By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.
— Attributed to Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965)
THE SLAVS BEGAN migrating into southeastern Europe during the chaotic sixth century, interacting – sometimes as adversaries, sometimes as subjects or allies – with the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire. By the time of Prince Mutimir (ruled c. 850-891), many Serbs had converted to Orthodox Christianity. In 1219, under the leadership of Archbishop St. Sava, the Serbian Orthodox Church became independent from Constantinople.
Born about 1192, Stefan Radoslav was the son of King Stefan Nemanjic, known as “Stefan the First Crowned” (Stefan Prvovenčani). His mother was a Byzantine princess, Eudokia Angelina, and his brother was the future St. Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Radoslav was strongly influenced by his wife Anna, another Byzantine princess and daughter of Theodore Komnenos Doukas (ruler of the Byzantine successor state of Epirus, 1215-1230).
On his coins, Radoslav used his Greek name, Stephanos Doukas. These coins are cup-shaped billon trachys, closely modeled on contemporary Byzantine issues. The obverse (convex side) bears an image of Christ enthroned. The reverse depicts Stefan standing beside St. Constantine, both clad in imperial robes.
These rare coins have mostly been found in the vicinity of Radoslav’s capital, the fortress of Ras (now Stari Ras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southwest of modern Serbia). In medieval sources, the Serbian kingdom is often called Rascia or Raška.
Stefan Uroš I
Born about 1223, Stefan Uroš I is remembered as Uroš Veliki (“Urosh the Great”). He was the youngest son of Stefan the First-Crowned. His mother Anna was the daughter of the Venetian doge (“duke”) Enrico Dandolo, who led the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople in 1204. Stefan Uroš won his throne in 1243 by defeating his half-brother Vladislav in a civil war. He married Helen of Anjou, a French noblewoman later canonized as St. Jelena by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
An energetic ruler, Uroš encouraged mining in the kingdom, importing skilled Saxon mine workers from the gold mines of the Carpathian Mountains. He reformed the coinage, with a massive issue of silver coins modeled on the high-quality Venetian grosso that was gaining wide acceptance as an international trade currency. In numismatic references, the terms gros and dinar are both used for these coins. On the coin, Stefan stands beside his namesake St. Stephen, patron of his Nemanjic dynasty. The Latin inscription identifies him as UROSIUS REX (“King Urosh”). Two sons of Uroš succeeded him in turn.
Eldest son of Stefan Uroš, Dragutin was born about 1244. He revolted against his father with Hungarian assistance, forcing him to abdicate and enter a monastery in 1276. Dragutin married a Hungarian princess, Katalina, daughter of King Stephen V. Continuing his father’s monetary policy, Dragutin issued silver coins that copied the Venetian grosso. On some issues, the saint hands the king a double-barred “Patriarchal” cross, rather than a banner.
In 1282, Dragutin was seriously injured falling from his horse, and he abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin. After his abdication, as ruler of Srem (1284-1316), a border province he was granted by his Hungarian relatives, Dragutin ordered a radical re-design of his coinage, placing his crowned standing image alone on the obverse, with the inscription “Stefan Servant of Christ” in Cyrillic rather than Latin letters. The medieval Serbian-Slavic language was used by Dragutin to emphasize his independence and show that Srem was not the province of Hungary but the Orthodox country of the Slavic people (Jovanovic, 18).
Stefan Uroš II Milutin
The youngest son of Stefan Uroš I, Milutin was about 29 when he became king, ruling for a remarkable 39 years. He fought against the Byzantines, capturing the city of Skopje (now in North Macedonia), which became his capital. Milutin also made a series of brilliant diplomatic marriages to Hungarian, Bulgarian, and finally Byzantine princesses.
Because Serbian dinars so closely copied the Venetian grosso, the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) makes an oblique reference to his contemporary Milutin as a counterfeiter in Hell along with two other kings, in his epic poem Paradiso:
E quel di Portogallo e di Norvegia
lì si conosceranno, e quel di Rascia
che male ha visto il conio di Vinegia.
And he of Portugal and he of Norway
Shall there be known, and he of Rascia too,
Who saw in evil hour the coin of Venice.
This is, of course, a misunderstanding of the nature of the coinage, but it reflects medieval ways of thinking. On some of Milutin’s coins, the king appears enthroned, holding a scepter and orb, with the Latin inscription MONETA REGIS UROSI (“Coin of King Uroš”).
The eldest son of Stefan Milutin, Stefan Uroš III, known as Stefan Dečanski, spent part of his youth as a diplomatic hostage at the nomadic court of Nogai, Mongol Khan of the Golden Horde, who ruled much of what is now Ukraine. According to legend, Dečanski was blinded and exiled to Constantinople in 1314 when he quarreled with his father the king. Since he later regained his sight, most historians doubt this story.
In 1320, Dečanski was pardoned, returned to Serbia, and secured the throne after the death of his father in 1321 and a brief civil war against his half-brother Stefan Konstantin. During his reign, the weight of the Serbian dinar fell from a standard of 2.17 grams down to as little as 1.2 grams. Some of his coins follow the traditional pattern, with a Latin inscription around standing figures of the king and St. Stephen. Others bear an enthroned image of the king alone, with a sword across his lap, some inscribed in Latin, others in Serbian.
In 1330, Stefan Dečanski defeated a coalition of Byzantines and Bulgarians in a battle where his son, Stefan Dušan, led the Serbian cavalry. The following year, Dušan led a revolt that deposed and imprisoned his father, who soon died.
Serbian coinage was struck in great quantity during the first half of the fourteenth century, with output reaching its maximum during the nine years (1346-1355) of Stephen Dushan’s reign as “Tsar of the Serbs and Greeks”… (Grierson, 171)
Under the reign of Stefan Uroš IV Dušan, medieval Serbia reached the height of its power and influence. He is remembered as Dušan Silni (“the Mighty”). He spent part of his childhood in exile with his father in Constantinople and was strongly influenced by Byzantine culture. He married a Bulgarian princess, Helena, sister of Tsar Ivan Alexander. He conquered extensive territory from the Byzantine empire, and in 1345 proclaimed himself “Tsar of the Serbs and Romans”.
Dušan issued a vast amount of coinage in a wide variety of designs; a standard reference lists 74 different types (Jovanovic, 32-48), some common, others very rare. One issue depicts the tsar on horseback, holding a scepter. Another type shows standing figures of the tsar and his empress, side by side holding a cross-staff between them.
Over the course of his reign, the weight and workmanship of the coinage deteriorated. He introduced a half-dinar that fell from 0.7 to about 0.5 grams. The Black Death that devastated the population of Europe (1346-1355, with a recurrence in 1363) struck Serbia hard, killing off many of the miners who sustained the kingdom’s prosperity. While planning a crusade against the Turks, Tsar Dušan died on December 20, 1355, possibly from poisoning, a common fate of medieval rulers.
Stefan Uroš V
The only son of Stefan Dušan is remembered as Stefan Uroš V Nejaki (“the Weak”). Under his feeble rule ( 1355-1371 ) the empire built by his father disintegrated. Provincial aristocrats became independent warlords who, in many cases, issued their own coins. The weight and quality of the royal coinage continued to deteriorate, with inscriptions that are often illegible. One rare type shows the tsar on horseback.
In 1365, Vukašin Mrnjavčević, who controlled the southern part of the empire, became co-ruler. Vukašin led the Serbian Army against the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Maritsa (September 26, 1371) where he was killed, along with much of the surviving Serbian aristocracy. The hapless Tsar Stefan died soon afterward. He was canonized as a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church 211 years after his death, in recognition of his modesty and tolerance.
Born about 1329, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović was prominent among the warlords who carved out independent states from the breakup of the Serbian Empire. Although he had the support of the Orthodox Church (which later canonized him as a saint and a martyr), many of the nobles refused to recognize him as their tsar. His family controlled the rich silver mining district of Novo Brdo. His father was a high official (chancellor) in the court of Tsar Dušan. A gifted diplomat, Lazar cemented alliances by arranging the marriage of his daughters to important nobles and the Bulgarian tsar.
At the great Battle of Kosovo against invading Ottoman Turks on June 15, 1389, Lazar was captured and executed. Both armies suffered heavy losses, and the Ottoman sultan, Murad, was also killed.
Weighing a gram or less, Lazar’s coins mostly bear his standing image holding a cross-tipped scepter and the inscription KNEZ LAZAR (“Prince Lazar”) in Cyrillic, with Christ enthroned on the obverse.
Vuk Branković, a son-in-law of Prince Lazar, survived the Battle of Kosovo. As a powerful warlord, he continued to resist the Turks until he was forced to submit and become an Ottoman vassal in 1392. He was later imprisoned by the Turks and died in captivity. Coinage in his name is similar to that of Prince Lazar, except Vuk holds a staff with a banner, rather than a scepter.
Eldest son of Prince Lazar, Stefan Lazarević was only 12 years old at the time of the Battle of Kosovo. His mother Milica served as regent until he came of age, ruling a diminished territory as a vassal of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid. A brilliant warrior, Stefan led a force of Serbian knights that fought on the Ottoman side at the battles of Rovine (1395), Nicopolis (1396), and Angora (1402), where Bayezid and his wife Olivera (the sister of Stefan Lazarević) were captured by Timur’s Mongol army.
Stefan’s coinage bears his title as CONTE (“count”) in Latin from 1389 to 1402, and as DESPOT in Cyrillic from 1402 to his death in 1427. His personal emblem, a horned helmet, appears on many of his coins.
He established his capital at Belgrade, which remains the Serbian capital to this day.
The middle son of Vuk Branković, Durad (or Djuradj, or George) was one of the last medieval rulers of Serbia. He constructed the great fortress of Smederovo on the Danube River, which served as his capital. He married a Byzantine princess, Irene Kantakouzene. As a vassal of the Ottomans, Durad fought at the Battle of Angora (1402) against the Mongols, and his daughter Mara entered the harem of Sultan Murad II.
Durad issued a variety of silver dinars, many bearing his emblem, a lion. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans besieged Belgrade in 1455. Durad was wounded in the siege and died the following year. His sons, Lazar and Stefan Branković, briefly ruled a diminished realm until the Ottomans conquered and annexed it in 1459, ending the existence of an independent Serbian state until the Treaty of Berlin revived a Principality of Serbia in 1878.
Collecting Serbian Medieval Coins
Hoards of Serbian medieval coins have been found all across the Balkans and they frequently appear in major European (particularly German) auctions.
The standard modern reference is Jovanovic (2002) available in a somewhat shaky but fully comprehensible English translation. Sale catalog listings often cite Ljubić (1875) in Croatian, long out of print, and hard to find.
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 Billon is an alloy with less than 50% silver, the rest being mainly copper. The trachy was theoretically worth 1/48 of a gold hyperpyron.
 CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 1340. Realized $3,250 USD (estimate $3,000).
 The grosso was struck at a standard weight of 2.178 grams in silver that was 96.5% pure.
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 16, May 22, 2021, Lot 4841. Realized CHF 55 (about $61 USD; estimate CHF 25).
 Münzen & Medaillen Auction 39, November 27, 2013, Lot 841. Realized €510 (about $692 USD).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 19, February 26, 2022, Lot 3947. Realized CHF 300 (about $323 USD; estimate CHF 25).
 CNG Electronic Auction 464, March 25, 2020, Lot 258. Realized $250 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 464, March 25, 2020, Lot 256. Realized $225 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 225, January 13, 2010, Lot 666. Realized $420 USD (estimate $150).
 CNG Electronic Auction 463, March 11, 2020, Lot 568. Realized $100 USD (estimate $75).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 11, February 22, 2020, Lot 2612. Realized CHF 1,100 (about $1,119 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 CNG Electronic Auction 381, August 24, 2016, Lot 545. Realized $240 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 353, June 17, 2015, Lot 756. Realized $95 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 343, January 28, 2015, Lot 718. Realized $280 USD (estimate $100).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 15, February 27, 2021, Lot 3287. Realized CHF 130 (about $144 USD; estimate CHF 25).
Evans, Helen C. (editor). Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). New York (2004)
Gnjatovic, Dragana. “Disintegration of the monetary system of medieval Serbia”, Megatrend Revija (2014)
Grierson, Philip. The Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Jovanovic, Miroslav. Serbien Medieval Coins. Belgrade (2002)
Kazhdan, Alexander P. (editor). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 3 volumes. New York (1991)
Ljubić, Šime. Opis Jugoslovenskih Novaca. Zagreb (1875)
Longman, Jack, Daniel Veres, Walter Finsinger, and Vasile Ersek. “Exceptionally high levels of lead pollution in the Balkans from the Early Bronze Age to the Industrial Revolution”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115. (2018)
Radić, Vesna. “Iconography of imperial coinage of medieval Serbia”, XIII Congreso Internacional de Numismática. Madrid (2003)
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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.