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Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

ON APRIL 12, 1204, THE army of the Fourth Crusade sacked and looted the great city of Constantinople. The Crusaders established a shaky “Latin Empire” that managed to retain control of the city and a bit of surrounding territory until 1261. Byzantine aristocrats escaped from the capital to establish several short-lived states, including the Empire of Nicaea, the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empire of Thessalonica. The Empire of Trebizond, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, which broke away from the Byzantine state and would outlive it by a few years, is treated in a separate article. All of these states issued coins, which survive as evidence of a chaotic period of medieval history.

The system of Byzantine coins of this era was complex, with three cup-shaped denominations issued in a variety of alloys: a 4.3-gram gold hyperpyron of 16-21 karats; a silver aspron trachy ranging from under two grams to over 3.5, often heavily alloyed with copper; and a copper or bronze trachy of variable weight, typically around two grams.

Coins of the Empire of Nicaea

The walled lakeside city of Nicaea (today the Turkish city of Iznik) lies 92 km (57 miles) southeast of Constantinople. It became the capital of the most important Byzantine successor state, the one that would eventually recapture Constantinople.

Theodore

Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States - EMPIRE OF NICAEA. Theodore I Comnenus-Lascaris (1208-1222). Trachy. Magnesia. Image: Numismatik Neumann / CoinWeek.
EMPIRE OF NICAEA. Theodore I Comnenus-Lascaris (1208-1222). Trachy. Magnesia. Image: Numismatik Neumann / CoinWeek.

Born about 1175 to an obscure aristocratic family (the names of his parents are unknown), Theodore was related to the Imperial Komnenos dynasty on his mother’s side. In 1200, he married a daughter of the ill-fated emperor Alexios III Angelos. Fleeing from the Latin sack of Constantinople, he organized Byzantine resistance at Nicaea, assuming the title of Emperor in 1205. Much of his coinage was struck at the town of Magnesia[1] (today Manisa, Türkiye). The cup-shaped silver trachy bears an enthroned image of Christ on the obverse, and standing figures of Theodore and his patron saint of the same name[2] on the reverse[3].

John III

Empire of Nicaea, John III Ducas, 1222-1254. Hyperpyron, Magnesia 1232-1354, AV 4.37 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Empire of Nicaea, John III Ducas, 1222-1254. Hyperpyron, Magnesia 1232-1354, AV 4.37 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

“He was a ruler of outstanding ability, and he very nearly recaptured Constantinople in 1236. His greatest success was his conquest of Thessalonica in 1246, which firmly established Nicene power in Europe and prepared the way for the recovery of Constantinople (Grierson, 245).”

Born about 1192, John III Doukas Vatatzes was the son of a general killed in battle against the Bulgarians. In 1216, he married a daughter of Theodore I, Emperor of Nicaea. Following the death of Theodore in December 1221, he took the throne, successfully defeating rivals from the powerful Laskaris family, who were backed by the Latin Empire of Constantinople[4]. John’s gold hyperpyron (about 16 to 18 carats fine) is relatively common and affordable[5].

Theodore II

Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States - EMPIRE of NICAEA. Theodore II Ducas-Lascaris. 1254-1258. AV Hyperpyron (3.53 g, 6h). Magnesia mint. Dated RY 1 (1254/5). Image: CNG.
EMPIRE of NICAEA. Theodore II Ducas-Lascaris. 1254-1258. AV Hyperpyron (3.53 g, 6h). Magnesia mint. Dated RY 1 (1254/5). Image: CNG.

Theodore II Doukas Laskaris (lived 1221-1258) was the only son of John III Vatatzes. Young Theodore received the traditional training of a Byzantine prince: heavy doses of Orthodox theology, and hunting (considered good military training). At the age of 14, he wed a Bulgarian princess. The arranged political marriage proved a happy one, and the couple had several daughters and a son, future emperor John IV. Theodore’s gold hyperpyron is distinguished from his father’s issues mainly by his different name, which may be all or partly illegible on the poorly struck coins[6], and prominent Greek letters used as numerals to indicate the regnal year.

Theodore II Laskaris died on August 16, 1258, at the age of 36. His fragile dynasty was soon overthrown by his political enemy, Michael VIII Palaiologos (lived 1224-1282). The Palaiologos dynasty recaptured Constantinople and ruled it through a long era of political decline and cultural flowering until its final conquest by the Turks in 1453.

John IV

John IV Ducas-Lascaris. Emperor of Nicaea, 1258-1261. AR Trachy (22mm, 1.39 g, 6h). Coronation of co-emperor Michael VIII Paleologus. Magnesia mint. AD 1260. Image: CNG / CoinWeek.
John IV Ducas-Lascaris. Emperor of Nicaea, 1258-1261. AR Trachy (22mm, 1.39 g, 6h). Coronation of co-emperor Michael VIII Paleologus. Magnesia mint. AD 1260. Image: CNG / CoinWeek.

Born on Christmas Day in 1250, John IV Doukas Laskaris[7] became emperor at the age of seven when his father died. The child emperor was soon pushed aside when Michael Palaiologos seized power and was proclaimed co-emperor. Michael later had John blinded, making him ineligible for the throne. Imprisoned in a monastery for the rest of his life, John died in 1305.

Coinage of John’s brief reign is very rare; a silver trachy struck in 1260 brought $10,000 (five times the pre-sale estimate!) in a 2019 U.S. auction[8].

Michael VIII

Michael VIII Ducas-Angelus-Comnenus-Paleologus, as emperor of Nicaea, 1258/9 - 1261 Trachy, Magnesia 1259-1260, AR 2.19 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.
Michael VIII Ducas-Angelus-Comnenus-Paleologus, as emperor of Nicaea, 1258/9 – 1261
Trachy, Magnesia 1259-1260, AR 2.19 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.

Born in 1224, Michael traced his ancestry to several Imperial families; his full name was Michael Doukas Angelos Komnenos Palaiologos. He founded a dynasty that ruled until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In 1253, he was accused of plotting against the Nicaean emperor, John III Doukas Vatatzes, and sentenced to trial by ordeal, grasping a red-hot bar of iron. He challenged the bishop, who was standing nearby, to take the iron from the altar with his own hands and give it to him in faith that the truth would be revealed. Avoiding punishment, he later married the emperor’s grand-niece and became a commander of mercenaries serving the empire. Michael staged a palace coup against the regent for child emperor John IV and was crowned as co-emperor on January 1, 1259. He defeated an alliance of Latins and other Byzantines at the Battle of Pelagonia[9] in northern Greece later that year. In 1261, one of his generals captured Constantinople for him, restoring the Byzantine Empire.

Coins of the Empire of Thessalonica

After Constantinople itself, Thessalonica was the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire. In 1204, it was occupied by a Crusader warlord, Boniface of Montferrat[10], who had failed in his ambition to become emperor at Constantinople. After Boniface was killed by the Bulgarians in an ambush in 1207, the crown passed to his infant son, Demetrius. In 1224, Theodore of Epirus captured Thessalonica and added it to his empire, maintaining a separate coinage.

Theodore

Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States - Empire of Thessalonica, Theodore Comnenus-Ducas AR Aspron Trachy. Thessalonica mint, AD 1224-1230. Image: Roma Numismatics, Ltd. / CoinWeek.
Empire of Thessalonica, Theodore Comnenus-Ducas AR Aspron Trachy. Thessalonica mint, AD 1224-1230. Image: Roma Numismatics, Ltd. / CoinWeek.

At Thessalonica, Theodore issued silver trachys, bearing his standing figure in Imperial robes beside Saint Demetrius, the third-century soldier martyr who was the city’s patron[11]. In 1230, Theodore attempted to capture Constantinople but diverted his army to fight the Bulgarians, who captured, blinded, and held him prisoner for seven years. His brother Manuel took the throne, ruling as a Bulgarian vassal over a greatly reduced territory.

Manuel

Manuel Comnenus-Ducas, 1230 – 1237 Aspron trachy, Thessalonica 1230-1237, pale EL 3.01 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.
Manuel Comnenus-Ducas, 1230 – 1237 Aspron trachy, Thessalonica 1230-1237, pale EL 3.01 g. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica / CoinWeek.

Manuel’s rare silver trachy, bears an image of the Virgin enthroned on the obverse, and standing figures of the emperor and St. Demetrius on the reverse[12]. In 1237, when Theodore was released from captivity, he deposed Manuel and installed his son, John Komnenos Doukas, as ruler of Thessalonica.

John Komnenos Doukas

Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States - John Comnenus-Ducas, as emperor of Thessalonica, 1237-1242. Trachy (Bronze, 22 mm, 1.92 g, 6 h), Thessalonica. Image: Leu Numismatik AG / CoinWeek.
John Comnenus-Ducas, as emperor of Thessalonica, 1237-1242. Trachy (Bronze, 22 mm, 1.92 g, 6 h), Thessalonica. Image: Leu Numismatik AG / CoinWeek.

John ruled his diminished empire from 1237 until he died in 1244. The coins of his Byzantine successor state consist mainly of crude bronze or copper pieces, bearing an image of St. Demetrius on the obverse and standing figures of the emperor and the Virgin on the reverse[13].

Coins of the Despotate of Epirus

Michael I Angelus. Silver Aspron Trachy (3.54 g), ca. 1204. Mint of Arta. Image: New York Sale I / CoinWeek.
Michael I Angelus. Silver Aspron Trachy (3.54 g), ca. 1204. Mint of Arta. Image: New York Sale I / CoinWeek.

Epirus is the northwestern region of Greece, extending into the southern part of modern Albania. Following the establishment of the Latin Empire in the Byzantine capital, it became a long-lived successor state, with its capital at the ancient city of Arta[14]. The title of “despot” in medieval Greek meant simply “sole ruler”, without its modern connotation of arbitrary dictatorship.

Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States - Despotate of Epiros. Michael II Komnenos-Doukas, 1237-1271. Aspron Trachy (Silver, 29 mm, 3.84 g, 6 h). Image: Nomos AG / CoinWeek.
Despotate of Epiros. Michael II Komnenos-Doukas, 1237-1271. Aspron Trachy (Silver, 29 mm, 3.84 g, 6 h). Image: Nomos AG / CoinWeek.

Michael Komnenos Doukas was born about 1170. He was a descendant of the great Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos (ruled 1081-1118) and a cousin of the ill-fated emperor Isaac II Angelos (ruled 1185-1995 and again in 1203-1204). Like several other Byzantine nobles, he briefly served as a mercenary in the service of the Seljuk Turkish Sultanate of Rum. His early career is obscure, but by 1205, he had established control over Epirus, sometimes in alliance and sometimes in conflict with his neighbors: the Republic of Venice, Serbia, the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica, and the Latin Principality of Achaea. In 1214 or 1215, he was assassinated in his sleep by a servant whose motivation is uncertain. Michael was succeeded by his half-brother Theodore Komnenos Doukas[15]. Michael’s coinage is scarce.

Michael II

Michael II Comnenus-Ducas, with John III Ducas (Vatatzes). Despot of Epiros, 1237-1271. BI Aspron Trachy (27mm, 2.90 g, 5h). Thessalonica mint. Struck 1248. Image: CNG / CoinWeek.
Michael II Comnenus-Ducas, with John III Ducas (Vatatzes). Despot of Epiros, 1237-1271. BI Aspron Trachy (27mm, 2.90 g, 5h). Thessalonica mint. Struck 1248. Image: CNG / CoinWeek.

Michael II was an illegitimate son of Michael I. He escaped into exile after his father’s murder, returning to take the throne in 1230 and ruling until his death around 1268. Like so much of Balkan history, the subsequent story of Epirus is quite complicated. A rare silver trachy of Michael II depicts Christ enthroned on the obverse and standing figures of the emperor and St. Constantine (the fourth-century Roman emperor later canonized by the Orthodox Church) on the reverse[16].

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Coins of the Byzantine Successor States: Notes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnesia_ad_Sipylum

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Tiron

[3] Numismatik Naumann Auction 114, March 6, 2022, Lot 1110. Realized €800 (about $873 USD; estimate €800).

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Poimanenon

[5] NAC Auction 114, May 6, 2019, Lot 997. Realized CHF 325 (about $319 USD; estimate CHF 200).

[6] CNG Auction 70, September 21, 2005, Lot 1135. Realized $850 (estimate $500).

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_IV_Laskaris

[8] CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 1211. Realized $10,000 (estimate $2,000).

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Pelagonia

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boniface_I,_Marquis_of_Montferrat

[11] Roma Numismatics Auction XVIII, September 29, 2019, Lot 1317. Realized £4,200 (about $5,180 USD; estimate £2,500).

[12] NAC Auction 56, October 8, 2010, Lot 825. Realized CHF 8,500 (about $8,841 USD; estimate CHF 9,000).

[13] Leu Numismatik Web Auction 24, December 3, 2022, Lot 760. Realized CHF 900 (about $956 USD; estimate CHF 75).

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arta,_Greece

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Komnenos_Doukas

[16] Nomos Auction 18, November 17, 2019, Lot 453. Realized CHF 11,000 (about $11,129 USD; estimate CHF 2,500).
 

References

Angelov, Dimiter. The Byzantine Hellene: The Life of Emperor Theodore Lascaris and Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge (2019)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. Berkeley (1982)

Harris, Jonathan. Byzantium and the Crusades. London (2022)

Hendy, Michael. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Volume 4. Washington (1999)

Lianta, Eleni. Late Byzantine Coins: 1204-1452. London (2009)

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)

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Empires in Exile: Coins of the Byzantine Successor States,  successor states table. Image: Mike Markowitz.

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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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