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Power Couples and Princesses in Purple: Coinage of Byzantine Empresses

Power Couples and Princesses in Purple: Coinage of Byzantine Empresses

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

In the Byzantine empire power was technically vested in the emperor. Nevertheless, a number of empresses played an important part in government and even took control… Most commonly empresses came to power as regents for young sons, implying a fixed period of caretaker government until the young emperor came of age, usually at sixteen. But not all regents were ready to step aside

                         --Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses (1999)

LIKE MOST TRADITIONAL societies, the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire (491-1453 CE) was a man’s world. Elite women were generally expected to bear children, weave, sew, and remain modestly secluded at home.

Some imperial women, however, rose to political power and some issued coins, either in their own names or with partners. A peculiarity of Byzantine history is that the same few female personal names occur repeatedly, while family names did not come into general use until after the ninth century, so when we say “Theodora” or “Eudokia” we must often add “wife of…” or “mother of…” to avoid confusion.

Many of these coins are highly collectible and in strong demand from growing numbers of collectors[1]. This article takes a closer look at these remarkable women and their coins.

Aelia Ariadne

ariadneBorn about the year 450 in Constantinople, Ariadne was the daughter of the Eastern Roman emperor Leo and his wife Verina. Her uncle was the short-lived emperor Basiliscus (ruled 475-476). In an era when naming daughters for Christian saints was increasingly the imperial fashion, she was named after a heroine from Greek mythology[2].

Aelia Ariadne played a crucial role in the transition from late Roman to Byzantine rule. In 466, she was married to Zeno, commander of the Isaurians, a fierce tribe of Anatolian mountain warriors recruited by the empire to counter-balance the growing influence of Germanic mercenaries. She bore a son, Leo II, who died in childhood. When Emperor Zeno died on April 9, 491, there was no successor. With the approval of the Senate, Ariadne chose a palace official, Anastasius (aged about 60), to become the new emperor. She married him the following month. Ariadne survived until 515. Anastasius died in 518 and was buried beside her.

Extremely rare gold coins were struck in Ariadne’s name during the reign of either Zeno or Anastasius; the dating is uncertain. An example of the solidus sold for over US$165,000 in a 2010 Swiss auction. Three other specimens are in museums. Examples of the gold tremissis are somewhat less rare, and have sold for over $25,000 in recent auctions.


Justinian the Great (ruled 527-565) and his famous Empress Theodora (who never appeared on the coinage) were childless.

When Justinian died, his successor was a nephew, Justin II. Justin’s wife, Sophia, was a niece of the empress Theodora, and, like her, presumably of humble origins (Theodora’s father was a bear-trainer; her mother, a dancer).

In 573 the Persians routed a Byzantine army in Mesopotamia, capturing a strategic fortress. At the same time, an outbreak of plague struck the empire. The crisis unhinged Justin’s mind, and his behavior became increasingly erratic.

Sophia took control of affairs. She paid the Persians 45,000 gold solidi for a temporary truce, and in 574 (during one of the emperor’s lucid intervals) persuaded Justin to adopt a competent military commander named Tiberius as his successor. Sophia and Tiberius ruled jointly for four years while Justin sank deeper into insanity.

Sophia never appears on the gold coins or the very rare silver of Justin’s reign, but the extensive and complex bronze coinage often features Justin and Sophia enthroned side by side. Each head is surrounded by a halo or nimbus, indicating their semi-divine status.

On the scarce bronze follis of their first year, the portraits are carefully executed. One of the finest known examples of this coin sold for over US$3,000 in a 2014 auction – an extraordinary price for a Byzantine bronze. Subsequent years show a steady deterioration in the workmanship of the dies, with the figures becoming increasingly stiff and schematic. Issues from the mint of Carthage show busts of Justin and Sophia above the word VITA (“Life”).

When Justin died in 578, Tiberius became sole emperor as Tiberius II Constantine, and Sophia lived out her days in honored retirement.



Irene was born to a prominent Athenian family about the year 750. In December of 769, she was chosen as a bride for Leo, the young son of Emperor Constantine V. Two years later she bore a son, named Constantine for his grandfather. When Constantine V died on September 14, 775, Irene’s husband became Emperor Leo IV[3]. Leo IV died of a fever while campaigning against the Bulgars in 780, leaving Irene as regent for her nine-year-old son, Constantine VI.

Irene appears with her son on the obverse of the gold coinage of this period, while the reverse proudly depicts three previous generations of this successful dynasty: Leo III, Constantine V, and Leo IV[4].

Irene skillfully survived a series of revolts and palace conspiracies. When her son came of age in 787, she refused to relinquish power. Leo IV had arranged for his son to marry Rotrud, a daughter of Charlemagne, a brilliant political marriage that might have helped heal divisions between East and West, but Irene broke off the engagement against young Constantine’s wishes. In 792, Irene issued new coins with her image alone on the obverse, consigning Constantine to the reverse. In 797 she ordered palace guards to blind her son (making him ineligible for the throne) and exiled him to a remote island where he later died. With no co-emperor to share the coinage, Irene boldly placed her own portrait on both sides of the gold solidus.

While not extremely rare, these notorious solidi of Irene are in high demand. A few years ago, nice specimens went for over US$10,000. Prices have eased recently, and a small number of Irene’s solidi from the mint of Syracuse in Sicily–in a much cruder style–have appeared on the market.

In 802, another palace conspiracy deposed Irene, who was exiled to the island of Lesbos where she died the following year. Her minister of finance was crowned as Emperor Nikeforos I (reigned 802-811).

Theodora, Mother of Michael III

The empress Theodora, wife of Theofilos (r. 829-842) and regent for her young son was a woman of intelligence, courage and wit. She not only restored the veneration of icons, while making certain it would be done with a minimum of recrimination and reprisals, but she also governed with wisdom and strength, organizing military campaigns and leaving a full treasury when she was overthrown.” (Laiou 25-6)

Born about the year 815 to an aristocratic Armenian family, Theodora was chosen as a bride in May of 830 for 16-year-old emperor Theofilos. She bore five daughters and two sons, including the future Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867). Following the death of Theofilos in 842, Theodora appears as Empress Regent on the obverse of the gold coinage, with her son Michael and eldest daughter Thecla on the reverse. The coin is quite scarce, with only about a dozen examples appearing in major auctions since the year 2000. The record price was over US$17,000 in 2013.

In 855 a palace conspiracy deposed Theodora, who was exiled to a convent. She was later made a saint of the Orthodox Church for her role in ending the Iconoclast controversy, which had wracked the empire for over a century[5].

Eudokia Ingerina

EudociaIngerinaBorn about the year 840, Eudokia (or Eudocia) was the daughter of Inger, one of the Varangian guards, elite Scandinavian mercenaries who served as imperial bodyguards. Famed for her beauty, about the year 855 she became the mistress of Michael III, much to the displeasure of his mother, Theodora.

To avoid scandal, Michael arranged for Eudokia to marry his friend Basil.

When Basil seized the throne in September 867 by murdering Michael, she became empress. She bore two sons: Leo, a future emperor (r. 886-912), and Stephen, a future Patriarch of Constantinople (served 886-893). Officially Basil’s, her sons may have been fathered by Michael. It all gets very… well, you know.

On scarce coins of Basil I, Eudokia appears on the reverse with her ill-fated stepson, another Constantine (died 879), son of Basil’s first wife Maria. This may have been the initial coronation issue of 868, or possibly a memorial issue of 882 marking the death of Eudokia (the evidence is insufficient either way). Only a half dozen examples of the type have appeared in recent auctions, with the finest selling for US$47,500 in the epic 2009 Stack’sMoneta Imperii Byzantini” sale[6].

Zoe and Theodora, Daughters of Constantine VIII

Zoe (born c. 978) and Theodora (born 980) were the daughters of Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028), who failed to produce a male heir. In 1028, Zoe married Romanos, city prefect[7] of Constantinople.

Three days later Constantine VIII died and Romanos became emperor.

theodoraRomanos himself was either poisoned or drowned in his bath–possibly on Zoe’s orders–on April 11, 1034, whereupon Zoe immediately married her handsome 24-year-old boyfriend, who was crowned the next day as Michael IV.

Unfortunately, Michael suffered from epilepsy and died in 1041. Zoe adopted Michael’s nephew (born 1015), who was duly crowned as Michael V. When he tried to banish Zoe to a convent and rule as sole emperor, the population of Constantinople revolted. They loved and revered the two sisters as the last survivors of the glorious “Macedonian” dynasty descended from Basil I. Zoe and her reclusive sister Theodora were proclaimed co-empresses–unprecedented in the Empire’s long history. Arrested, blinded and castrated[8], Michael was packed off to a monastery where he shortly died, aged 26 or 27.

The joint reign of Zoe and Theodora lasted just seven weeks (April 19 – June 11, 1042). One of the rarest and most desired Byzantine coins was struck during this brief interval.

The obverse depicts the Virgin Mary with her hands raised in prayer. On the reverse, half-length figures of the sisters, richly crowned and robed, stand side by side, holding between them a labarum (the Roman military standard associated with the victories of the first Constantine). This coin was unknown until 1953 when a small hoard (possibly eight coins) was found in Turkey. It appears that less than 20 genuine examples are known, most now in museums. The type has appeared about four times in recent auctions, with a top price of US$190,000 in the Heritage Long Beach sale of September 3, 2014.

The sisters hated one another and fought bitterly, so, with the approval of the Senate, Zoe married a popular exiled court official who was then crowned as Constantine IX on June 11, 1042. When he died in 1055, Theodora, now 70, was recalled to the throne. Although she reigned for only a year, her gold coinage is surprisingly abundant, bearing a standing figure of Christ on the obverse and standing figures of the empress and the Virgin Mary on the reverse. Typical examples go for US$3,000 to $4,000 at auction.

Eudokia Makrembolitissa


Born about 1021, Eudokia Makrembolitissa was a niece of the powerful Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Keroularios (served 1043-1059). Sometime before 1050 she married an aristocrat named Constantine Doukas, who was chosen as a successor by the ailing and childless Emperor Isaac I Komnenos. Doukas was crowned Constantine X on November 24, 1059. Eudokia bore four sons and two daughters who survived to adulthood.

When Constantine died in 1067, Eudokia ruled for seven months as regent for her sons Michael VII (ruled 1071 – 1078) and Constantine (died 1081). The scarce coinage of her regency, which is slightly cup-shaped, bears the image of Christ on the obverse and a standing figure of Eudokia flanked by her sons on the reverse. Choice examples of this coin have sold for as much as US$6,000 in recent sales. In 2007, I paid $1,250 for one with a small Greek monogram for “Michael” scratched into the reverse.

Anna of Savoy

AnnaofSavoyAnna of Savoy is the last woman to appear on a Byzantine coin.

Born in 1306, she was the daughter of Amadeo, Count of Savoy[9]. In 1326 she married Andronikos III Palaiologos, emperor of a Byzantine state that had been reduced to the city of Constantinople and a few islands and coastal outposts around the Aegean. She bore two daughters and two sons.

When Andronikos died suddenly in 1341, Anna ruled as regent for her nine-year-old son, John V.

The coinage of her regency (1341-1347) is almost unbelievably ugly. Carelessly struck with crude dies in debased gold, most surviving examples have serious edge cracks. The inscriptions are garbled and fragmentary. The obverse images of Anna and John are mere stick figures, and the reverse (showing the deceased Andronikos kneeling before Christ) is no better. Understandably, these scarce coins are quite reasonably priced when they appear on the market, typically US$400-650.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to the true Byzantine collector, these bits of scrap are lovely treasures.

* * *


[1] When this writer began collecting Byzantine coins in 1996, a leading dealer told him that there were only about 20 serious collectors in the world. Judging from the fierce competition for prized rarities in current auctions, today there must be several hundred.

[2] That earlier Ariadne helped the Athenian hero Theseus escape from the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth. He then abandoned her on the island of Naxos. What a jerk.

[3] He was known as “Leo the Khazar” because his mother was a princess of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe that, according to legend, converted to Judaism in order to avoid taking sides in the struggle between Islam and Christianity. The date and authenticity of this story is disputed.

[4] Berk (1986) #234 says: “Value of this example is greatly weighted by how many portraits are struck up. The issue is plagued with flat spots.” The example illustrated, from the author’s collection, is among the finest known.

[5] For a balanced introduction to this complex theological controversy, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm.

[6] Stack’s Moneta Imperii Romani Byzantini, 12 January 2009, Lot 3213

[7] Something between mayor and chief of police.

[8] The “game of thrones” in Constantinople was played by unforgiving rules.

[9] In 1861, the rulers of the House of Savoy would become the kings of Italy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Savoy.


Bellinger, Alfred, et. al. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. 5 volumes. Washington (1966-1999)

Berk, Harlan. Roman Gold Coins of the Medieval World. Joliet (1986)

Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses. Routledge (1999)

Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. California (1982)

Herrin, Judth. Byzantium, The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton (2007)

Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton (2001)

James, Liz (ed.) Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium. Routledge (1997)

Laiou, Angeliki. “Women in the History of Byzantium”, Byzantine Women and Their World. Ioli Kalavrezou, ed. Harvard (2003)

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

* * *

Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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.”

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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