One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…


1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).

9 responses to “One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

  1. I number of the of the coins you present look as if they have been clipped. Do you think this the case and how prevalent do you guess this might have been?

    • Oh, much worse than clipped, often. By the late sixth and early seventh century, the Byzantine Empire was producing a lot of its small change by simply restriking existing coins with new images and lettering, which was at best an imperfect science. Moreover, they would call in larger coins from previous emperors, especially the biggest ones of Anastasius I and Justinian I, both of whom reformed the coinage with bigger sizes, and cut them up to make several coins for the price of one. The last of those illustrated here is one such: you can see the original curve of the coin at the top edge, and the bottom edges are where the rest was cut away before it was then overstruck. The second one is also almost certainly an overstrike. The third one is probably actually a new coin, but then it is the one that was made outside regular minting structures. The first one, which is the only one of these I’ve actually handled at any length, was likewise made outside the capital, and indeed the Empire in the conventional view, but it’s also weirdly thin, and I suspect that although it looks all right in terms of execution, it probably wasn’t struck onto a coin blank at all but some other piece of suitably-sized leftover metal. Quite why the state needed to go to these extremes to generate coin cheaply isn’t clear, but they evidently did circulate, not least because we find them now! The situation didn’t really get more regular until well into the eight century.

  2. With competing standards, changing debasement, and the need to still actually weigh the things to make sure that these particular coins were full weight, I wonder why some people still tell stories about coins as a world-changing economic revolution. They could be very handy but they could also turn into a terrible mess. But Babylonians seem to have had no particular interest in replacing Hacksilber with coins, and when they start using coins more there are no visible economic changes.

    • Well, there’s definitely a basis for asking if money is the solution to all economic needs. For us, there’s basically no question of shortage of actual cash: if we have something to exchange for it, goods, credit, labour, whatever, we can get money to spend. But for the medieval world, coin is not easy to get, even if you’re well off—the mint may be a long way away and they may not be issuing when you need them to be anyway. There’s an excellent chapter I use in teaching by Dagfinn Skre about the economics of a coin-scarce economy that draws out the numerous circumstances in which coin might not be the sensible answer: Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia’” in James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 67–92.

      That all said, if there was a place in the medieval world where sufficient coin was available, it may have been the early Byzantine Empire. It was obviously sufficiently embedded that when official supplies became hard to get in the areas of Islamic conquest, as we see above, all kinds of means were adopted to supply the need, including of course local manufacture. I think one of the reasons for that readiness to keep coin going here was the fact that it dodged one of the constraints you mention, weight. These coins did not run by weight: they just can’t have, the standard is so incredibly variable even among the ‘regular’ issues, let alone the imitations. They must instead have had a face value, notionally 40 nummi (the meaning of the big M on the reverses) but it was a century or so since anyone had made nummi, so who knows really? It was presumably tariffed against the gold coinage, as it had been in the reign of Justinian I (Procopius tells us of him changing the rate). As long as however many of these things would in fact get you gold at a steady rate, it didn’t necessarily matter what weight or even appearance they had. This means that there was no rate of exchange between copper metal and gold metal, as such, but I don’t see how else the market economy can have functioned.

      • Although modern economies are not based on cash: they are based on money-of-account and credit. Its rare and suspicious when someone makes a significant purchase with a hockey-bag full of banknotes (or pays their tuition fees with a wheelbarrow full of pennies …), there are sharp restrictions on moving banknotes across borders, and so on. There are some people who think that coins were a revolution compared to the commodity money and money of account which had existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia for more than a thousand years, and one problem is that while Athenian owls spread into Gaul and Iberia and the western steppes very quickly, they didn’t spread east into highly monetarized regions like Babylonia (there are speculations that payments in “silver with an eighth alloy” were in coins, but the hordes, metal-detector finds, evidence for mints east of the Euphrates, etc. don’t seem to exist). Another is your example of early medieval western Europe where the law codes still mention coins even when nobody is minting many of them or only large denominations … are they money of account and people actually pay in chickens and baskets of barley and Frisian cloaks? Or is this an economy where you only pay gold and silver for serious things like Weregild and dealing with strangers?

        David Graeber gave historians of ancient and medieval economies a tempo to say something and have people outside their disciplines listen, and I wish more of them had taken it.

        • Agreed on all counts! Again, Skre is useful here though he doesn’t use Graeber. To my shame, I’ve not read any Graeber though plenty of people have told me, and the one of them who is a historian of the ancient and medieval economy tells me that he does the same thing as Simone de Beauvoir did with the medieval past in The Second Sex, i. e. set it up as a stage on which a fairly indistinct set of past-actors perform the tropes he needs them to perform for his overall narrative to lead where it needs to. The electrifying effect he seems to have on his readers suggests that that doesn’t diminish the force of his theories about now, though! I do intend to get some of his work into my head before long.

          As for your specific comment:

          Another is your example of early medieval western Europe where the law codes still mention coins even when nobody is minting many of them or only large denominations … are they money of account and people actually pay in chickens and baskets of barley and Frisian cloaks? Or is this an economy where you only pay gold and silver for serious things like Weregild and dealing with strangers?

          I could there justly refer you to my own work, I guess… My sense is that while what came next varied a lot depending on the state of money and its use in the fifth century in each area, in general, the Roman currency system continued to provide a value standard against which goods and bullion could be rated, subjectively and with slow shifts; that without a tax system there was probably not much need for high-value coins in any of these places (a shilling is too big to shop with but too small to pay a fine with) but they make issuers look regal; and that old Roman and other bronze coins probably formed more of a local token medium of exchange than we have hitherto accepted, even in Britain. So I think both your ideal types are probably right there, but you could add to them people in Visigothic Toledo running market tabs in debased, worn-flat antoniniani and nummi and weighed cut bullion or ingots forming more of a medium of exchange in Frisian terpen or Yeavering than we usually think it did where big sums were at issue, and probably a few more models as well.

  3. I thought Debt was an honest ‘big picture’ book (he had definitely read Assyriologists and classicists and some sources) and that the lesson “there are a lot of things in the historical and ethnological record which our big theories have trouble explaining” is one that many historians can get behind.

    The article by Skre is coming by interlibrary loan but I will have to fit it in around job searching, I don’t have access to the Gedenkenschrift alas.

    • Well, it sounds like you have your priorities in the right order there! Good luck with the hunt. It has been a very tough year for those whom I personally watch and help on that front, and I fear that until the government reaches the kind of stability where it can risk policy it will stay tough in the UK at least.

  4. Pingback: Standing figure facing with two long crosses | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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