By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
5.) Irene of Athens
Like much of the Middle Ages, the history of the Byzantine Empire is fascinating and complex. Unfortunately, it’s not a familiar topic to many Americans.
Numismatically, it’s an exceedingly rich field of study, and the next woman on our list is responsible for a good number of intriguing pieces.
Irene Sarantapechaina, or Irene of Athens, was empress of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire for almost 30 years, though what that meant precisely changed over the decades.
From 775 to 780, she was the wife, or empress consort, of the emperor Leo IV. This meant she bore the title of empress and enjoyed the elevated status it conferred but didn’t wield any military or political power herself.
The marriage was arranged by Leo’s father, Emperor Constantine V. The couple’s son, born in 771, was named Constantine in his honor.
The elder Constantine died in 775 and the 25-year-old Leo became emperor.
If you’re not familiar with Byzantine history, one important thread in the story is the battle between the iconoclasts and the iconodules. Christianity has always condemned the veneration of false idols, but by the eighth century many began to feel the adulation focused on relics, holy images, and pilgrimage sites had gone too far, and a movement was born that sought to restore the religion to the way it was practiced in an already-idealized past by literally destroying images (icons) used in worship. “Iconoclast” is Greek for “icon-breaker”.
Islam may also have been an influence on this re-examination of Christian practice.
However, many in the Church believed differently and continued to view icons as vital spiritual aids, often holy in their own right. One word for supporters of the use of icons in Christian worship is “iconodule”.
Why is this important? Leo IV was an iconoclast. Around 780 he discovered, much to his chagrin, that his wife Irene had been a secret iconodule the whole time. Oddly, he died that same year.
So after Irene became a widow, the royal couple’s son became the emperor Constantine VI. He was nine years old.
Because of his tender age, his mother acted as regent, appearing with him on the obverse of gold coins produced during this time. These coins also featured Leo IV, Constantine V, and Leo III on the reverse – to honor illustrious ancestors, no doubt, but perhaps also to add legitimacy to her claim to power.
Par for the course as far as regencies and power-sharing arrangements seem to go, the son eventually grew to resent his mother’s sway, and by the year 790, he was actively conspiring against her. It didn’t go well; by 792 new coins featured Irene by herself on the obverse, with the “emperor” on the reverse.
This was quite the numismatic slap in the face.
In 797, Constantine was finally ensnared in a conspiracy of his mother’s making and he died shortly after having his eyes gouged out (eye-gouging and nose-slitting were Byzantine specialties). With this, Irene became sole ruler of the empire, and to make sure nobody forgot it, she issued a new coinage with her portrait on both the obverse and the reverse.
Few men have dared be so bold.
This was the Byzantine Empire, though, and Irene herself was deposed by yet another conspiracy in 802. She died in exile a year later, though with her nose and eyes intact.
Her reign is notable for the restoration of icons to Eastern Christianity and the Greek Church’s reconnection with Rome. And besides making overtures to the pope, she recognized Charlemagne as a rising power in the West, going so far as to foster an alliance in 781 by arranging for Leo to marry one of Charlemagne’s daughters. It didn’t last; Irene canceled the marriage a few years later, and when Charlemagne was crowned “Roman” emperor by the pope in 800 CE, it was as successor to Irene’s son, Constantine VI, since the Roman Church did not acknowledge a female on the throne as legitimate.
Irene’s reign was also contemporaneous with that of Harun al-Rashid, the gifted ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. He invaded Turkey in 782 and, after the ill-timed defection of one of her generals, Irene was forced to pay an exorbitant tribute to the Muslims.
One legend about Irene states that she used the masculine version of the Greek word basileus (“king” or “emperor”) to refer to herself. If true, it would be in keeping with many other historic female rulers who adopted a sort of male drag–sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally–in order to legitimate their rule. Ancient Egyptian queens had to wear stylized fake beards when they became pharaoh, for example.
In Irene’s case, a single gold coin from Sicily includes “basileus” as part of the inscription, but the evidence so far overwhelmingly points to her use of the feminine version basilissa for all other official communications.
4.) Mary Mother of Jesus
One of the most important and most portrayed women in Art, Mary also takes a high spot in our list of women on coins.
The basic outline of her story is as follows, though it is understandably intertwined with that of Jesus and the religious views of those who came after.
Mary (Mariam, Maryam) was a Jewish inhabitant of the village of Nazareth in the Roman province of Judaea. She was engaged to Joseph but before their marriage could be formally completed, the Holy Spirit conceived in her the child Jesus. Once Mary and Joseph were married, the couple moved to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she was a virgin before this event and remained a virgin afterwards. Luke also states that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary earlier in her life and announced to her that God had chosen her to be the mother of Jesus – an event referred to as the Annunciation.
Interestingly, according to Matthew, an angel had also appeared to Joseph, telling him to marry the Virgin Mother.
After the Three Magi visited King Herod in Jerusalem, asking where to find the newborn King of the Jews, an angel visited Joseph in a dream and warned him that Herod meant to dispose of the child Jesus. Joseph is told to take his family into Egypt until such time as it is safe to return. Herod died in 4 BCE, and when word got to Egypt the Holy Family sought to return to their home in Judah.
Unfortunately, Herod’s tyrannical son Archelaus had become king, so the family traveled instead to Mary’s birthplace of Nazareth.
There, she presumably raised Jesus and her other children and tended to her family’s needs until Jesus began his ministry at the age of 33. Only one incident from his childhood is mentioned in the New Testament (Luke), when, at 12 years old, Jesus stayed at the Temple in Jerusalem, inquiring of and listening to the priests for a whole day while the rest of his family–apparently not realizing he was missing–returned home. The story emphasizes Jesus’ divine nature and positions it as superior to his role as a member of Mary and Joseph’s family, but one can’t help but infer a devout upbringing facilitated by his mother.
Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and, according to some ancient sources, helped maintain the early church in the years immediately after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and assumption into Heaven. For this reason alone – the preservation of what would become the single greatest unifying cultural force in European history – Mary’s place on the world’s coinage is justified (assuming commemoration on coins is something you “earn”).
Yet to the faithful, it is her role as the Blessed Mother (and the various functions she performs on mankind’s behalf) that is most important.
Combine the two reasons–cultural continuity and religious adulation–and you get Mary’s first appearance on a coin, a gold Byzantine solidus of Leo VI (ruled 886-912 CE). The solidus was a gold coin originally introduced by Roman emperor Diocletian in 301 CE. The Roman Empire’s first Christian ruler, Constantine I (“Constantine the Great”) greatly expanded its use, replacing the older gold aureus in 312. The solidus had a powerful influence on the economies and money of much of the formerly Roman world until the monetary reforms of the early 11th century.
Other Byzantine issues, such as a gold histamenon of John I Tzimiskes (ruled 969-976) or the gold scyphate coinage of John II Comnenus (ruled 1118-1143) feature the Virgin Mary standing next to the emperor. On these coins she is either placing a crown upon his head or holding a cross with him.
Such pairings convey the potent propaganda message that the emperor has been ordained by God to rule and, by extension, that his money is good, too.
Mary, of course, appears on almost every coin that portrays a Nativity theme, but as CoinWeek’s Mike Markowitz noted previously, Nativity scenes are remarkably sparse in the numismatic record. For instance, it takes almost 1,000 years before it shows up again on two coins: a rare gold five-ducat and a silver quarter-ducat commemorative set issued by Pope Clement VII.
A silver testone minted by Pope Gregory XIII (of Gregorian calendar fame) also featured Mary in a Nativity tableau. Similar coins were issued in Germany, with different cities releasing various types of silver thalers featuring the Holy Family.
3.) The Goddess Athena
Never mind coins for a moment. The very “Cradle of Western Civilization” and the “Birthplace of Democracy”–the city of Athens–is named for the next woman on our list: Athena, the Ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, war, olives and weaving.
Like Mary, she, too, was a virgin.
Her worship predates the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in the Balkan Peninsula, which means Athena is older than what we casually understand as Greek culture – with some, like the late Martin Bernal, reminding us of her possible roots in Africa and the Middle East. This is important because Ancient Greece (the time and place that made the coins) had a considerably easier time acknowledging the influence of foreign, non-European (and non-white) cultures on their own society than Westerners of the 18th and 19th centuries did.
Which should not come as a surprise (shouldn’t) to scholars of myth, who, besides seeing too many similarities between the world’s stories and beliefs to think of either culture or mythology as discreet, self-sufficient, and original, also know that within one culture the stories change as the times and the needs of the people change.
In other words, the biography of a god or goddess isn’t such a simple thing. But the classic story of Athena is as follows:
Metis, the goddess of prudence, was the counsellor and first wife of Zeus. As luck would have it, she was with child. Unfortunately, her mother-in-law the Earth itself (Gaea) prophesied to Zeus that if Metis had a son that this son would one day overthrow him.
Taking heed of his mother’s warning but unable or unwilling to do without Metis’ advice, Zeus devised a plan.
He convinced her to play a game with him: the two would change themselves into different kinds of animals and challenge the other to change into a new animal in order to one-up the other’s previous form. Eventually, Metis transformed herself into a fly. Zeus seized the moment and swallowed her whole.
From then on, she dutifully guided his actions from her seat in his head (but judging from the other stories told about Zeus’ behavior, perhaps she got her revenge after all).
In the meantime, as Metis’s pregnancy went on, she fashioned a battle helmet for her future child, giving Zeus terrible headaches. The pain was too much to bear, and his tortured cries brought the Olympian gods racing to his side. Zeus’ son Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith and inventor (whom Zeus had crippled by throwing from Mt. Olympus like so much lightning when he dared side with his mother Hera during an argument), split open his father’s head.
In this way–from the world’s first migraine–was the fully-formed Athena born.
As for being the patron goddess of Athens, this was the result of a contest between Athena and Poseidon, Zeus’ brother and the god of the sea. The rules were simple: each god would give the city one gift, and whichever gift the citizens liked better would determine the winner. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, whereby a mighty salt-water spring arose from the crack.
Athena gave the city the olive tree.
The pride Athens took in its olive farming industry is evinced on the reverse of practically every “New Style” silver Athenian tetradrachm coin ever produced. Minted between 164 BCE and approximately 42 BCE, New Style tetradrachms retained the owl motif (Athena’s most famous symbol and companion animal) of the earlier, “Archaic” style (produced since ca. 500 BCE when the four-drachma coin gained market dominance) but now included a clay amphora – a vessel commonly used to store grain, wine, olive oil and a wide variety of other products. Athena herself gained an impressive new martial helmet and a more naturalistic, less transcendent countenance.
The Athenian “owl” circulated the width and breadth of the Hellenic world and beyond. It served as an early trade currency, trusted everywhere for its purity and purchasing power. It projected the cultural, economic, and military might of the ancient Athenians into every corner of Western Civilization.
An Indian merchant selling his wares under the Mauryan Empire and a Celtic tinsmith in Gaul both recognized the power of the goddess on the obverse, even if they approached her using different names.
2.) Maria Theresa
A later trade currency would also bear the portrait of a powerful female, though one entirely human–all too human.
Empress Maria Theresa was born in Vienna, Austria on May 13, 1717. Her father was Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, the last surviving male to bear the name Habsburg; the birth of a daughter was not an auspicious event.
Consequently, Charles continued to hope for a boy (he had two more daughters) and never prepared Maria for anything other than being someone else’s queen.
Not that there’s any historical precedent for a queen consort becoming a ruler (see Empress Irene, above).
But it’s doubly strange, considering that Charles had issued his Pragmatic Sanction in 1713–four years before Maria Theresa was born. The sanction attempted to make it legal for a female to inherit the Habsburg domains. He then spent the rest of his life (otherwise known as Maria Theresa’s formative years) making territorial and diplomatic concessions in order to secure its acceptance by the courts and rulers of Europe.
When he died in 1740, Maria Theresa inherited the Habsburg domains, but her father had left the country bankrupt. Moreover, several major European powers (including France and Prussia) immediately reneged on the agreements they had made with Charles VI and contested her right to rule, initiating the War of Austrian Succession.
One important note: all Maria Theresa had inherited was sovereignty over Habsburg lands. She had not become monarch over the Holy Roman Empire. For one thing, it was an elected office; for another, women weren’t eligible to vote and, ipso facto, could not become empress in her own right. She did, however, maneuver to support her husband Francis Stephen’s claim to the throne by making him co-ruler of Austria and thereby giving him formidable rank and real estate holdings within the Empire (he was originally from France).
Yet while the precariously positioned ruler of a ruined economy might seem an odd choice for numismatic immortality, it was in the first year of her reign that the silver Maria Theresa thaler made its debut. It was quickly accepted throughout the German-speaking realms of Europe and eventually became the widest used trade dollar in the planet’s history.
The first few years of the war served up major losses for Maria Theresa and her cause, with the loss of important territories and even one of her enemies being elected Holy Roman emperor. To gain much-needed support from Hungary, she adopted the masculine titles of archduke and king, a formal drag that many female rulers throughout history (like Cleopatra and Irene of Athens, for example) have found necessary.
It also helped that by this time she had produced a male heir. Again, as we saw with Isabella I of Spain in Part One, in order to rule women must fulfill both “masculine” and “feminine” requirements.
Still, after eight battering years and humiliating peace treaties, Maria Theresa–through determination and force of will (and often while pregnant)–managed to hold on to her family’s domains and get her husband elected emperor.
The Seven Year’s War followed eight years later. Known as the French and Indian War in the United States, it was, arguably, a “World War”. Maria Theresa sought to regain territory lost to Prussia in the previous war and convinced Russia and France to go to war against Prussia and Britain. Austria lost the war, but besides failing to recapture the lost territories didn’t suffer any political setbacks.
The rest of the world, however, was changed considerably as Great Britain became the dominant power in the New World, setting the stage for the eventual rise of the United States of America.
Her husband Francis died in 1765 and her son Joseph became emperor. Maria Theresa made him co-ruler as well, for similar reasons. And similarly to Irene, Cleopatra, and countless other co-regents throughout history, they didn’t get along.
She died in 1780, the last of the Habsburg line. She was survived by 11 of her 16 children, including Marie Antoinette.
A date freeze was implemented on all Maria Theresa thalers produced after her death.
Mozambique counterstamp on 1780 Maria Theresa Thaler
During her reign, she successfully reorganized Austria’s economy by taxing the nobility and reformed the military by establishing a standing army. After two of her daughters died of smallpox and she herself contracted the disease in the epidemic of 1767, Maria Theresa introduced smallpox inoculation to Austria. She instituted mandatory public schooling for children in 1775 (though she failed to fund it). A religious conservative, she nonetheless outlawed witch-burning in 1776. No fan of the Enlightenment, she still managed to make Austria a culturally important and modernizing force in the modern world of the 19th century.
But she was a “complicated” figure – that dreaded euphemism for the misdeeds of “great” men in an era that can no longer believe in the “Great Man” Theory of History. Her version of Roman Catholicism did not allow for ready tolerance of other religions, and it is from this source that her well-known anti-semitism rises. She sought to deport Jews from the country and pummeled them economically with heavy taxation, though late in her reign Maria Theresa’s treatment of the Jewish community had improved relatively.
In 1857, her great-great-grandson, the emperor Franz Joseph I, gave the Maria Theresa silver thaler its official status as a trade dollar. The coins were so important to global commerce that numerous mints around the world have minted Maria Theresa thalers for commercial use. Maria Theresa thalers were especially popular in Africa and the Arab World, serving as legal tender in many nations until very recently.
1.) Elizabeth II
Which brings us to Queen Elizabeth II.
Of all the women on our list, she represents a unique case – the impact of her coinage has yet to be settled. Generations of historians, economists, and numismatists have studied Maria Theresa and her eponymous thaler. And while there’s always room for additional research and discovery, the general outlines of the coin’s usage, its scope, and impact on the world-at-large, are thought to be generally understood.
But imagine a future archaeologist happening upon the coinage of today hundreds of years from now. If he or she is looking at a representative sample of types from around the world, the percentage of coins with Elizabeth’s portrait on the obverse would have to lead to some amusing assumptions should much of our records be lost to time.
Was she the most important or powerful leader the world has ever known? Or was she the object of veneration of an incredibly widespread fertility cult?
The sheer number of coins produced in countries formerly, currently, and yet-to-be part of the British Empire that bear her portrait is staggering… and something to think about.
Elizabeth was born to the future king George VI on April 21, 1926. Her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in 1936, at which point her father became king and she became his presumptive heir.
After the national trauma of World War II, she married Prince Philip in 1947. Her first child, Prince Charles, was born in 1948. While the pair was in Kenya in 1952, her father died, and she became queen on February 6.
She became the longest-lived English monarch in late 2007, and on September 9, 2015, she became the longest-reigning British monarch ever, surpassing her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria in both instances. Just a few months ago, Elizabeth II turned 95.
A lot has happened in the six decades between 1952 and 2015, much of it being living memory and much of it televised. So we feel less of a need to build up the Queen’s story. Suffice it to say that Elizabeth has presided over a period of extreme change for Great Britain, Western Civilization, and the world in general–not the least of which was the postwar dismantling of the British Imperial system.
But it’s been an age of the image–a postmodern age, one might say–and the British monarch’s role, Elizabeth’s role, for most of the 20th and 21st centuries has been significantly more symbolic than functional*.
Much like the copious not-intended-for-circulation coinage from exotic island outposts that feature her effigy.
*Queen Elizabeth II does have the power to dissolve Parliament and rule without it (as would any monarch of the United Kingdom), but she is limited by the Bill of Rights 1689.