HomeThe Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins

By Elena Stolyarik for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……

The Byzantine Empire, which lasted more than a thousand years, had one of the most monetized economies in medieval Europe. The coinage of Byzantium was an essential element of this unique civilization, which preserved Roman law and state structures and inherited not only the Hellenistic cultural tradition, but also a powerful organizing force–Christianity.

From the beginning, Byzantine coins followed the Late Roman iconographic tradition, which took shape gradually under Constantine I (306–337). At the accession of the emperor Anastasius I (491–518), there were three denominations of gold coins: the solidus (in Greek, nomisma) and its fractions, the semissis (half) and tremissis (third), along with a tiny copper coin known as a nummus. The typical obverse of the Byzantine solidus at the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the sixth was a three-quarter frontal bust of the emperor, usually in armor and holding a spear. The reverse type depicted Victory in profile supporting a cross.

However, the next Byzantine ruler, Justin I (518–527), modified the obverse image to a full-face frontal bust, and the image of Victory on the reverse was replaced by a facing angel.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 1. Anastasius I (491–518). ANS 1948.19.132.
The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 2. Justin I (518–527). ANS 1966.196.3.

Under Justinian I (527–565), the emperor’s appearance was slightly changed and the spear in his right hand was switched to a globus cruciger, which symbolized the divinely bestowed universal power of the emperor.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 3. Justinian I (527–565). ANS 1948.19.743.

Justin II (565–578) chose a seated personification of Constantinople for the reverse of his solidi, while Tiberius II (578–582) used a simpler image of a cross on steps as the reverse type for his solidi. This cross supposedly symbolized a monumental cross that Theodosius II erected on Golgotha around 420.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 4. Justin II (565–578). ANS 1977.158.1035.
The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 5. Tiberius II (578–582). ANS 1973.56.125.

The images of the emperor on coins in the late fifth and sixth centuries didn’t have any personal features. However, the beginning of the seventh century saw great modifications. A more individual portrait was introduced under the emperor Phocas (602–610). He appears on his coins as a bearded man (his predecessors are nearly always shown clean-shaven) with shaggy hair, holding a cross rather than a globus cruciger. The reverse of these solidi bears a standing angel, similar to that on the solidi of Justin I.

Figure 6. Phocas (602–610). ANS 1968.131.76.

Under Heraclius (610–641), the coinage reflected the arrangements that the emperor made for his succession. He appeared first with his eldest son Heraclius Constantine and later with his second son Heraclonas, and finally both sons appear standing on each side of their father.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 7. Heraclius (610–641). ANS 1968.131.99.

Strong elements of portraiture are present on the coins of the late seventh century. The monetary issues of the first reign of Justinian II (685–695) portray the young emperor with youthful features. When the general Leontius (695–698) deposed the emperor and exiled him to the distant Byzantine themes of Cherson (modern Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine), the coins portray the fat, bearded Leontius instead.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 8. Justinian II (685–695). ANS 1944.100.14570.
The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 9. Leontius (695–698). ANS 1944.100.14574.

At the end of the seventh century, one of the most important changes in Byzantine coin design occurred.

The image of Christ Pantocrator (depicting Christ in the role of ruler and judge), first appeared on the solidi of Justinian II’s first reign (685–695). It is a realistic facing bearded bust, with the right hand raised in benediction and holding a Gospel book in the left. This type is derived from well-known Byzantine icons and mosaics.

Interestingly, when Justinian II placed this image on the obverse of his coins, he moved his own image to the reverse, where he is shown holding a cross borrowed from earlier types. A very different portrait of Christ appeared on gold coins during Justinian II’s second reign (705–711). It represents Christ in a formal linear style as a youthful man with closely curled hair. Some literary sources suggest that this depiction probably originated in Palestine.

The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 10. Justinian II, first reign (685–695). ANS 1977.158.1095.
The Changing Iconography of Byzantine Gold Coins
Figure 11. Mosaic of Christ, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, sixth century.
Figure 12. Justinian II, second reign (705–711). ANS 1958.76.3.

The concept of Christ Pantocrator is an Eastern Christian view that differs from the more Western view of Christ the Redeemer. The idea of a divine ruler of the universe was deeply rooted in Greek culture, reaching back to Zeus, who bestowed the right to rule on Hellenistic kings and was also considered a divine judge.

The individualized portraiture of the seventh century was replaced again, during the so-called Iconoclast period when worshiping of icons was prohibited (726–843), by imperial busts drawn in a linear manner without any attempt at portraiture. The previous cross on the reverse was replaced by images intended to promote dynastic continuity. Most often, the emperor’s son was elevated to co-emperor and depicted on the reverse, although some coins in the eighth and ninth centuries show ancestors of the emperor instead. The coinage of this period is characterized by a high degree of simplification.

Figure 13. Leo IV (776–778). ANS 1948.19.2476.

In the mid-ninth century, new changes in the coin types occurred, connected with the restoration of icon worship. Michael III (842–867) reintroduced a bust of Christ on his solidi, similar to the one on the coins of Justinian II. In 867, Basil I, the founder of the famous Macedonian dynasty, replaced the image of Christ Pantocrator with an image of Christ enthroned. From this time on, images of Christ appeared regularly on Byzantine coins.

Figure 14. Michael III (842–867). ANS 1977.158.1148.
Figure 15. Basil I (867–886). ANS 1977.158.1150.

The image of Christ seated on a throne with the inscription “rex regnantium” (“king of those who rule”) had a special meaning. It was intended to convey that Christ and the emperor shared power and that God rules his earthly subjects through the emperor, his chosen instrument, who should be venerated as God’s representative.

Figure 16. Leo VI (886–912). ANS 1968.131.283 reverse.
Figure 17. Constantine VII (913–959). ANS 1946.51.81 reverse.

Some coins of the 10th and 11th centuries have individualized portraits rather than a generic imperial figure, such as those of Leo VI (886–912) and his son Constantine VII (913–959), but usually they do not. The rare gold coin of Zoe and Theodora, the daughters of Constantine VII and the last of the great Macedonian dynasty (1042), for example, lacks any recognizable features, even though these two sisters were said to be very different in personal appearance.

Figure 18. Zoe and Theodora (1042). ANS 1977.158.932.

The absence of personalized portraiture in Byzantine coin iconography was connected with a belief that the imperial image represented the emperor’s “eternal body” rather than his physical features. The undifferentiated imperial images on most Byzantine coins are a depiction of this religious significance.

The obverse of the solidus of Zoe and Theodora bears an image of the Virgin, with hands raised in the traditional gesture of prayer, with a medallion of the infant Christ. The image of the Virgin was introduced by Leo VI, who was especially devoted to her cult. After occasional appearances in 10th-century coinage, this image reappeared in subsequent reigns, either alone or conjointly with the emperor.

Figure 19. Leo VI (886–912). ANS 1968.131.283 obverse.
Figure 20. Nicephorus (933–969). ANS 1980.109.296 reverse.

In the 11th century, when the Byzantines came under severe pressure from the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor, Michael IV (1034–1041) took the unprecedented step of debasing the solidus. Along with the debasement, the form of the coins changed significantly under Constantine IX (1042–1055). They were struck in a concave shape called “scyphate”, a term found in Italian documents of the 11th and 12th centuries, meaning cup-shaped. Usually the image of Christ was on the convex side and a representation of the emperor on the concave side.

Figure 21. Michael IV (1034–1041). ANS 1946.51.102.
Figure 22. Constantine IX (1042–1055). ANS 1968.131.322.

Despite the declining fineness of the gold coins, their designs remained varied and interesting. A particularly unusual type appears on the gold nomisma of Romanus IV (1069–1071), showing Christ between the emperor and the empress. This type is stylistically similar to an ivory relief that represents Romanus II (945–963) and Eudoxia crowned by Christ.

Figure 23. Romanus IV (1069–1071). ANS1944.100.14730 reverse.
Figure 24. Ivory relief. Christ blessing Romanus II and Eudokia (ca. 945–949). Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles. Paris. France.

In the disastrous years after the Battle of Manzikert (1071), the fineness of the solidi was reduced from 24 karats to 8 karats. In the 1080s, during the early years of Alexius I (1081–1118), the amount of gold in the solidus dropped almost to none.

Figure 25. Alexius I (1081–1092), pre-reform solidus. ANS 1968.131.364.

Alexius I accomplished a major monetary reform in 1092, introducing a new good-quality gold coin, the hyperpyron, though the fineness was set to only 20½ karats instead of the traditional 24 karats. This issue was accompanied by an electrum piece, the aspron, which was worth one-third of the hyperpyron. The obverse type of these post-reform coins usually shows images of Christ or the Virgin, while the reverses normally show a standing emperor, or the emperor accompanied by either Christ or the Virgin. The image of the emperor with the Virgin was later reflected on the Venetian grosso.

Figure 26. Alexius I, post reform (1092). ANS 1948.19.521.
Figure 27. Manuel I (1143–1180) ANS 1947.3.67.

The empire survived the disaster of 1204 when Constantinople was captured and barbarically plundered by crusaders and temporarily became the seat of the Latin Empire (1204–1261). However, the hyperpyra struck by the Greek emperors in exile were gradually debased, falling to 18 or even 16 karats.

In 1261, Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259–1285) recovered Constantinople. He reduced the hyperpyron to 15 karats but introduced a new representation of the Virgin, rising from the wall of Constantinople. With this new type, the emperor proclaimed the return of the Byzantine Empire to the capital; it became the norm for the obverse of hyperpyron until the end of the gold coinage in the mid-14th century. The reverse of Michael’s gold coins shows the emperor kneeling before Christ, accompanied by the Archangel Michael. This type served to declare the support of heaven for the emperor’s power.

Figure 28. Michael VIII (1261–1382). ANS 1977.158.1249.

Michael VIII’s son Andronicus II (1285–1330) introduced a new type depicting the emperor bowing down before Christ on his hyperpyra. This image is well known from a famous mosaic of the late ninth century in the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) cathedral in Constantinople, showing Leo VI (886–912) performing this act of proskynesis before Christ. The use of this type on the coins of Andronicus II emphasized the Palaeologan dynasty’s claim of connection with God. The fineness of the hyperpyron was reduced to 12 karats during the reign of Andronicus.

Figure 29. Andronicus II (1282–1330). ANS 1958.76.26.
Figure 30. Mosaic of Leo VI. “Hagia Sofia”. Constantinople (Modern Istanbul, Turkey).

The last hyperpyron of traditional design, which effectively marks the end of imperial gold coinage, was struck in the mid-14th century.

At that time, the Byzantine Empire was under enormous pressure from the Turks, and its economic system had been irrecoverably disrupted. During the empire’s last decades, its borders had shrunk until they included only Constantinople itself and parts of southern Greece.

In the spring of 1453, Sultan Mehmet II began his attack on the capital. The battle raged for seven weeks and the end came on May 29, 1453. On that day, after a thousand years of existence, the Byzantine Empire disappeared from the political map. However, the living memory of the vanished empire, as well as Byzantine tradition inherited centuries earlier from the Roman Empire, contributed to the dawning European Renaissance.


American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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