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CoinWeek Podcast #165: Mike Markowitz on Byzantine Coins
This week on the CoinWeek Podcast, Mike Markowitz sits down to discuss his favorite area of ancient coin collecting: Byzantine coins. The Byzantine Empire stood for more than a thousand years, officially ending on May 29, 1453 when the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Historians call it the “Byzantine” Empire, but they called themselves “Romans”.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn about this huge area of ancient numismatics but haven’t known where to start, then this is the podcast for you. Mike gives a complete overview of this Eastern Roman coinage, from the solidus to the stavraton.
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The following is a transcript of Mike’s podcast:
Mike Markowitz: This is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek, taking you back to Constantinople. For over 25 years now. I’ve been a serious collector of the coins commonly known as Byzantine. As a history major in college, I took a course on the Byzantine imperial city, and it left me with a lifelong fascination with the Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian, Eastern Roman Empire that endured for over a thousand years. That word ‘Byzantine’ is problematic because the people who lived there didn’t call themselves Byzantine. That was an invention of 17th-century Western European scholars, who held that Eastern Roman Empire and its people in low regard. When you look up the word ‘byzantine’ in the dictionary, you get definitions like, “intricately involved with a great deal of administrative detail characterized by complexity, deviousness, or intrigue.” The people who lived in the Eastern Roman Empire called themselves Romaioi, Romans. The title of their emperor was Basileus Romaion, Emperor of the Romans, although, Westerners at the time often regarded him as just the king of the Greeks.
The term ‘Byzantine’ comes from Byzantion, the ancient Greek name of the city that today is Istanbul, Turkey. For over a thousand years, it was Constantinopolis, the capital of the Roman Empire. At its peak before the Great Plague in the year 541, its population probably exceeded half a million. The population of the whole empire might have been as many as 26 million. For much of its long history, the empire was rich. It maintained a vigorous international trade with a cash economy based on the gold standard. Byzantine coins have been found from Britain all the way to China.
For the sake of convenience, we can divide the long span of Byzantine coinage, some 962 years, into four eras based on the main circulating denomination of each period. These were the era of the solidus 491 to 963, 472 years. The era of the histamenon from 963 to 1090, 129 years. The era of the hyperpyron from 1092 to 1354, that’s 262 years. Finally, the era of the stavraton from 1354 to 1453, just 99 years.
Let’s begin talking about the solidus. There is a marvelous story in the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century Byzantine merchant, who later became a monk. Two merchants, a Byzantine and a Persian, were visiting the king of Taprobane, an important source of cinnamon and other spices, which is now the island nation of Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India. The king was curious about these exotic strangers and he asked, “Which of your kings is the greatest and most powerful?” The Persian spoke up saying, “Ours is the most powerful, the greatest, and the richest. He is the King of Kings and whatever he wishes, he does.”
The Byzantine merchant simply replied, “If you wish to learn the truth, you have both kings present here. Examine each and you will see which is the more magnificent and the more powerful.” In surprise, the king said, “How can I have both kings present here?” The Byzantine replied, “You have the coins of both, the gold solidus of one and the silver dirham of the other. Examine the image of each and you will see the truth.” The king approved and he ordered the coins to be brought to him. Now, the solidus was of purest gold, brilliant, and beautiful. The Persian silver coin, suffice it to say, was nothing special. Now, the silver dirham or drachm of the Sasanian Persian Empire was a broad, flat coin of about 4.3 grams bearing the elaborately crowned profile portrait of the king on the obverse and two attendants on either side of a fire altar on the reverse. A nice collectible example of a sixth- or seventh-century Sasanian dirham, which was probably a week’s pay for a foot soldier can usually be purchased for under $100 today.
The Byzantine solidus bore the crowned facing portrait of the emperor and on the reverse, the standing figure of a winged angel holding a globe topped by a cross. In the year 578, the angel was replaced by a simple cross on three steps, a design which became the regular symbol of this denomination for centuries to come. Today, you might expect to pay $350 to $500 for a common Byzantine solidus, which represented the cost of a good woolen cloak in the sixth century. For three or four solidi, you could purchase a good donkey. In the medieval West, the Byzantine gold solidus called a bezant. If you’re familiar with heraldry, the elaborate terminology developed in the Middle Ages to describe coats of arms, the term ‘bezant’ is used for a gold disc placed on a shield. Our English word, ‘soldier,’ is ultimately derived from the word ‘solidus’ since the army usually insisted on being paid in gold. Keeping the army happy was an emperor’s most important job if he wanted to keep his head firmly attached to his shoulders.
A recruit received one solidus a month and officers got many multiples of that depending on their rank. The solidus first was issued by the emperor Constantine the Great about the year 309. It was nearly 24 karat gold, pure as they could make it. It was struck at a standard of 72 pieces to the 12-ounce Roman pound. That was the way the Romans thought about the weight of coins, how many pieces could you make from a pound of metal? The solidus replaced a heavier coin, the aureus, which was originally struck at 50 to the pound, later declining to 60. The solidus weighs about 4.5 grams, and then mint controlled this weight with remarkable precision, plus/minus a few hundredths of a gram. For comparison, an American nickel weighs exactly 5 grams and a British 10-pence coin is 6.5 grams. To express large sums of money, Byzantine writers often used pounds of gold or hundreds of pounds of gold for really large sums rather than counting up enormous numbers of coins. Two fractions of the solidus were issued in small quantities. The semissis, valued at one-half solidus, and the more common tremissis, valued at one-third. These charming little coins are my favorites, and although, they can be hard to find in high grades, I’ve managed to collect quite a few.
By the fifth century, silver coins had nearly disappeared from circulation in the Roman Empire. A limited quantity of silver pieces called miliaresion were issued at 72 pieces to the pound, and some very rare small ceremonial silver coins were struck to throw to the crowd on festive occasions. These are so rare, many collectors have never even seen one. Around the year 615, the emperor Heraclius, in desperate need of cash to finance his war against Persia created an emergency silver coin called the hexagram. It was struck at 48 to the pound. Large quantities of silver altar vessels and ornaments were contributed by or confiscated from the church, hammered out into sheets, cut into irregular blanks, and struck up as coinage. The hexagram carried a bold Latin motto, Deus adiuta Romanis, God help the Romans. These were overvalued at an exchange of 12 to the gold solidus. A dramatic change in the appearance of the gold coinage came in the year 692, when the emperor Justinian II placed the face of Jesus on the obverse of his gold coins and relegated his own standing figure to the reverse, the less honorable side, with the modest Latin inscription, Lord Justinian, Servant of Christ. Now, this was an act of defiant political propaganda directed at the Muslim caliphate, which had begun to put Islamic religious inscriptions on its gold coins such as “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
A bitter conflict over the veneration of religious images troubled the empire during the following two centuries, to be precise, 726 to 843. A series of so-called iconoclast emperors accepted the argument that images of Christ, the Virgin, saints, and angels violated the commandment prohibiting graven images, the commandment against idolatry. For them, the only acceptable Christian symbol on the coinage was the cross itself. Now, iconoclasm was unpopular with the people and especially with the powerful monasteries and in 843, the empress Theodora and her son, the young emperor Michael III restored the veneration of icons, an event still celebrated as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The rare gold solidi of Michael III bear a portrait of Christ, but it’s quite crudely executed because the skills of the dye engravers had deteriorated during the iconoclast years. In the year 720, the emperor Leo III began issuing quantities of a new lightweight silver miliaresion struck to 144 to the pound. This was to celebrate the coronation of his son, the future Constantine V as co-emperor. These were still being overvalued at an exchange rate of 12 to the gold solidus.
Let’s talk a little bit about the copper coinage, which is very common and quite affordable for collectors today. Emperor Anastasius I, who came to the throne in 491 and is usually regarded by historians as the first truly Byzantine emperor, had been an imperial finance official. He launched a major reform of the coinage early in his reign creating four denominations of copper coinage to meet the need of an urban economy for small change. These were valued at 40, 20, 10, and 5 units or nummi, from the word ‘nummus’, meaning a small coin. In theory, one gold solidus exchange for 7,200 nummi. In practice, money changers would usually charge a 3% commission. The 40-nummi piece was called a follis. It bears the emperor’s name and portrait on the obverse, and on the reverse, it was a large M the Greek numeral for 40, usually with the name of the mint city, and the date Roman numerals based on the year of the emperor’s reign. The half follis was marked with a K for 20, the 10-nummi coin or decanummiun with a capital I, and the little five-nummi coin or pentanummiun with an E, epsilon for five. Over time the small denominations disappeared and the weight of the follis shrank from its substantial 24 grams under Justinian I down to as little as 3 grams by the troubled reign of the empress Irene, who was deposed in the year 802.
We turn now to the era of the histamenon from 963 to 1092. On March 15th 963, the ineffectual emperor, Romanos II, died at the age of just 24 leaving his widow, the beautiful Empress Theophano, as regent for two infant sons, who were the future Emperors Basil II and Constantine VII. Theophano soon married a powerful aristocratic military commander, Nikephoros Phokas, who was duly crowned as Emperor. Nikephoros introduced a new gold coin, the tetarteron, which was lighter than the old solidus by 1/12th. The reasons for this strange coinage are still not fully understood. One theory is that this new lightweight tetarteron matched the weight standard of the current Islamic gold coin, the dinar that circulated in territory that Nikephoros had just reconquered from the Muslim caliphate. The solidus and the tetarteron were issued side by side and circulated together for about two centuries. Over time, the heavier coin became the histamenon from a Greek word that just means standard. Over time, the histamenon becomes broad and thin, and it gradually takes on a cup-shaped form, while the tetarteron remained thick and flat, and they’re quite rare today for most of the emperors that issued them. The emperor Michael IV, who ruled from 1034 to 1041 did something few previous emperors had dared to attempt. He debased the gold coinage.
Michael, who was called Michael the Paphlagonian came from a humble peasant family. His brother, John, was a palace eunuch, and he rose to a powerful position in the imperial court. Michael IV had worked as a money changer and possibly a counterfeiter, and he became Chamberlain to the empress Zoe, and soon became her lover, and eventually, the emperor after arranging the murder of her husband, the emperor Romanos III. That was how the game of thrones was played in Constantinople. Michael’s gold coins fell over time from 23.5 carats, that’s 97.9% gold down to about 19.5, 81%. A pattern that we often see in history is that once the process of currency debasement starts, it’s very hard to reverse. By the 1050s, the gold had dropped to just 18 carats. And by the 1070s, the coins were down to as low as 8 carats, about one-third gold and two-thirds silver. Modern circulating gold coins are usually alloyed with 10% copper, because that hardens the metal and makes it more resistant to circulation wear, but ancient gold coins were alloyed with increasing amounts of silver and sometimes, they would throw in copper and even lead to stretch the supply of metal. Anything with less than 50% gold is usually described in numismatics as electrum.
We come now to the year 1092, and another major reform of the coinage, the era of the hyperpyron. In 1092, the emperor Alexios I was forced to reform the currency because the gold histamenon was being struck from a grayish alloy of copper and silver without a trace of gold. To restore confidence in the coinage, Alexios created a new concave coin called the hyperpyron. It means highly refined. It was struck at the old weight of nearly 4.5 grams but in an alloy of 20.5 carats. That’s 85% gold. A new denomination called the aspron trachy valued at one-third of a hyperpyron was struck in an alloy of 5% or 6% gold and the rest silver. Large amounts of small change were struck in alloy that had a trace of silver but was mostly copper.
The coinage remained basically stable through the 12th century, although the standard of workmanship and design steadily declined. Around the year 1304, a relatively pure flat silver coin modeled on the grosso of Venice, a coin that was becoming increasingly important in international trade in the Mediterranean world. It was introduced at Constantinople and it was called the basilicon, the king’s coin. During this era, we begin to see changes in the title of the emperor on the coinage. Rather than basileus, meaning emperor, we see titles like despotes, despot, autokrator, autocrat terms that don’t have necessarily the same negative connotation in medieval Greek as they do in modern English.
Finally, we reached the era of the stavraton. About the year 1367, Emperor John V issued a heavy silver coin replacing the gold hyperpyron, which was by then no longer struck. They couldn’t come up with the supply of gold bullion. This dramatic shift in the coinage reflected the serious economic decline during the final centuries of the greatly reduced Byzantine Empire. The stavraton weighed about 8.5 grams. One side bore a crude facing bust of the emperor surrounded in a ring by his titles and his name. The other side had a crude image of Christ. Coins of one half, one quarter, and even a little 1/8th stavraton were issued during the last century of the Empire’s existence.
Until 1974, no coins of the very last emperor, Constantine XI, were known to exist. Since that time, about a hundred in various denominations have turned up. They’re badly struck and they’re hard to distinguish from the very similar coins of Constantine’s older brother, John VIII, who ruled from 1425 to 1448. During the final siege of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, some 1/8th stavraton pieces were struck to pay the mercenaries who were defending the walls of the city, and the workers who struggled every night to rebuild those walls, which were being demolished by bombardment from the Ottoman cannon.
The great British numismatist Simon Bendall wrote, “We know from eyewitness or contemporary reports of the siege of Constantinople, the Constantine ordered holy vessels to be taken from the churches, melt it down, and struck into silver coins to pay the soldiers, and the ditch diggers, and the builders engaged in the defense of the city.” It’s more than likely that these coins would have been the 1/8th stavraton. They were used for day-to-day petty transactions during the last days. The eighth stavraton in unworn condition and with many duplicates are prime contenders for being the very last coins struck in the Byzantine Empire. In a 2019 auction, one of these historically important little coins sold for $22,000.
Let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of collecting Byzantine coins. Historians can argue over who should be included or omitted on the list of rulers. But one source lists 74 individuals, standard reference book, Byzantine Coins and Their Values, lists over 2,500 different types of Byzantine coins. Assembling a complete typeset, one coin of each ruler, especially in gold, would be a formidable task for a collector with great wealth and patience. One of the greatest private collections of Byzantine coins ever assembled was built by the Texas oilman, William Herbert Hunt, who was born in 1929. This collection was sold off in two New York auctions by Sotheby’s in 1990 and 1991. Some other legendary auctions of Byzantine coins include the 1930 Ratto in Lugano Switzerland, 1986 sale of the Goodacre collection by Christie’s in London, the 1998 sale of the Dreesmann Collection by Sotheby’s in New York. Some of these sale catalogs are important reference works and highly collectible by themselves.
The major museum collections of Byzantine coins are found in London, Paris, Washington, D.C., and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a superb group of coins on display in its Byzantine gallery, many of them on loan from the American Numismatic Society.
Do you want to know more? The standard reference for Byzantine coins is the massive, costly, and monumental 9-volume Dumbarton Oaks catalog, which weighs 38 pounds. That’s 17 kilograms. I hauled it to my bathroom scale and weighed it. It took 30 years to compile, and coins are often cited by their D. O, Dumbarton Oaks number. Dumbarton Oaks is a magnificent estate in Washington, D.C. that belongs to Harvard University, and has one of the world’s greatest collections of Byzantine coins and antiquities. Unfortunately, only a handful are ever on display. Fortunately, the entire text of the Dumbarton Oaks catalog is accessible online at www.doaks.org/resource/coins, www dot DOAKS dot ORG slash resources slash coins.
For most collectors, the essential handbook is still Byzantine Coins and Their Values by David Sear. The most recent edition published in 1987 is somewhat outdated, especially for its prices, but in auction sale catalogs, coins are usually cited by their Sear number.
For beginners, a very accessible and useful introduction to the subject is the 198-page book, Ancient Coin Collecting V: The Romaion/Byzantine Culture by Wayne G. Sayles, published in 1998.
For the background on Byzantine history, which unfortunately is very little taught in our schools, a great place to start is the superbly readable three-volume series by the British diplomat and historian, John Julius Norwich, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 88, a gifted storyteller. The books are Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Byzantium: The Apogee, and Byzantium – The Decline and Fall. A one-volume abridgment called A Short History of Byzantium was published in 1997.
Finally, two references that I found very useful in my work are the three-volume Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium published in 1991 and The Palgrave Atlas of Byzantine History by John Haldon published in 2005. For coinweek.com, this is Mike Markowitz wishing you good hunting.
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