanian Persians advanced into the empire’s eastern provinces.

Phocas issued vast quantities of gold solidi to pay troops and buy off invading barbarians. Many are badly made–off-center or double-struck. Examples can often be found for under $300 USD. Well-struck examples of the bronze follis, which depict standing figures of the emperor and his empress Leontia, are scarce. A nice one brought $425 in a 2014 auction.

In 608, an elderly general serving as governor of the province of Africa (modern Tunisia) rebelled against Phocas. Heraclius “the Elder” gave command to his son of the same name (born about 575). The “Revolt of the Heraclii” issued gold solidi at Carthage, bearing side-by-side portraits of father and son. This was an act of defiance; only the emperor had the authority to mint gold, but the portraits are bare-headed, not crowned, and the inscription hails them as “consuls” – an ancient title that was largely ceremonial by the seventh century. The reverse of these coins revived the “cross on steps” used by emperor Tiberius II Constantine (reigned 578 – 582). An example brought $18,000 in a recent auction[2].

Phocas, with Leontia. 602-610. Æ Half Follis
Phocas, with Leontia. 602-610. Æ Half Follis (20mm, 5.56 g, 12h). Theoupolis (Antioch) mint. Dated RY 1 (602/3). Phocas, holding globus cruciger, and Leontia, holding cruciform scepter, standing facing; cross above / Large X·X; cross above, date across field, e below. DOC 91; MIBE 85; SB 673. Near EF, green patina. Excellent for issue.

The revolt advanced rapidly across North Africa, taking Alexandria, where gold solidi of better style and workmanship were issued. These are somewhat less rare; one brought $8,438 in a 2016 auction[3]. There are rare solidi from an uncertain mint in Cyprus or Syria bearing the portrait of Phocas but the name of Heraclius[4].

Bronze small change was struck at various places during the revolt. Coins bearing the Greek abbreviation AΛEXANΔ have been attributed to a temporary mint in the coastal town of Alexandretta (now Iskenderun, Turkey) but Hahn and Mettlich argue that these were issued at Alexandria, Egypt (p. 71). These coins are crudely struck on ragged blanks, and dated in Roman numerals according to the year of the “Indiction”, a 15-year tax assessment cycle. A superb follis (the largest bronze denomination, about 10-12 grams at this time) dated Year XIII (610 CE), brought $2,400 in a 2009 auction[5].

Revolt of the Heraclii. 608-610. AV Solidus
Revolt of the Heraclii. 608-610. AV Solidus (16mm, 4.49 g, 6h). Carthage mint. Dated IY 13 (609/10). D N HЄRACΛI CONSVΛI IΓ, bareheaded busts of Heraclius the younger, beardless, and the exarch Heraclius, bearded, each wearing consular robes; cross above / VICTORIA CONSVΛI, cross potent set on three steps; IΓ//CONOB. DOC 3; MIBE 1; Lacam, Civilisation, pl. XXXI-A, 2 = CNG 100, lot 287 (same obv. die); SB 710. Near EF. An earlier obverse die state than the Adams specimen cited above. Extremely rare.

Heraclius “the Younger” arrived with a rebel fleet at Constantinople on October 3, 610. The tyrant Phocas was quickly deposed, and taken in chains aboard Heraclius’s flagship:

“Is it thus,” asked Heraclius, “that you have governed the Empire?”

“Will you,” replied Phocas, ”govern it any better?” (Norwich, 282)

Phocas was then dragged away and chopped into small pieces. That very afternoon in the Imperial Palace, Heraclius married his fiancé Eudocia and was crowned as emperor.

The first Constantinople gold coinage (“Class I”) of Heraclius as emperor bears his bearded facing portrait crowned and in armor, wearing a flowing military cloak and holding a cross. There are many variations in the type, and nice examples can be found for well under $500[6].

Revolt of the Heraclii. (Summer 608-November 610 CE). Bronze follis
Revolt of the Heraclii. (Summer 608-November 610 CE). Bronze follis (10.36 gm). Syria, Alexandretta, Year XIIII=610 CE. OMN ERACLIO CONSULII, facing busts of Heraclius on left and his father, the Exarch Heraclius, on right, both bearded, bare-headed, and wearing consular robes, cross between their heads / Large M between ANNO and numerals representing the indictional year; above cross with A beneath; AΛEXANΔ in exergue. MIB 16a. Sear 722. Berk 534. DO 16. Green patination. Struck on a broad flan.

Issues of the “Class I” solidus from provincial mints, however, are rare. An example from Ravenna, a strategic Byzantine outpost on the Adriatic coast of Italy, went for over $5,000 in a recent European auction[7].

Sons of Heraclius

In 613, Heraclius elevated his year-old son, Heraclius Constantine, to the rank of co-emperor. An image of the infant beside his father appears on the obverse of the “Class II” solidus. The long inscription in tiny letters (rarely fully legible, even on well-preserved coins) abbreviates his name to HERA CONST. This type was struck for 16 years, with many variants as the young co-emperor grew up. Choice VF examples can be found for under $400.

AV Solidus. Constantinople mint, 5th officina.
AV Solidus (20mm, 4.48 g, 7h). Constantinople mint, 5th officina. Struck 610-613. Helmeted and cuirassed facing bust, holding cross / Cross potent set on three steps; N to right; Є//CONOB. DOC 4; MIB 6a; SB 732.

Beginning in 629, a new design (“Class III”) shows Heraclius Constantine as a bearded adult beside his father, who now has a long beard and enormous moustache.

Constantinople and several provincial mints struck fractional gold coins in the name of Heraclius. These denominations remained unchanged throughout the reign. The semissis (nominally 2.25 grams, usually a bit less) was valued at half a solidus. It bore a stylized profile bust of the emperor on the obverse, and a “cross on globe” reverse. Although it was struck in small quantities, nice examples can often be found for under $300.

The tremissis of 1.5 grams, valued at one-third of a solidus, was issued in larger quantities. The obverse was the same as the semissis (some semisses were even struck with tremissis dies, despite the size difference). The reverse was a simple “cross potent” (a square cross with a short crossbar at the end of each arm). Even in high grades, tremisses are still very affordable gold[8].

HERACLIUS, 610-641 Mint of Ravenna Solidus
HERACLIUS, 610-641 Mint of Ravenna Solidus c. 610/611. Year H. Obv. DNN HЄRA – CLI PЄRP AVG Draped and cuirassed bust facing, wearing plumed helmet with pendilia. In r. hand globus cruciger. Rev. VICTOR I – A AVGG H Cross potent on four steps. CONOB beneath. Sear 894. DOC p. 238 (Class I). MIB 108a. 4.46 g. Extremely rare. Only three specimens known.

After Empress Eudocia died in 613, Heraclius married his 16-year-o niece, Martina. The Orthodox Church considered this incestuous, and monkish chroniclers who wrote the history have demonized Martina, who bore a son, Heraclonas, in 626. About 632 young Heraclonas was elevated to co-emperor alongside his elder stepbrother, appearing on the gold coinage for the rest of the reign. There are two main variants of this “Three Kings” design: initially with Heraclonas as a tiny figure[9]; after 636, fully grown.

There was no room for an obverse inscription, but the message was clear.

Silver & Bronze

By the start of the seventh century, silver disappeared from circulation in the Eastern empire. Western mints issued a small number of tiny silver coins, the “half siliqua” of one gram and some even smaller fractions.

In 615, in response to economic crisis, Heraclius began a massive issue of a new emergency coin, the silver hexagram, weighing about 6.8 grams. Government and military salaries were paid in the new coin, replacing traditional gold. The coins were overvalued, at a rate of 12 hexagrams to the solidus (about twice their bullion value). Many of these coins were carelessly struck on irregular blanks cut from hammered-out sheets of “church plate” — altar fittings and liturgical vessels. The obverse shows the emperor and his son enthroned side by side. A cross on steps appears on the reverse with a hopeful Latin inscription: DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIS, (“God Help the Romans.”) Well-centered and fully-struck examples command a premium[10].

Some of the rarest, most enigmatic Byzantine coins are so-called “ceremonial silver” pieces, bearing a cross between two palm branches. These are often pierced for wear as ornaments. One theory is that they were thrown to the crowd on holidays. A particularly elaborate example, dated to c.632 – 636, shows on the obverse the emperor standing in military garb, crowned by a tiny figure of Victory, while his son stands beside him in court robes. It may commemorate the victories of Heraclius over the Persians. This rare coin, “nearly as struck”, brought almost $1,700 in a recent auction[11].

The only “portrait” of the unpopular Martina that appears on the coinage is a crude, unlabeled image on the reverse of a silver half-siliqua of Carthage, identifiable as female only by details of clothing and the lack of a beard. An exceptional example brought over $1,000 recently[12].

Bronze coinage of Heraclius is often crudely designed, carelessly overstruck on earlier coins, or countermarked to change the denomination. Well-preserved examples with full inscriptions and clear portraits are hard to find.

There were four main denominations: the follis of 40 nummi (marked with “M”, the Greek numeral for 40); the half-follis (“K” for 20); the decanummion (“I” for 10) and the pentanummion (“E” for 5). Inflation gradually wiped out the value of the smaller coins and they ceased being issued. The coins bore the year of reign, making them easy to date. Early examples of the follis weigh up to 13 grams; this falls to five grams or less in later years. The most valuable follis of Heraclius was struck at Jerusalem, possibly during the Persian siege in 614. An example brought over $3,800 in 2011[13].

* * *

Heraclius died on 11 February 641, aged 66. He had lived to see his brilliant conquests swept away by the inexorable advance of the Arab Muslims. His eldest son, in poor health, reigned for only about 100 days, and the throne soon passed to a 10 year-old grandson, Constans II.

The life and reign of Heraclius raise issues concerning just how much one can expect an individual, even one of exceptional talents and effort, to accomplish in the face of adverse circumstances and trends. Heraclius managed to do a lot, but he could not prevent his Late Roman world and empire from imploding… Controversy in different forms has plagued his reputation and significance, even in the twentieth century, and very likely will in the twenty-first (Kaegi, 322).”

* * *



[1] Gibbon, 1776, Ch. 46.

[2] CNG Auction 106, 10 May 2017, Lot 1035.

[3] Roma Numismatics Auction XII, 29 September 2016, Lot 1122. Realized £6,500.

[4] CNG Triton VII, 12 January 2004, Lot 1094. Realized $5,750 USD.

[5] Gemini Auction V, 6 January 2009, Lot 869. Realized $2,400 USD.

[6] CNG Auction 94, 18 September 2013, Lot 1342. Realized $475 USD.

[7] Sincona Auction 37, 16 May 2017, Lot 188. Realized $5,318 USD.

[8] CNG Sale 61, 25 September 2002, Lot 2233. Realized $210 USD.

[9] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 29, 11 May 2005, Lot 691. Realized $564 USD.

[10] CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 879. Realized $1,500 USD.

[11] Roma Numismatics E-sale 21, 31 October 2015, Lot 945. Realized $1,699 USD.

[12] CNG Electronic Auction 412, 17 January 2018, Lot 728. Realized $1,100 USD.

[13] Numismatica Ars Classica Auction 69, 4 April 2011, Lot 1213. Realized $3,805 USD.


Bendall, Simon. “The Byzantine Coinage from the Mint of Jerusalem”, Revue Numismatique 159 (2003)

Bijovsky, Gabriela. “The First Half of the Seventh Century”, Polymnia: Numismatica antica e medievale 2. Trieste (2012)

Bijovsky, Gabriela. “A Single Die Solidi Hoard From Jerusalem”, Melanges Cecile Morrisson. Paris (2010)

Crawford, Peter. The War of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam. New York (2013)

Grierson, Philip. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection: Volume 2, Phocas to Theodosius III: 602 – 717. Washington (1968)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. Berkeley, CA (1982)

Hahn, Wolfgang and Michael Mettlich. Money of the Incipient Byzantine Empire, Continued (Justin II – Revolt of the Heraclii 565-610). Vienna (2009)

Kaegi, Walter. Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge (2003)

Norwich, John J. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. New York. (1989)

Regan, Geoffrey. First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars. New York (2003)

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

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford (1997)

Yannopoulos, Panayotis. L’Hexagramme. Louvain (1978)

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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  1. As a collector of Byzantine coins I enjoyed this article very much.The poor quality of the Heraclius bronzes one finds in dealers’ inventories does not diminish my interest for these historical coins. What a joy to find a VF specimen well struck on an original planchet!


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