I Found This Coin, 2: Byzantine small-change weirdnesses

It is day two of the UK higher education strikes, 2019 edition, so I suddenly have a gap in my to-do lists such as has not existed for many a month, and consequently you get another blog post!

University and College Union strike pickets at the University of Leeds, 2019

Strangely familiar… The entrance to the Parkinson Building at Leeds yesterday. Already forecasting more photos like this for 2020!

So, if we go back to May 2016, before all this blew up, I still then had time occasionally to volunteer in Special Collections at my beloved university, working through their mostly-uncatalogued cabinets of coins. As in the previous one of these posts, sometimes I’d find something cool. In May 2016 I was mainly doing Byzantine small change, it seems, and in there were two especially interesting pieces. The first one I have shown here before:

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a copper-alloy follis of an uncertain mint struck perhaps in the Middle East in 613-28, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/BYZ/TH/302

It deserves more explanation than it’s had, however. In aspect this is a fairly normal-looking follis of Emperor Phocas, pictured enthroned alongside his empress Leoncia. The reverse has the ‘M’ that indicates 40 in Greek, telling you how many nummi the coin is worth, and below that the mint-mark… And there’s the problem, because that is no mint-mark that the Byzantine Empire used. Sort of nearly NIK or NIC for Nicomedia, modern-day Iznik, but obviously not, and an imperial, literate, die-cutter should have known. So what’s going on here? Well, between 602 and 629, the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a fight for its life with its neighbouring empire, Sasanian Persia (or as the Sasanians thought of it, Iran). At the high point of this, for the Persians, they controlled most of the Middle East and Egypt, and in Syria and Palestine that situation lasted a decade. Now, this is not the only coin like this, whose designer seems to have known what a Byzantine coin looked like but not understood why, and Clive Foss is not the only scholar to suggest that these might be the small change of the Persian administration, keeping things running but with no real need to care about the traditional pedantries of Byzantine money. This is one of the types he mentions as a possible case of it, and I don’t have a better explanation!1 So this may be a Persian occupation coin, which would be pretty cool, and if it’s not, it’s an enigma, which is also cool.

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of the same coin

It was the Byzantines who eventually won the war, however, by dint of continuous and heroic efforts by both the home administration in Constantinople in raising tax and of the Emperor Heraclius in spending it in fast-moving and devastating field campaigns, often deep in enemy territory without contact with home. The whole story is quite exciting, but a big part of it was the desperate raising of money to pay troops.2 In the course of this all kinds of corners seem to have been cut to make money quicker, and this is particularly true of the small change, effctively valueless in and of itself and so of no actual need to make nicely. Rather than melt down old coins, therefore, the mints often just struck new designs straight on top of them, and as here, the old designs often remained partially visible. Now, Heraclius had risen to power by toppling and indeed executing Phocas, whose own coming to power had precipitated the war with Persia, and it is one of Phocas’s coins that was the victim of overstriking here; you can see on the face side, around the bottom left, the letters dN FOCAS that began that coin’s old legend, for ‘Our Lord Phocas’. But the actual emperor has been obliterated by Heraclius and his eldest son Constantine. That could be a powerful act of symbolism, and might just explain why, apparently, looking at its impression the new die was square. Was it actually designed to leave the old text visible to make it clear what had happened here? Well, almost any other coin of this period suggests that no such subtleties were being administered, and that these things were just overstruck on anything any old how, including after a while on Heraclius’s own old coins. What the point of this was, no-one has really figured out, and I have fun debating it in class every year now, but this particular example remains, at least, a poignantly expressive coincidence (and I still don’t know why the die was square).3


1. See 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), pp. 11-12, for the argument.

2. Probably the best account, for all that I would not recommend it methodologically, is James Howard-Johnston, “Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the Eastern Roman Empire, 622–630” in War in History Vol. 6 (Abingdon 1999), pp. 1–45, reprinted in Howard-Johnston, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot 2006), chapter VIII.

3. Compare Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 45 & 92, with Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 288; neither really had good explanations for the phenomenon.

3 responses to “I Found This Coin, 2: Byzantine small-change weirdnesses

  1. Pingback: Links of hopefully-still relevant interest | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: I found this coin, 3: imperial violence | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: I found this coin, 4: a Hungarian enigma | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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