Minute details of minting in Constantinople

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I had, “for my sins or for whatever reason”, been reading A Corpus of the Nomismata from 713-976 in Constantinople by Franz Füeg.1 This was not leisure reading, I should probably say, I had been asked to review both it and its partner volume covering 976-1067, which of course meant I had to read it in detail, of which there is much in the books.2 What they actually are is a number of corpora of Byzantine gold solidi of Constantinople (not just one corpus each, as you might imagine) and a series of attached essays dealing with the design, political æsthetics and production of the coins. Füeg is not a numismatist by training—there are, after all, almost no places that one can acquire such training—but a retired professor of architecture, and this may be one of the reasons this book goes to some strange places. It seemed to me in reading it, though, that the author doesn’t always recognise where his argument, or even in happy moments his data, take him, and that the true worth of the book is in deductions which it requires like the one I want to set out in this post.

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith, on whose website this image is located (and which is linked through it)

The great strength of Füeg’s work is that he has a huge sample die study. For those not already speaking fluent numismatist, this is a thing one can particularly do with pre-industrial coinage because each of the dies with which the coins were struck were, of course, hand-carved and therefore unique in detail. Thus, if one has enough of a certain issue of coins, one expects to see individual dies turn up again and again, and someone with sharp enough eyes and short enough sight can recognise them.3 There are various things one can do with this information, but the simplest thing one can do is to count the dies one observes, and this Füeg has done. That is data we didn’t have before, whatever its quality may be, and my brain started to fire where he observes that there is a drop in the number of reverse dies being used at the Constantinople mint at the point where the coinage ceases to distinguish between officinae of the mint on its gold coinage.4

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, in the Alpha officina, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

So, OK, you may fairly ask at this point, what’s an officina? And the answer is that we don’t really know. In the mid-fourth century the Roman coinage, which was basically uniform across the whole Empire but with frequently varying codes that identified the issuing mint of each coin, began to add letters to reverse designs in use at certain mints that seem to have distinguished issues within their production; Lyons is especially complex, for example. By the time we can sensibly speak of Byzantine coinage, this system had settled into a sequence of Greek letters for each mint.5 Most mints ran to only two or three letters, alpha, beta, gamma, sometimes delta and epsilon, or more confusingly nothing and theta, but Constantinople could get up to iota in some issues. On the copper-alloy coinage these letters appeared below the main denomination mark on the reverse, as you see above and on the gold they appear at the end of the reverse legend as below. These, we call officinae, largely because some of the early Roman instances actually use the letters OF and a number for them.

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, in officina Eta (H), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810, not to scale with previous. Note how the officina letter is bigger than and out of line with the letters of the legend (VICTORI-A AVCC), suggesting that the die was marked for an officina only after it had been completed elsewhere.

As I say, we don’t really know what these divisions within the mint were. Some obvious suggestions have been made—different workshops (as implied by the word we use for them), teams within the mint, markers of different commissioned officials or even companies making the coin—but we don’t really have the means to test these theories. Or we didn’t, until now. But Füeg notices that when this marking of officinae ceases (under Emperor Leo III, some of whose coins you can see here) the count of reverse dies drops noticeably. He doesn’t do anything with this fact but it’s part of the answer.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 717  and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

As mentioned, the officina-marking only stopped on the gold at this point; here is a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V, struck in Constantinople in 717-741, and about the clearest thing on it is the mark for officina Beta. Not to scale with previous coins; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

In case you’re not with me, consider. If the way that the mint worked was that there were up to ten separate workshops or even teams turning out coins at full capacity, they would go through dies at the same rate whether those dies were marked for them or not. But production seems to have stayed up and reverse die use went down. That can only mean that prior to the change, reverse dies marked up for officinae weren’t being used to capacity, which means in turn that there must have been a point in a minting cycle or design lifetime at which each officina stopped work. That’s not simultaneous striking under each mark, therefore; the officinae must have been sequential, switching over at intervals we don’t know. That’s where Füeg’s observation leads, even if he hasn’t taken it there. It’s not a big deal, perhaps; but no-one’s been able to figure it out before, it affects millions of pieces of evidence that passed through millions of people’s hands and if he won’t figure it out I am happy to do so instead.

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510. Not to scale with previous coins. The alert will notice that this coin has a Theta at the end of the reverse legend instead of the old officina mark. These have long puzzled people. Füeg has an explanation for them, of course, but that would be another and much longer blog-post…6


1. F. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713-976: Structure of the Issues, Corpus of Coins Finds, Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History, ed. Italo Vecchi & transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2007).

2. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda, structure of the issues 976-1067, the concave/convex histamena, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Vecchi & transl. Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), reading the which is what has held up the review. But it will get done, after another project that I haven’t yet told you about is off my desk for a bit…

3. For explanations, as well as Doug Smith, “Die-Links: a tool for the numismatist” in Celator Vol. 9 (Lancaster PA 1995), pp. 12-17, as linked above, see Philip Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), pp. 142-144.

4. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, p. 11.

5. R. A. G. Carson, P. V. Hill & J. P. C. Kent, Late Roman Bronze Coinage (London 1960); Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24.

6. The short of it is that he thinks the mint switches to using indictional dates here for a few years, which lets him do all kinds of magic with reattributions and so on (Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, pp. 13-18). The long of it, explaining all of that, would be oh so much longer…

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