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Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which were uploaded on April Fool’s Day by complete coincidence and with the help of Evelina Kuvykovaite, or those of the Roman Civil War (44 BC-31 BC), with Mark Antony popping up everywhere looking untrustworthy, for which the help of Esther Newman was invaluable—but the medieval ones have, so far, all so been Byzantine, and they have continued from where we left off with the reign of the controversial Emperor Leo III. Thus, early in June we were able to boast to the Internet fifty-two more coins of the reign of Emperor Constantine V (741-775) than it had before, which had been checked, tracked down, righted and sorted by my most stalwart volunteer, Maria Vrij. And now I finally get round to boasting about them to you also!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4549

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4549

Constantine is an even more controversial figure than his daddy, whom you may remember is often credited, in the eyes of the latest scholarship wrongly, with starting the Byzantine persecution of images of holy persons known as Iconoclasm. Whether or not he did, it seems fair to say that Constantine, once he had succeeded and defeated that coup by his brother-in-law that we mentioned last time, did add imperial endorsement to that position at the Council of Hieria in 754, if not earlier.1 Since, in the end, Iconoclasm did not win out, and in fact became the focus point of a very bloody and vicious factional battle for imperial power as the empire’s position disintegrated in the early ninth century, the sources that describe this era do not, shall we say, aim for neutrality.

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4545

Except of course the coins, which basically preach dynastic continuity and little more! Unhelpful if Iconoclasm’s all you care about, but there may have been other things happening. This is a gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4545

The most famous account is that of the chronicler and monk, exiled for his position on the anti-Iconoclast side, Theophanes, a relative of later emperors as one of them happily pointed out but far from disinterested, and he reports, among other things, that Constantine V on one occasion in 766 paraded a bunch of monks in the Hippodrome and forced them to marry, and then four days later had nineteen leading officials executed, and then seven days after that exiled the Patriarch of Constantinople, whom he then summoned back the next year so as to have him executed.2 Theophanes also records that the emperor was widely known as Constantine Kopronymos, pretty much “crap-for-a-name”, because he was supposed to have defecated in the font while being christened. I feel that the reportage of the first-listed of these incidents may be telling us more about Theophanes’s personal demons than anything else but you can see how all the rest fits into a fairly sustained campaign of political character assassination.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Constantine V and Leo V, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4554

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Constantine V and Leo V, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4554; remnants of the coin design over which this one was struck are clearly visible, and the overtype is made almost unintelligible by them and by the very basic workmanship of the dies

It could be true, of course, and goodness knows none of this family were likely to have been nice people, but against it we have the fact that unlike almost all the icon-happy emperors for a century before or after, Constantine had a long and fairly successful reign ending in his natural death, in which time he presided over consistent military success against the forces of Islam and the Bulgars and instigated a celebratory building programme in Constantinople. Mark Whittow has argued that Constantine was sufficiently popular in the capital that when his daughter-in-law Empress Eirini wanted to reverse his policies, she had to move the proceedings out to Nicæa because of mob opposition making the council impossible.3 It certainly seems completely clear that by, say, 830, his name had become a byword and an excuse for everything that had gone wrong in Byzantium in the eighth century, and that his father and his son (Leo IV (775-780), whose coins also went up in this upload) caught the stain of his reputation as well, but how much he did to earn this, either in terms of what he is historically accused of or in terms of making the kind of enemies who would raise those accusations, we will probably never sort out.4

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Syracuse between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4559

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Syracuse between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4559

What we can do, however, is remember that the coinage is a contemporary source with which no-one really subsequently messed (except in as much as they may have gone and struck their own coin images onto some of it), and now that you can look at it you can see that it sends the normal message of the era: inheritance, business as usual, a trustworthy and recognisable gold standard and an evident and continuing need to cut every corner going, and plenty of edges that had had no corners beforehand too, to produce enough bronze coin to supply the demand of the busy city markets of his maritime empire. It’s not going to settle the question of his theological policy, but maybe it might remind us that that was probably not what most people he ruled thought was important about his rule.

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4561

Behold the cutting of corners, on this clipped bronze follis of Emperor Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4561

Some searches that may interest you, then, as is becoming canonical!

And by mint:

You’ll have seen that Constantine V struck coins showing his father, and when his son was born added him alongside himself too; the software we’re using to show these coins on the web doesn’t admit of searches for plural issuers, alas, so I can’t separate them for you, but there are not too many to hunt through. Enjoy! More will soon follow…


1. Contrast here for example Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium (London 1996), pp. 139-151, with Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 156-247.

2. Theophanes’s Chronographia is edited as C. de Boor (ed.), Theophanis Chronographia (Leipzig 1883-1885), 2 vols, and translated as Cyril Mango & R. Scott (transl.), The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford 1997), and the relevant chapters are 436-439, but here I am basically following Whittow, Making of Byzantium, pp. 147-149.

3. Ibid. pp. 145-147.

4. Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 248-252 & 262, more or less dismiss any importance of policy on the religious front mooted by Leo IV.

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5 responses to “Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

  1. I’ve always felt more sympathetic towards Constantine’s supposed baptismal accident since attending a Greek orthodox baptism. There’s a lot of ritual involving the naked baby and I bet there was even more for a royal baptism. Frankly, it’s not surprising if it all got too much for the digestive system on some occasions.

  2. Pingback: The Empress, her Son, her General and his Heir | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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