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Part III: Byzantine Coins

The Byzantine Empire [498 - 1453 ad]

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Follis of Justinian

Anastasius introduced a system of copper coins, based on a follis of 40 nummia and fractions of 20, 10 and 5 nummia, which lasted for hundreds of years. Under Justinian [527-565] at the early empire's political and numismatic peak, large folles (c. 40 mm) of medallic character were struck. Justinian's military ambitions strained the empire's resources and his successors had to abandon many of his conquests.



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Solidus of Phocas

An invasion by Slavs and Avars led to a military revolt led by Phocas[602], whose savage reign was an utter disaster for the empire. Finally the exarch of Carthage, Heraclius, deposed Phocas [610].

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Solidus of Heraclius
and Heraclius Constantine

Heraclius' long struggle to recover territories Phocas had lost to the Persians so shattered Sasanian military power that Persia fell to Arabs inspired by the new creed of Mohammed. During the end of this reign, and in the next, they overran Syria, Palestine and Egypt [642], captured Cyprus and Rhodes, and ultimately besieged Constantinople. Baffled by its walls and the terrifying debut of "Greek fire," the Arabs retreated [678], but this respite was soon offset by the loss of Moesia to the Bulgars. Constantine IV led an expedition against them, became ill on campaign and soon died [685], succeeded by his young son.


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"Jesus Christ King of Kings"
Solidus of Justinian II

Justinian II proved to be a ruthless despot without political wisdom. He began well, defeating the Bulgars and resettling many Slavs into Anatolia, but his extortionate taxation and brutal treatment of the aristocracy led to his overthrow [695], mutilation and banishment to Cherson. Leontius suffered a like fate after Carthage fell [698] and when Tiberius III did little to halt the Arabs, Justinian returned at the head of a Bulgar army [705]. Mutilation and exile had not improved his disposition; revenge expanded into a six-year reign of terror, which ended only when Justinian was overthrown by his general Bardanes. His reigns are numismatically interesting for the introduction of Christ's portrait as the principal type on the gold coinage.


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Solidus of Leo III
and Constantine V

The accession of Leo III [717] coincided with another siege of Constantinople, opening a long struggle that ended in a great Byzantine victory at Acroinon [740]. This reign was also notable for reintroduction of the silver miliaresion, shifting of coin legends from Latin to Greek, and the Iconoclast movement. Constantine V, a commander of genius who won great victories over the Arabs and the Bulgars, continued the Iconoclast policy, alienating the Pope and leading to the loss of many Byzantine holdings in Italy. After his death [775], reigns of varying fortunes followed until the accession of Basil I [867].


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Solidus of Basil I
and his son Constantine

Basil did much to improve the condition of the empire, but his son Leo VI neglected foreign affairs, and during this reign Sicily was lost to the Arabs, while the Bulgars devastated the Balkans. Leo's son acceded as a minor, one of whose regents, Romanus, became his father-in-law and co-emperor [920-944]. Constantine VII then reigned until 963 when Nicephorus II came to the throne.

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"Jesus Christ King of Kings"
Anonymous Follis

This great commander did much to restore Byzantine power, and John I continued this resurgence until his premature death [976]. During this reign the follis was changed to an anonymous type with religious motifs and legends, and a lightweight gold coin, the tetarteron, was introduced. From this time the solidus became known as the histamenon nomisma.

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Histamenon of Basil II
and Constantine VIII

Byzantine power reached its peak during the reign of Basil II [976-1025], conqueror of the Bulgars, during which the histamenon became larger and thinner. Several of his less effective successors married his niece Zoe, during a period notable for debasement of the gold coinage and the introduction of scyphate (cup-shaped) coins.

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Scyphate histamenon of Romanus IV
and Eudocia and sons

Constantine IX [1042-1055] patronized the arts, but neglected military power while the Seljuq Turks overthrew the Arab caliphates, the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches began, and Norman barons attacked Byzantine possessions in Italy. The situation deteriorated throughout the reign of Constantine X, whose successor Romanus IV finally met the Turks in the field and lost decisively at Manzikert [1071], a disaster from which Byzantine power never fully recovered. The empire began to disintegrate during the short reigns that followed.



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Electrum Histamenon of Alexius I

Alexius I came to the throne in 1081 and his brilliant leadership gave the empire a new lease on life. Allying himself with the rising power of Venice, he defeated the Normans, then repulsed an attack by the Patzinaks, securing the Balkans. Recovering territories lost to the Turks proved to be more difficult, and the First Crusade presented new problems, for its leaders had no intention of restoring liberated areas to the empire. In 1092 Alexius replaced the debased histamenon with a new gold hyperpyron, and introduced the aspron trachy, while the bronze follis was replaced by a smaller coin, the tetarteron. His equally gifted son John I [1118-1143] then made an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and continued the recovery of Byzantine territories.

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Electrum Aspron Trachy of Manuel I

John's energetic son Manuel I met with initial success, but his offensive in Italy provoked conflict with Frederick Barbarossa. That prince incited the Turks, who attacked and defeated Manuel. He died a broken man [1180], and his successor Andronicus was soon overthrown.

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Electrum Aspron Trachy of Isaac II

Isaac II made some progress in halting the decline of the empire, but was deposed by his brother Alexius III, who reigned ineffectually until Isaac's son, with the armies of the Fourth Crusade, appeared before Constantinople. Isaac and Alexius IV ruled as puppets for six months, unable to pay the huge indemnity they had promised. When this became public knowledge, they perished in an uprising and Constantinople was stormed by the Crusaders [April 1204].


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Imitative Trachy of the Latin Empire

During three horrible days of rapine, soldiers of the Cross eclipsed anything the Turks or Saracens ever did. Immense amounts of art and valuables were destroyed; the rest was carried off to adorn Venice and other cities. The still-smoking capital was partitioned among the victors, and the empire became a Latin feudal state as remnants of the aristocracy fled to Epirus and Nicaea to organize exile governments.


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Hyperpyron of John III of Nicaea

This period is numismatically complex, as the Latin empire and Greek exile governments issued large numbers of similar coins. The Latins alienated their new subjects, and a revolt led to defeat of their army at Adrianople [1205] and withdrawal from Asia Minor, allowing the Empire of Nicaea to become firmly established. Thessalonica fell to the Greeks [1224] and Latin fortunes steadily declined, until Constantinople was retaken and the Byzantine empire was reconstituted [1261] under Michael VIII.


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Hyperpyron of Michael VIII

This astute diplomat cleverly played one enemy against another, and by his death [1282] the empire seemed to have recovered much of its power, but its economy had been shattered. Coinage of the period reflects this; dies are poorly executed, and most of the hastily struck coins are trachys of very low silver content. Under Andronicus II [1282-1334] the empire could not field a sufficient army to defend its territories in Asia Minor, which fell to the Turks. In 1348 the plague struck, Turkish conquest of the Balkans began, and in 1372 the empire became tributary to the Sultan. Then Thessalonica fell to the Turks, and by the death of John VI the empire controlled only Constantinople and the despotate of Morea in the Peloponnesus.

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1/2 Hyperpyron of Constantine XI
the last Byzantine Emperor

Manuel II [1391-1423] toured Europe to recruit military and financial help, which arrived from an unexpected source, when the Mongols routed the Turks and captured the Sultan [1402]. That allowed some time for recovery of Byzantine fortunes, but although John VIII [1423-1448] continued to seek help and even reconciled with the Pope, nothing substantial developed. When Constantine XI assumed the throne, he could only shore up the walls and await the inevitable. It came in April 1453, when Muhammed II arrived with a vast host armed with siege cannons. Constantine and his small garrison fought with a heroism worthy of antique Rome, inflicting immense casualties; early on May 29, after a last service at Hagia Sophia, the last Emperor rode out to meet his destiny as the Turks stormed the breaches and the Byzantine Empire passed into history.

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