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Byzantium before Byzantium

Silver tetradrachm of King Lysimachos, struck in Lysimacheia between 328 BC and 281 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0008.

Silver tetradrachm of King Lysimachos, struck in Lysimacheia between 328 BC and 281 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0008, not relevant to any of the below but something of a flagship coin for the Inheriting Rome exhibition.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about some of them. As I mentioned before, not everything we’re uploading is medieval, and least of all this, in some ways, our thirty-six Ancient Greek coins from various places. There is some very beautiful stuff here (by which some partisans of the later material would say I mean ‘naturalistic’) and it certainly gets good reactions from people in handling sessions, but it is of questionable relevance to the blog, for sure. Except maybe these five.

Silver drachm struck at Byzantion between 357 BC and 340 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0019

Silver drachm struck at Byzantion between 357 BC and 340 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0019

What is relevant about this is just that these are from Byzantium, or more properly Byzantion, the Greek city on or close to the site which Emperor Constantine I (306-337) chose for his new imperial capital, given of course the unassuming name of Constantinople, now Istanbul. Some of them pretty much say so, too. It’s from this predecessor settlement, in fact, that modern scholars have given the later eastern empire its appelation ‘Byzantine’.

Bronze unit struck at Byzantion between 430 BC and 293 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0025

Bronze ‘unit’ struck at Byzantion between 430 BC and 293 BC (I could use some help there, to be honest), Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0025, with the city name lettered in Greek around the reverse, right to left

I like these mainly because they emphasise that there was a before here, some reason to pick the site and something that explains the word we use for the empire that refocused there. From some of the textbooks on the later Roman Empire you’d get the idea that before Constantine spotted it Byzantion had been little more than a village. And well, it was not a big place perhaps but it was big enough to have its own local coinage, one which ran right up to the time of Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian (284-305), and to show its own patron god on it. And now you can see it, and him, online.

Bronze coin of Byzantion under Roman rule, struck between 125 BC and 127 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0034

Bronze coin of Byzantion under Roman rule, struck between 125 BC and 127 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0034, showing the god Byzas on the obverse and a ship on the reverse, as befits a proud port city.

Star volunteer helpers here were Amy Walsh, with us from the University of Melbourne on the International Museums and Collections Award intern scheme, and Evelina Kuvykovaite from the University of Warwick, both of whom made my work much the less. Thanks to both and I hope the readership will forgive the brief run into the ancient world!

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4 responses to “Byzantium before Byzantium

  1. As you say, we’re sold the impression of an almost blank slate upon which Constantine stamped his mark. Though I had known of Byzantion, I was under the impression it was ‘at a distance’ from Constantine’s establishment. (These Romans, they didn’t want to be rubbing shoulders with Greeks. Greeks had bad habits . . . You can almost hear Constantine saying it.)

    • You’re right that the Greek city-port had been down the coast a mile or two from where Constantinople was planted. But either would certainly have been in the other’s hinterland, even before Constantinople grew to its full size!

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