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Coins of Justinian the Great

Justinian I. AI Generated. Image: Adobe Stock.
Justinian I. AI Generated. Image: Adobe Stock.

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

THE COURTROOM OF the United States Supreme Court is adorned with marble relief panels depicting great lawgivers of history. The sculptor was Adolph A. Weinman (1870 – 1952), familiar to American coin collectors as the designer of the Walking Liberty half dollar and the Mercury dime. On the north wall, at the far right, stands Byzantine emperor Justinian I, whose massive compilation of Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis[1], is remembered as “Justinian’s Code”.

Image: Adobe Stock.
Image: Adobe Stock.

Born to a peasant family in what is now North Macedonia[2] about the year 482 CE, Justinian earned his epithet “the Great” as a conqueror, a builder, an administrator, and, according to some contemporaries, a monster. The coinage of his long reign (527-565 CE) illustrates his extraordinary career.

Coins of the Joint Reign of Justin and Justinian

Justin I and Justinian I (4 April-1 August AD 527). Gold solidus. SB 114. 21mm, 4.51 gm.. Image: Heritage Auctions.
Justin I and Justinian I (4 April-1 August AD 527). Gold solidus. SB 114. 21mm, 4.51 gm.. Image: Heritage Auctions.

Justinian’s uncle, Justin, was a tough soldier who rose through the ranks to command the Imperial Guard. When 87-year-old emperor Anastasius died on July 9, 518, Justin became emperor. Having no son, he adopted his nephew and made sure that he received a first-rate education. In April 527, as his own health failed, Justin made Justinian co-emperor.

For about five months, coins were issued in the name of both rulers. The gold solidus is inscribed D N IVSTIN ЄT IVSTINIAN PP AVG (“Our Lords Justin and Justinian, Eternal Emperors”). The obverse shows the two emperors seated side by side on thrones[3]. There are about 14 varieties of this rare coin; it must have been a large issue. On some examples, the emperors hold globes; on others, they hold scrolls, or nothing. The reverse, a standing angel holding a cross and globe, was copied from Justin’s regular coinage.

Justin I & Justinian I. 527. Bronze Follis Antioch mint. SB 130 var. 31mm, 16.70 g. Image: CNG.
Justin I & Justinian I. 527. Bronze Follis Antioch mint. SB 130 var. 31mm, 16.70 g. Image: CNG.

The mint of Antioch, an important Byzantine city in Syria, produced a series of bronze coins for the joint reign of Justin and Justinian. The obverse shows facing busts of the emperors, the reverse bears a large Greek numeral (M for “40 nummi”) as a mark of denomination[4].

Gold Solidus of Justinian

JUSTINIAN I (527-565). Gold Solidus. Constantinople. 4.46 g. 20 mm. Sear 137. Image: Numismatik Naumann.
JUSTINIAN I (527-565). Gold Solidus. Constantinople. 4.46 g. 20 mm. Sear 137. Image: Numismatik Naumann.

Early gold solidi of Justinian closely copy the coins of his uncle; the only difference is the name. The obverse shows a “3/4 facing” helmeted bust of the emperor in armor, with a spear over his shoulder[5]. This formal style, which makes no effort to create a realistic portrait of the ruler, dated back to the reign of Constantius II (337-361). In 538, Justinian changed the obverse design to a stiff facing bust of the emperor holding a globe topped by a cross[6]. Very fine examples of these coins from the mint of Constantinople, produced in enormous quantities, currently go for about $500 USD at auction.

Justinian I. 527-565. Gold Solidus Alexandria mint. Struck circa 527-538. unpublished in standard references. Possibly only the sixth known. 22mm, 4.45 g. Image: CNG.
Justinian I. 527-565. Gold Solidus Alexandria mint. Struck circa 527-538. unpublished in standard references. Possibly only the sixth known. 22mm, 4.45 g. Image: CNG.

Among the rarest collectible gold coins of Justinian are solidi minted at Alexandria in Egypt. These are distinguished by the mint mark ALEXAOB. The “OB” stands for obryzum, a technical term for highly refined gold. Less than a dozen of these coins are known. In 2017, an example graded as “Superb EF” brought $85,000 at auction[7].

An enigmatic and poorly understood group of gold coins are the “lightweight” solidi, which first appear during the reign of Justinian and continue for about a century. These are often found outside the boundaries of the Empire, and they may have been intended for use in foreign trade, as diplomatic gifts, or as bribes to barbarian chieftains. The standard solidus weighed 24 siliquae. A siliqua was originally the weight of one seed of the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua, about 0.2 grams). Large quantities of lightweight solidi were issued at standards of 20 and 22 siliquae–in effect, discounted by one sixth and one twelfth, respectively. Various mint marks were used to distinguish these issues, typically OBXX for the 20 and OB*+* for the 22 siliqua types[8].

Medallion

Justinian I. 527-565. Pair of Gilt Electrotypes of Constantinople mint 36 Solidi Medal. Made from the original sulfur cast in the British Museum of the now lost original from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Image: CNG.
Justinian I. 527-565. Pair of Gilt Electrotypes of Constantinople mint 36 Solidi Medal. Made from the original sulfur cast in the British Museum of the now lost original from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Image: CNG.

Justinian’s most spectacular coin no longer exists. This gold medallion of 36 solidi was 85 mm (3.35 inches) in diameter and would have weighed about 162 grams (5.2 troy ounces!) when it was struck.

Created as a presentation piece for high officials, it celebrates the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals in 534. On the reverse, the winged figure of Victory leads a horse ridden by the emperor in military garb. The inscription SALVS ET GLORIA ROMANORVM hails the “well-being and glory of the Romans.” The unique example was found in 1751 near Caesarea in Anatolia and acquired for the French royal collection. Stolen in 1831, it was melted down, but the British Museum preserved a cast in sulfur and high-fidelity gilded electrotype[9] copies of the obverse and reverse were made[10]. One of these museum replicas brought $16,000 in a 2022 U.S. auction[11].

Fractional Gold

Two “fractional” gold denominations were issued throughout the reign.

Justinian I. 527-565. Gold Semissis Constantinople. Struck 527-552. 17.5mm, 2.18 g, SB 143. Image: CNG.
Justinian I. 527-565. Gold Semissis Constantinople. Struck 527-552. 17.5mm, 2.18 g, SB 143. Image: CNG.

The semissis of about 2.25 grams was valued at one-half solidus. It bore a profile portrait of the emperor on the obverse, and a seated figure of Victory inscribing a shield on the reverse.

Justinian I Gold Tremissis. Constantinople, AD 527-565.19; 1.50g, 17mm. Sear 145. Image: Roma.
Justinian I Gold Tremissis. Constantinople, AD 527-565.19; 1.50g, 17mm. Sear 145. Image: Roma.

The much more common tremissis of 1.5 grams was worth one-third solidus, and had the same obverse, with a standing figure of Victory holding a wreath and cross on globe as the reverse[12]. The tremissis was widely imitated by the Germanic invaders who took over much of the Roman Empire in the West. They continued issuing gold coins in the name of Justinian long after Justinian’s death. Coinage is conservative!

Miliarense

Justinian I. 527-565. Silver Heavy Miliarense Constantinople. Struck 527-538. 22mm, 4.92 g. SB 149. Image: CNG.
Justinian I. 527-565. Silver Heavy Miliarense Constantinople. Struck 527-538. 22mm, 4.92 g. SB 149. Image: CNG.

During the sixth century CE, silver almost disappeared as a regular part of the circulating coinage in the Byzantine Empire. A small quantity of silver miliarenses was produced, perhaps to pay mercenaries or as imperial gifts on ceremonial occasions. There were rare “heavy” versions (about five grams[13]) and more common “light” versions (about four grams or less). Often carelessly struck, these are seldom seen in high grades.

Siliqua

Justinian I, Silver Siliqua 527-538, 2.18 g. Sear 155. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.
Justinian I, Silver Siliqua 527-538, 2.18 g. Sear 155. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Justinian also issued a small silver coin of about two grams, bearing a profile portrait on the obverse and a standing figure of the emperor on the reverse with the Latin inscription GLORIA ROMANORVM (“Glory of the Romans”). We do not know what this coin was called; modern numismatists call it a siliqua since it probably took 24 to equal the value of a gold solidus[14].

Follis

Justinian I, Bronze Follis. c. 527-538, Constantinople. 18.10 g., 33 mm. Sear 160. Image: Numismatik Naumann.
Justinian I, Bronze Follis. c. 527-538, Constantinople. 18.10 g., 33 mm. Sear 160. Image: Numismatik Naumann.

Small change was a big problem in the ancient world. There was usually never enough of it to meet the needs of an urban population, where people need to make small purchases daily. A bronze (or nearly pure copper) coin of about 18 grams called a follis (a Latin word that originally meant “purse”) was the basic currency of the working class.

For the first 12 years of his reign, Justinian repeated the design of his uncle’s follis: a rather crude profile portrait on the obverse, and a large M between two stars on the reverse, with a mint mark below: CON for Constantinople[15]; NIKO for Nikomedia; KYZ for Cyzicus; KART for Carthage; and so on. M is the Greek numeral for 40, because the value of the coin was 40 nummi. The nummus, a tiny copper coin, was no longer issued, but small change was still denominated in this unit.

Justinian I; 527-565 AD, Follis, Constantinople, Year 12=538/9 AD, 23.68g. DO-37a. Image: Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.
Justinian I; 527-565 AD, Follis, Constantinople, Year 12=538/9 AD, 23.68g. DO-37a. Image: Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.

In 538, Justinian changed the obverse design to a facing helmeted bust in armor, and added the word ANNO (“in the Year”) and a Roman numerals for his regnal year to the reverse[16]. The weight of the coin was increased to as much as 24 grams, although this would gradually decline in subsequent years. In numismatist Harlan J. Berk’s book of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #98 (Berk, 121).

In 542, Constantinople was devastated by the bubonic plague, which killed as much as a fifth of the population[17]. Justinian himself caught the disease, but recovered. This outbreak occurred in Years 15 and 16 of his reign.

And while it is unlikely that, after 1,482 years, plague bacteria survive on coins dated to these years, I still wouldn’t lick any of them.

Half Follis

JUSTINIAN I. 527-565 AD. Æ Half Follis (8.43 gm, 12h). Rome mint. Struck 540-542 AD. D [N IVSTINI]ANVS P P AV, diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right / Large K; flanked by star and cross; all within wreath. DOC I 325a; MIB I 222; SB 301. Image CNG.
JUSTINIAN I. 527-565 AD. Æ Half Follis (8.43 gm, 12h). Rome mint. Struck 540-542 AD. D [N IVSTINI]ANVS P P AV, diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right / Large K; flanked by star and cross; all within wreath. DOC I 325a; MIB I 222; SB 301. Image CNG.
In December 536, Justinian’s brilliant general Belisarius captured Rome from the Goths. During the long Gothic War (535-554 CE) the city changed hands five times. The mint of Rome struck coins in the name of Justinian that bear an unusual diademed profile portrait, including a half follis[18] featuring a large K as the mark of value (K is the Greek numeral for 20; the half follis was rated at 20 nummi.) The diadem, a golden headband, was an ancient symbol of royalty.

The great American numismatist Wayne Sayles describes this coin portrait:

The stylized hair, large spiritualistic eyes and lifeless diadem serve to minimize the worldly aspects of the subject. On the other hand, the high relief and sculptural quality of the jaw, chin, and cheekbones create a sense of depth that is unusual for the time. The bullish neck and stern set to the mouth lend an aura of power and stability (Sayles, 167).

Dekanummion

JUSTINIAN I. Bronze Decanummium, Ravenna. Dated RY 34 (560/1 AD). 4.61 g. SB 326. Image: CNG.
JUSTINIAN I. Bronze Decanummium, Ravenna. Dated RY 34 (560/1 AD). 4.61 g. SB 326. Image: CNG.

Weighing a little less than five grams, the dekanummion (or decanummium) bore the Greek numeral for 10, I (iota). An example from year 34 (560/561 CE) is attributed to the mint of Ravenna in Italy.

A cataloguer writes:

“[O]n stylistic grounds Ravenna seems the proper attribution. These 10 nummi are generally noted with finer style portraits, and as capital of Byzantine Italy Ravenna would have attracted the most talented engravers.”[19]

Pentanummion

Justinian I. Bronze Pentanummium. Carthage. 542-547. 15mm, 2.37 g SB 274. Image: CNG.
Justinian I. Bronze Pentanummium. Carthage. 542-547. 15mm, 2.37 g SB 274. Image: CNG.

The smallest regular denomination produced by most mints during Justinian’s reign was the 2.5-gram pentanummion, valued at five nummi, with a large ϵ as the mark of denomination (the Greek letter epsilon, which was the numeral for 5). The obverse of an example from the mint of Carthage is described by a cataloguer:

“Marvelous hook-nosed portrait, almost a caricature of Justinian’s features.”[20]

Minted in vast quantities and often poorly struck, these little coins are hard to find in high grade but they can be quite affordable.

Collecting the Coins of Justinian the Great

Our most important source for the life of Justinian is found in the writings of his contemporary, the historian Procopius[21] of Caesarea (c. 500 – 565 CE): the History of the Wars, Buildings, and especially the Secret History, a collection of court gossip that represents a savage attack on the character of the emperor and his empress, Theodora. Lost for centuries, a single manuscript survived in the Vatican library, and was only published in 1623.

A standard reference for collectors (Sear, 1987) list 209 coin types for Justinian. Another 27 types are listed for the brief joint reign of Justin and Justinian. In sale catalogs, coins are commonly listed by “Sear number”, abbreviated “SB” (Sear Byzantine), or by their reference in the massive five-volume Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue (Bellinger, 1966).

On the CoinArchives Pro database, a recent search on the term “Justinian I” produced 12,090 hits, of which 3,869 were gold solidi. Any major ancient coin auction is likely to include a number of coins from this long reign. The vast coinage of Justinian the Great offers something for collectors of all budgets, and a wide range of interests.

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Notes

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

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

[3] Heritage Long Beach Sale, September 6, 2012, Lot 25306. Realized $9,000 USD (estimate $2,000 – 3,000).

[4] CNG E-Auction 324, April 9, 2014, Lot 512. Realized $450 USD (estimate $200).

[5] Numismatik Naumann Auction 130, July 2, 2023, Lot 824. Realized €450 (about $491 USD; estimate €240).

[6] Leu Numismatik Web Auction 28, December 9, 2023, Lot 4895. Realized CHF $455 (about $517 USD; estimate CHF 100).

[7] CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 1043. Realized $85,000 USD (estimate $50,000).

[8] CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 1035. Realized $475 USD (estimate $500).

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

[10] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_B-13086

[11] CNG Triton XXV, 11 January 2022, Lot 1035. Realized $16,000 USD (estimate $2,500).

[12] Roma Numismatics E-sale 116, 18 January 2024, Lot 1523. Realized £460 (about $582 USD; estimate £250).

[13] CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 1015. Realized $2,250 USD (estimate $1,000).

[14] NAC Auction 75, November 18, 2013, Lot 473. Realized CHF 400 (about $439 USD; estimate CHF 250).

[15] Numismatik Naumann Auction 126, March 5, 2023, Lot 1024. Realized €190 (about $201 USD; estimate €80).

[16] Harlan J. Berk, Sale 183, March 28, 2013, Lot 409. Realized $450 USD.

[17] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_of_Justinian

[18] CNG Triton VIII, January 11, 2005, Lot 1321. Realized $500 USD (estimate $500).

[19] CNG, Triton VIII, January 11, 2005, Lot 1323. Realized $180 USD (estimate $300).

[20] CNG E-auction 174, October 10, 2007,Lot 250. Realized $245 USD (estimate $100).

[21] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procopius
 

References

Adelson, Howard. Light Weight Solidi and Byzantine Trade During the Sixth and Seventh Centuries. ANS Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 138. New York (1957)

Bellinger, Alfred, et. al. Catalog of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume I. Washington, D.C. (1966)

Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Whitman: Pelham, AL (2019)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. Berkeley (1982)

Hahn, Wolfgang. Money of the Incipient Byzantine Empire (Anastasius I-Justinian I, 491-565). Vienna (2000)

Hahn, Wolfgang and William Metcalf. Studies in Early Byzantine Gold Coinage. New York (1988)

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

Procopius (H.B. Dewing, translator). Secret History. Cambridge, MA (1935)

Sayles, Wayne. Ancient Coin Collecting V: The Romaion/Byzantine Culture. Iola, WI (1998)

Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values, 2nd Edition. London (1987)

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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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