It seems to have been a while since we had anything here about coins, so here’s a little coincidence that I notice every time I teach with it on my late-antique survey module, Empire and Aftermath. Predictably, I use coinage as a source on this, because we have a good collection to play with and it gets students involved who might not react so well to purely textual sources, but each year I do I am struck by something I remember from much longer ago in my career, which is this coin:
Obverse of an early English penny of the so-called Series L, struck at London in the late-seventh or early-eighth century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007
Reverse of the same coin
This is an early Anglo-Saxon penny, and it’s one of the very rare ones that actually carries some legible information about its place of issue: you may not believe me, but the letters around the presumably-royal bust decode as LVNDONIA, London. How many people could have read this, given that the actual coin is about the size of most people’s little fingernails, is another question, but it does, and a sibling of this coin in the same collection was even recovered from the River Thames, so that’s nicely coherent.1 However, today I’m more interested in the reverse imagery. Here it is bigger and clearer:
So, what can we be sure that we have here? A figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long-hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, seems reasonable. But he or she is also standing on some kind of crescent, perhaps? And the people who have tried to read this image have therefore wondered if she or he is on a boat, and thus even perhaps a missionary bringing the Christian faith to the English peoples as had indeed happened scarcely two generations before this coin was likely struck.2 It leaves the armoured-looking dress a little hard to explain, but as an iconographic reading it certainly fits its context nicely. But compare it to this one:
Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown, though I found it in 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), p. 32. It’s not actually part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, however, so I don’t know where it now is
I’m sorry that I have no better image of this, but it is one of those enigmatic coins produced in Syria during the earliest decades of Islam that I love to talk about so much.3 And here, again, we appear to have a figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, standing on some kind of crescent. And the people who have tried to read this image have not usually got much further than that it is a development or degeneration of a standing figure of the Byzantine emperor such as is seen on the later coinage of Emperor Heraclius, where he stands in campaign attire with a long cross and cross on a globe, and indeed it doesn’t seem too far a stretch. It might seem weird that a putatively Islamic issuer changes a small cross for a bigger one on a figure that is, putatively, still the emperor who no longer ruled them, but again, we have reason—from the coins!—to suspect that this was a very fluid period and we can’t, for example, be sure that the issuer of this coin wasn’t Christian and didn’t think that the emperor was still in charge, despite the current local régime change, so it’s all far from impossible.4
Copper-alloy 4-nummi of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732. The coins of this type usually carry Heraclius’s son standing behind him at his left, but many, like this one, were so carelessly made that he escapes the impression
The problem thus arises only when you know about both of these coins at once. If this is one design, as it appears, then it can’t easily be both a derivative Heraclius and Saint Augustine of Canterbury or whoever, not least because the Anglo-Saxon one also has a royal or imperial bust on it. It is possible, just about, that both engravers were deriving from the bronze coinage of Heraclius, but that is very hard to imagine being available as a model in Britain, since being copper-alloy it only had value inside the Empire; a few Byzantine bronzes are known from British contexts, but very few and to my knowledge from no later than the 580s.5 Also, we have to explain two unconnected engravers both deciding to do exactly the same things to the same design about half a century apart. It’s even less likely, to be honest, though still not impossible, that someone brought the Arab-Byzantine coin to Britain or the Britain-based engraver had met it in Syria.6 There are, admittedly, other versions of this design in both Britain and Syria that come closer to their supposed archetypes, and parallel evolution is maybe more plausible than I just made it sound, but there is, thankfully, a simpler answer. It looks like these:
Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection, image from Wildwinds under Constantine I, RIC VI 195
Silvered copper-alloy antoninianus of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins, image from Wildwinds, Severina, under RIC 20 V
The shared reverse type between these two issues is a figure of Concordia with two military standards, personifying harmony among the soldiers, Concordia militum, sometimes such an important message for a Roman ruler to send… It’s an image that still turns up out of the ground every now and then in Britain even now, and I imagine it’s not unknown in the Middle East either, but anyone digging up Roman settlements in either place in the seventh century would have had a chance of coming across one. The design, of course, is not a bloke with two crosses, but a lady with two imperial standards, but three or four centuries later some adaptation to the times probably shouldn’t surprise us, and it’s less of an adaptation than is required to get there from Heraclius and his campaign shorts.
Now, of course, that both engravers had such an image before them explains some things, but it doesn’t tell us either what they thought their model showed or what they understood in what they turned it into. The people who think the English coin shows a saint on a boat may still be right; that may be what the engraver decided the border of the original design meant, or even what it could mean; there was all kinds of scope for invention here.7 Likewise, in Syria, the choice to super-Christianize what had been a secular and indeed pagan image could have a lot of possible meanings, but they could certainly have been deliberate. By suggesting a model I don’t mean to suggest that the engravers of the coins didn’t have anything of their own in mind. But I do think it’s kind of cute that to do that, they themselves were probably engaged in exactly the same game as that we’re playing here, trying to figure out what was shown on these coins from hundreds of years before their own time.
1. There’s an absolutely huge literature on early Anglo-Saxon pennies, or sceattas as they’re widely known, and no space here to try to list it all, but the introductory discussion to coins like these particular ones that I use for students is Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.
2. E. g. Catherine Karkov, “The Boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage”, in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 63–71.
3. Citation is in the caption, obviously, but Foss is also a pretty good guide to the whole coinage, at least if you are prepared to be more relaxed about chronology than he wants to be.
4. Helpful here, or at least I find it so, is Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72.
5. Known to me from gossip but also from Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575–c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), p. 92, where his source is also gossip, but hey…
6. For a realistic assessment of pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land in this period, see Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.
7. On which see Anna Gannon, “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” in Barrie Cook and Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 193–208.