The Byzantine currency, that is, the money used in the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) until the conquest of Constantinople (1453), consisted in the early Byzantine phase essentially of the golden solidus and a variety of bronze coins. Silver coins were rarely struck in the Early Byzantine phase and did not play an important role until the Late Byzantine phase.
The subject of Byzantine numismatics traditionally begins with the monetary reform of the Eastern Roman Byzantine Emperor Anastasios I in 498, who reformed the coinage system of the late Roman Empire, which consisted of the gold solidus and bronze nummi. 40 Nummi (singular Nummus) initially counted a Follis (plural Folles), which in turn counted 1/420 of a Solidus. In a broader sense, the coinage of the Empire of Trapezunt (between 1204 and 1461) also belongs to the Byzantine coinage system.
Brief Historical Overview
In 330 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine I. (306-337), chose the until then insignificant port city of Byzantion on the Bosporus as his new capital. This created the basis of an independent state in Eastern Europe. Added to this was the elevation of Christianity to the imperial religion in 392 AD by Emperor Theodosius I (379-395). Constantinople, as Byzantium was now called, was a primarily Christian metropolis from the beginning of its existence as a capital. Moreover, Theodosius had decreed the organizational division of the Roman Empire; in 395, the western half with Rome fell to one son Honorius and the eastern half with Constantinople to the other son Arcadius. This caesura was probably due to administrative reasons, for the huge state system could hardly be managed centrally any more in view of the increasing invasions of “barbarian” peoples. In 476, the Western Roman Empire perished in the turmoil of the migration of peoples, whereas the Eastern Empire was able to defy all threats.
In the 6th century, the Byzantine, Eastern Roman or Rhoman Empire (the terms can be used synonymously) experienced a new flowering. Justinian I (527-565), the builder of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and initiator of the Corpus iuris civilis, was responsible for this. Under his aegis, large areas of the former Roman Empire were reconquered, especially in the west. Incidentally, many of the well-known mosaics in Ravenna (Sant’Apollinare in Classe, San Vitale, etc.) go back to Justinian. Nevertheless, the balance of Justinian’s reign was ambivalent, especially domestically, if one is to believe Procopius of Caesarea, who was perhaps the first historian to practice double-entry bookkeeping: on the one hand, Procopius effusively praises Justinian’s actions in his official works written for him, while on the other hand, in his secret history, the Anekdota, he never tires of accusing the same emperor and especially his power-conscious wife Theodora of mismanagement.
After military setbacks and a shrinking of the territory, the empire seemed to rise again in old splendor under Herakleios (610-641). Through this emperor it received a new administration, the thematic constitution. The country was divided into provinces, called “themes”, which were subordinated to military governors instead of civilian ones. Herakleios was also able to achieve successes in foreign policy; through his military campaigns in 627/28 he practically wiped out the Sassanid empire and successfully defended his own against the Avars and Arabs.
The 8th and the first half of the 9th century, on the other hand, were shaken by internal religious struggles. It was the epoch of the iconoclasm (726-843). Influenced by the Islamic hostility to images with which the Byzantines in the Oriental provinces were now coming into contact, and supported by the Old Testament prohibition of images, many educated townsmen and military officers began to take offence at the wealth of images in religious worship. The first anti-image emperor, Leo III. (717-741) – a great statesman, moreover – was significantly from Syria. The struggle for or against the sacred images undulated back and forth for a long time, undecided: an iconodulist ruler solemnly had those images renewed which his predecessor had destroyed and his successor was to destroy again. The break with Rome was also unavoidable several times, as the Pope tended to side with the image lovers and banned some emperors and patriarchs who led Eastern Christendom rather arbitrarily. In later times there were still many (ecclesiastically) politically rather than dogmatically motivated quarrels between the Eastern and Western Churches. The final schism broke out in 1054 and continues between the Orthodox churches and the various Western churches to this day, despite numerous efforts at union.
In 843, the friends of images finally gained the upper hand. In the so-called Edict on Images by Emperor Michael III. (842-867) and his mother Theodora, service to and with icons was explicitly demanded. This gave posterity an abundance of incomparable works of art, even if this posterity sometimes had a hard time with it theologically. The following centuries were marked by a certain continuity. The empire was increasingly confined to the eastern half of the Mediterranean, with what is now Greece and Turkey as its centre. Disputes with Slavs and Arabs dominated the foreign policy scene. Under Basileios II of the Macedonian family, who ruled for almost 50 years (976-1025), the situation also consolidated at the borders of the empire. He was given the epithet “Bulgaroktonos”, which translates as “Bulgarian slayer”, because of his successes against the Bulgarians. After the death of Basileios, however, the picture became clouded: possessions were lost, only a few others were gained. In 1071, the Byzantines suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Manzikert against the Seljuks, which permanently weakened their position in Asia Minor. The empire reached what was probably its last great political peak under the dynasty of the Komnenes, especially Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) and his immediate successors. They secured the borders and carried out domestic reforms.
In the course of the inglorious Fourth Crusade, the Empire fell into the hands of crusaders in 1204, who hardly deserved the name. They wreaked havoc in Constantinople and the other cities, according to the testimony of Byzantine chroniclers. The empire broke apart; the so-called Latin Empire was established alongside other vassal states under Venetian dominance. The Greek-Byzantine noble families went into exile and established themselves there with their own small provincial kingdoms, for example in Nicaea and Trapezunt (autonomous until 1461), and later (after 1224) in Thessaloniki. In 1261 a general who had seized power in Nicaea and Thessalonica succeeded in driving the “Latins” out of Constantinople and as Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261-1282) ascended the throne of a reunited empire. Until its fall Byzantium was now to be ruled by the Palaiologos family. It took on more and more the character of a feudal state and had finally become second-rate politically in the concert of powers, constantly beset by external enemies and confined to a few territories in Turkey and Greece. On the other hand, art and science experienced another great upswing in the late 13th century. In 1453, the formerly so important empire finally had to give way to the onrushing Ottomans. The Byzantine artists and scholars who fled to Western Europe at the fall of Constantinople exerted a decisive influence on the beginning of the Renaissance.
Not affected by Anastasio I’s reform was the gold currency: the solidus (plural: solidi) introduced under Constantine the Great at the beginning of the 4th century with a nominal weight of 4.55 grams and a nominal purity of 24 carats remained the standard for international trade. In practice, the solidus weighed between 4.48 and 4.6 grams.
In the 6th and 7th centuries, reduced solids with special markings were also issued. They weighed only 20, 22 or 23 siliquae, with one siliqua being equivalent to about 0.18 grams. Their original use is disputed. Researchers associate them with tribute payments, with foreign trade or with the exchange requirements of bronze money reforms.
Parallel to the solidus, half and third solidi (semissis / plural: semisses and tremissis / plural: tremisses) were minted. The semisses and tremisses were minted in Constantinople until the reign of Emperor Michael I. (811 to 813) and in Syracuse until Emperor Basileios I (867 to 886). 1/6 solidi were minted only very rarely and last in the 9th century.
Under Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (reigned 963 to 969) a gold coin with only 11/12 of the usual weight but the same gold content was issued alongside the solidus.
Opinions differ as to the reason for the introduction of this coin, which was 1/12 lighter. According to the Byzantine historian John Zonaras, the purpose of this change was the (failed) attempt to get the market to accept the underweight coins at the value of the old solidus. The lighter coin was called the tetarteron, and the full-weight solidus was from then on called the ἱστάμενον νόμισμα (Hi)stamenon nomisma, or histamenon for short. The histamenon weighed between 4.4 and 4.5 g, while the gold coin, the tetarteron nomisma, which was 1/12 lighter, weighed about 4.05 g. In numismatics it is often argued that the tetarteron became convertible with the Fatimid dinar by reducing its weight by 1/12 and thus facilitated trade.
Originally looking the same, the two coinages later differed in appearance. Under Emperor Basileios II (976-1025) the tetarteron became smaller and thicker, while the histamenon became larger and thinner. Under the reign of Emperor Constantine VIII. (1025-1028) the two coin types began to differ iconographically as well.
By the middle of the 11th century, the tetarteron had an average diameter of only 18 mm and weighed an average of only 3.98 g, while the histamenon had an average diameter of 25 mm at this time (the original solidus had 20 mm) and subsequently developed into a bowl-shaped domed coin.
Such bowl-shaped domed coins are also commonly referred to as skyphates (derived from skyphos, the ancient Greek drinking bowl). There are a number of hypotheses about the cause of this skyphatic development, which is also characteristic of the Byzantine electron and trillion coins of the Middle Byzantine period.
The solidus or histamenon and the tetarteron were of relatively constant purity until the early 11th century. The gold content was consistently between 955 and 980 thousandths (23 to 23.5 carats). From Emperor Michael IV (ruled 1034 to 1041), who came from humble beginnings and was a moneychanger before his coronation, the Byzantine gold currency began its slow devaluation by gradually reducing its gold content.
Devaluation was slow at first and then accelerated rapidly: about 21 carats (87.5% purity) during the reign of Emperor Constantine IX (1042-1055), 18 carats (75%) under Emperor Constantine X. (1059-1067), 16 carats (66.7%) under Emperor Romanos IV. (1068-1071), 14 carats (58 %) under Michael VII. (1071-1078), 8 carats (33%) under Nikephoros III. (1078-1081) and 0 to 8 carats during the first eleven years of the reign of Emperor Alexios I (1081-1118).
Under Alexios I, the coinage reform of 1092 abolished the already fully debased histamenon and tetarteron and introduced a new gold coin with an initial gold content of 900 to 950 thousandths (21.6-22.8 carats). This new coin was called hyperpyron, weighed 4.5 g like the solidus, and later had a fineness of 21 carats (alloy ratio of 21 parts gold to 3 parts other metal, or 875/1000). Despite its lower gold content, the hyperpyron is classified as a Late Byzantine solidus. It was initially considered three electron aspron trachea or 48 billon aspron trachea.
The hyperpyron remained in circulation until the conquest of Constantinople (1453), but visibly lost value due to the declining gold content. Under the dual reigns of John V and John VI (1347-1353), the hyperpyron was minted for the last time. This marked the end of the Roman-Byzantine gold currency of the solidus, which had endured for over a millennium since its introduction under Constantine the Great.
For a long time silver played only a minor role in Byzantine coinage. Besides the siliquae and semi-siliquae, the very rarely minted miliarensia (singular: miliarense), which are double siliquae, should also be mentioned as nominals. Under Emperor Herakleios (610 – 641) a heavier silver coin, the hexagram (plural: hexagrammata), is created, which was minted as double miliarense in larger quantities, but disappeared after a few decades. Leo III. (717-741) introduced the miliaresion (plural: miliaresia), which weighed about 2 grams and held its own until the coinage reform of Emperor Alexios I (1081-1118) in 1092. From the coinage reform of 1092 until about 1300, coinage silver existed only in the form of alloys of the bowl-shaped electron aspron trachy gold-silver coins or trillion aspron trachy silver-copper coins. It was not until the fourteenth century that pure silver coins were again minted. For example, from about 1300, Emperor Andronikos II introduced the so-called basilikon (plural: basilica), a thin silver coin with a high silver content, modelled on the Venetian grosso. Under Emperor John V. (1341-1391) the 7.4 to 8.5 gram stavraton (plural: stavrata) finally replaced the late Byzantine gold currency (hyperpyron) after almost 900 years.
Emperor Anastasios I reformed the Roman monetary system in 498. In doing so, he took up a reform that the Vandal king Gunthamund had successfully implemented shortly before. The old nummi (singular: nummus) had been extremely small bronze coins, 8 to 10 millimeters in diameter, which were inconvenient to handle because even small transactions required a large number of them. The new bronze coins had denominations of 40 nummi, 20 nummi, 10 nummi, and 5 nummi (in early Byzantine times Alexandria also produced 12- and 33-nummi coins and Thessalonica also produced 16-, 8-, 4-, and 2-nummi coins). The obverse of these coins contained a highly stylized portrait of the emperor, the reverse the value according to the Greek numerals: M=40,K=20,I=10,E=5. The three-quarter-follimint worth 30 nummi was first marked with the Roman numeral XXX later with the Greek letter Λ.
The Byzantine monetary system was changed during the 7th century, when the 40 nummi(follis), now much smaller, became the only bronze coin still issued regularly. The quality of the representations increases, and in some cases the follis are no longer round, but cliffs. Although Justinian II. (reigned 695 and 705 to 711) tried to restore the size of the follis from the time of Justinian I, it became smaller and smaller over time. In the 10th century, so-called “anonymous folles” were minted in place of the earlier coins that showed the image of the emperor. The “anonymous folles” showed on the obverse the bust of Jesus and the inscription “XRISTUS/BASILEU/BASILE” (Christ, King of Kings) (see also: Iconoclasm (iconoclasm)).
Later cup-shaped coins, called trachi, were minted from both electrum (deteriorated gold) and billon (deteriorated silver). The exact reason for issuing such coins is not known, but it is believed that they were simply easier to stack.
See also: Roman currency
Coin design and minting organization
The approximately 32 mints usually have a sigle, an abbreviation for the mint, stamped on them. According to the late Roman tradition, officers were also added, with which it could be determined which team in a mint produced this coin. With the exception of the Constantinople mint, which minted continuously, the other mints were only in operation intermittently. The bronze mints monetae publicae were distributed more decentrally, in the diocesan capitals, while the gold mints monetae aureae were almost directly under the central financial administration.
Following Roman models, most Byzantine coins show the portrait of the ruler on the obverse, though on the main nominals solidus and follis usually as a frontal bust, which rarely happened on earlier Roman coins. On the partials, the profile facing to the right followed more Roman models. Occasionally the emperor was also depicted in ¾-profile. Unlike on Roman coins, Byzantine coins occasionally show not only the emperor but also his son as co-emperor in a frontal portrait. However, already in Roman times, emperor and co-emperor are occasionally depicted together on the obverse on provincial coinage, but then looking at each other in right and left profile. A special phase is the period of anonymous coinage (1059 to 1067 as sole folles coinage and 1081 to 1118 as parallel coinage alongside non-anonymous coins), in which not the emperor but Christ frontally with cross nimbus dominates the obverse of the coin.
The late Roman tradition of depicting Victoria, the goddess of victory, on the reverse of a coin continues for a time in the Byzantine Empire. It is replaced by a cross of crutches standing on three or four steps, symbolizing Calvary. As local features, the city patroness from pre-Christian times is also depicted on coins minted in Constantinople, and Tyche as the goddess of fate is depicted on coins minted in Antioch, as she was on locally minted bronze coins in Roman times. On bronze coins, however, the above-described value symbols on the reverse sides dominated for a long time.
- Byzantine Empire
- Roman currency
- Byzantine coins in Estonia
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– Album with pictures, videos and audio files
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- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, p. 15
- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, p. 15
- Philip Grierson Byzantine Coinage, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications, 1999, ISBN 978-0-88402-274-9, p. 10
- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, p. 16
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- Andreas Urs Sommer, The coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453. with an appendix: the coins of the Empire of Trapezunt. Regenstauf: Battenberg Verlag, 2010, Coin Description 84.1.
- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, p. 20
- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, pp. 16f, 293
- Andreas Urs Sommer, The Coins of the Byzantine Empire 491-1453, p. 16f