Category Archives: Byzantium

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Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

This gallery contains 9 photos.

This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last … Continue reading

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Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading

Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600

When I was facing my crise de confiance of the other week, one of the sillier causes was that I had processed a bunch of photos of the Foro Romano from when I was there in late 2017, and I couldn’t think of a point to posting any of them that I hadn’t made with the previous post, i. e. that we perceive ancient Rome via what the medieval (and subsequent) past chose to preserve and add to it. This has been very clear to me ever since I first saw a picture of the Foro di Nerva (I think in a paper by Chris Wickham?) with a ninth-century house’s foundations showing in it, and of course when I was actually there to see myself, it was still evident, in so far as anything is immediately evident in the thoroughly bewildering palimpsest that is the Roman fora.

A view down the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill

A view down the Foro Romano from the Palatine Hill, by your author

But as I was absorbing all the kind comments last week, for which many thanks, like something stirring from the mud at the bottom of a pond once the sunlight has reached it, a hook for the post occurred to me, and so here we are. This post is about the Column of Phocas, which was installed in the name of that Byzantine emperor (or, as he clearly saw himself, Roman emperor) in the Foro Romano in 608 CE.1)

The Column of Phocas in the Foro Romano

Yup, here it is, now minus the gilded statue of the eponymous emperor which apparently originally sat upon it and also the pyramid of steps by which it could still be approached in 1903

Phocas’s little offering here, which to his credit is still fairly visible, was the last piece of Roman imperial building in the Forum. We are now well past the time where the Roman emperors really had any role in Rome, you see. That time may really have ended in 476, when the last Western one who could access the city, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed (this is complex because there was also another candidate who could not, Julius Nepos; he died in 480); or it may have been earlier, really; it is, of course, as Phocas shows, a matter as much of someone wanting to do so as the emperors actually being able.2 But in any case, the role of patronage had kind of fallen to more local power-brokers since that point, such as the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (King of Italy for the Emperor 493-526 CE), much of whose monumental effort was nicked by Charlemagne in the early ninth century but some of whose modifications to the immense Palace of Domitian, which looms ruinously over the Forum to this day, are still identifiable.

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill, Rome

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill; according to the local signage its current state of remains is the one laid down by Theodoric

So the Column of Phocas is a real outlier. Its inscription makes it slightly less mysterious: it was not put up by order of the emperor, but in his honour, by the Exarch of Ravenna, Smaragdus, a man who owed his recall from exile and appointment to Phocas, or at least so says Wikipedia just now, though none of its indicated sources provide this information. This all makes a bit more sense if one understands that Ravenna, not Rome, had been the seat of imperial government in Italy since the early fifth century, and had been the base of this official, the exarch, for quite a lot of that time; he was supposed to be the ruler of Roman Italy on behalf of the emperor, a combined civil and military office which was supposed to make it easier to combat the encroachments of the Lombard kings and their warriors who had been pushing into Italy since 568.3 But this was, in general, working out better for Ravenna, secluded in marshland and on the near coast of Italy to the Byzantine Adriatic, than for inland and exposed Rome, and the people who were increasingly facing that reality were not really the exarchs, but the bishops of Rome, including especially famously this man, of whom we have heard on this blog before, Pope Gregory I (ruled 590-604).4

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, image by Vassilown work, licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, is renowned as one of the founding figures of the papacy and one of the very few early medieval popes about whom there is anything substantial written. As with all famous early medieval popes, that has a lot to do with the fact that only a very few’s letters survive, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have reputations for being vigorous reforming administrators, whereas the ones for whom we only have a short biography and maybe some building inscriptions are mostly forgotten or assumed to have been useless, which might not be entirely fair…5 In Gregory’s case, however, it’s a bit more than just letters that give this impression, as he also wrote some of the fundamental metatexts of Western Christianity, but it really is his letters that show him at full force (as I learnt in a different paper by Chris Wickham, which I don’t think I’ve yet blogged).6 Now, Gregory had complex relationships with the emperors. He was himself a native of the the city of Rome, and descended from senators, but had also spent some time in the imperial court at Constantinople as the papacy’s representative, under Phocas’s predecessor the emperor Maurice (ruled 578-602). During that time, Gregory was more or less unable to obtain Maurice’s help against the Lombards for Rome, and also got into a dispute over the appointment of Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, so it would be fair to say that he and Maurice did not see eye-to-eye. This only got worse when Gregory actually became pope. In the meantime, he had more or less taken over the civil administration of the city of Rome, as he saw it out of necessity and as the exarch saw it out of rebellious presumption, and was using the papal estates in Sicily to feed the city’s poor, thus more or less guaranteeing that in any contest between him and the exarch for their loyalty the citizens would line up behind the pope.7

A view down the Roman Forum towards the Curia from the Palatine Hill

It would be fair to say that now the Column doesn’t stand out much – you may be able to pick it out at the end here, next to the Arch of Septimius Severus – but it must have been even less visible among the buildings which still stood in 608.

Given all this, the fact that we have a monumental column being put up by the exarch in the name of the emperor in the absolute central imperial space in Rome soon after Gregory’s death may now seem a little more pointed. And I do suspect that this was what was going on. Wikipedia is almost certainly right to say (as it currently does):

Rather than a demonstration to mark papal gratitude as it is sometimes casually declared to be, the gilded statue on its column was more likely an emblem of the imperial sovereignty over Rome…

Of course, it wasn’t the same emperor by that time as had so offended Pope Gregory, and Gregory had indeed written very warm letters of congratulations to Phocas on his accession (the nature of which the pope was apparently able to ignore), but notice, all the same, that no column went up for Phocas under Gregory.8 In fact, though it was only four years after Gregory’s death when Smaragdus recycled various other monuments to make this one, that was already three popes, Sabinian (ruled 604-606), Boniface III (ruled 607) and Boniface IV (ruled 607-615), and Boniface IV had had to be bought off with the gift of the old and glorious temple of the Pantheon, which Boniface immediately converted into the church of Holy Mary and the Martyrs as it remains today.

Exterior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The Pantheon from outside, as it now is (or was in autumn of 2017)

Part of the interior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The interior of Holy Mary and the Martyrs needs some impossible wide-angle lens which I didn’t have to do it even partway justice. This is the only photo I took that gives any impression of the vertical space, and it’s still not right (albeit partly because of my cropping off tourist head level at the bottom)

So there are actually quite a few ways to read the Column of Phocas, and in the very little research I’ve done for this post I’ve been through several. It was, obviously, a statement of imperial involvement in the city of Rome once again, after really quite some attenuation. (It did ought to be said that Rome was still an imperial mint, as well, so the other such statement was the coinage, throughout this time, and that has to be put on the other side of the balance.) The Column may also have been an attempt by a slightly desperate imperial official to convince the people, after a decade of papal urban government and provision, that he had some power there, in the face of the recent evidence. And there are probably other ways to read it still. Either way, somehow it is still there, for the most part, and now really not very many people know who either Phocas or Smaragdus were and that this single monument represents about the last time the Roman emperors did something in Rome other than tax it or kidnap the pope to solve a theological dispute.9 But you are now among those people, so I hope it’s been a better way for you of displaying holiday photos than I otherwise had!


1. Ordinarily I would try to do better than this, sorry, but today because it’s late my main source for the actual Column is “Column of Phocas” in Wikipedia, online here.

2. We have discussed here before how the history of early medieval Rome is inadequately written, but some guide to the recent state of developments is to be found in Kate Cooper, Julia Hillner and Conrad Leyser, “Dark Age Rome: towards an interactive topography” in William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado (edd.), Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity, Late Antique Archaeology 3 (Leiden 2006), pp. 311–337.

3. For this the classic work is T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554-800 (London 1984).

4. Two good biographies are Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980) and R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge 1997).

5. One sign of what can be done with even that kind of limited material is Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: papal power, urban renovation, church rebuilding and relic translation, 817-824, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 77 (Cambridge 2010), but if there is another such for an earlier pope I don’t know about it.

6. The letters are available in translation, in full as The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans. John R. C. Martyn, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 (Toronto 2004), 3 vols, and in part online here.

7. Failing that paper of Chris Wickham’s, there’s Georg Jenal, “Gregor der Große und die Stadt Rom (590-604)” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 109–145, or relevant bits of Richards or Markus as in n. 4 above.

8. John R. C. Martyn, “Four Notes on the Registrum of Gregory the Great” in Parergon Vol. 19 (Perth 2002), pp. 5–38.

9. This happened more than once; see Judith Herrin, “Constantinople, Rome and the Franks in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries” in Jonathan Shepard and Simon Franklin (eds), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 91–107.

Historians to remember

It is a distressing habit that seems to be developing on this blog where it is deaths that bring me out of a hiatus. Of course, there would be no such habit if there were no hiatuses, but the times are not good for that. Maybe that will get more explanation next post, whenever I can do that, but in the meantime, I shouldn’t go the whole holiday and post nothing, even if what must be posted is kind of awful. It is also delayed: this has been on my deck since February, when news of one significant death reached me and the person who’d told me then let me know about the five other major medievalists the reaper had claimed the previous month, and there were such among them that I knew I would have to write something next post instead of whatever I had planned. And finally, here we are.

My rules for giving someone an obituary on this blog are not very worked out. In general it is because, whether I knew them or not, their work has touched mine somehow or been the foundation of something I’ve done. In this, I persist in the blog’s basically self-serving purpose that it’s all about me somehow, I suppose, but to be fair, if I reported on deaths even of people I didn’t have much connection with, firstly it’d become a pretty grim blog and secondly I’d hardly be able to say much of use about them. Thus it is that I will not be saying more here about the late Jean-Marie Martin, leading expert on the society of the Italian area of Apulia on its journey from Byzantine through Lombard, Arab and Norman rules, or Jean Richard, eminent historian of the Crusades, than those notices, except to observe that apparently Richard, whose work I’ve put on many a reading list without myself giving it the attention it surely deserved, was only two weeks short of his hundredth birthday, and to provide links under their names to places where you can read more.1

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn for Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study

Then come two about whom I have more to say, but still did not know. Firstly, Giles Constable, 91 at his death, and by that stage he had been Professor of Medieval History at Harvard and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, serving between times as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection in Washington DC, despite having been born in London. His was so productive a career it would hard to sum it up, and sufficiently long that I currently work with a doctoral grand-pupil of his. Wikipedia currently singles out his work on the key Benedictine reform abbey of Cluny, which I wrote about here long ago, on its abbot Peter the Venerable, a major figure in European theology and religious and intellectual life, and on twelfth-century thought in general, and certainly when making reading lists on Cluny or the twelfth-century Renaissance, I have always made sure as recent a dose of Constable as I could find was in there. That’s mostly because of reading bits of his work as an undergraduate myself, and finding that it carefully and clearly opened window after window on my understanding of the world he described.2 But what I still mainly cite him for is a short and brilliant article that did a similar thing for my understanding of the motivation of medieval monastic forgers, and sometimes for his work on monasteries’ claims to Church tithes, both of which are in that category of things which people still cite from decades ago because no-one has written a better thing on the subject.3 He seems to still have been working up to about 2016, at which point he’d have been 85 or so; may we all hope for so much…

Ronnie Ellenblum

Ronnie Ellenblum, from his Academia.edu page, which of course, does not record his death

Not active for as long, because only 68 when struck by a fatal heart attack, was Professor Ronnie Ellenblum. A more controversial figure, whom again I never met, every one of Ellenblum’s books seemed to upset a consensus, on how involved Frankish settlers were in the landscapes of the Holy Land where the Crusades brought some of them, on how much those Crusaders were willing to learn from their Muslim opponents in terms of fortifications and strategy (rather than the other way round), and more recently and noticeably, on the power of climate change to tip societies’ survivability over the edge.4 All of this, as you can probably tell, was born out of a deep acquaintance and close contact with the land in his native Israel. He also taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which by itself put him beyond some people’s pales. I did not know about that issue when, as was recorded here, I read a short piece of his that was effectively the entire impetus of my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project, but that was, in a more direct way than usual, his fault; from my wrangling with that book chapter came all the conversations that brought the agenda for that project into being.5 If I had ever met him, I’d have thanked him for that, as well as being embarrassed about how little the project yet had to show for itself; now I will never be able to.

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Then we reach the ones I did in fact know, at least a bit. The death whose news sparked off the exchange I reported above was that of the one I knew less well, Professor Cyril Mango. I met him twice, I think, at the Medieval History Seminar at All Soul’s College Oxford both times, and when I say met, I mean sat at a table while he talked, or while his wife Marlia Mundell Mango talked for him because, even then, he was very ill. Farflung Byzantinist colleagues would ask me if Cyril Mango was still alive when they were in contact with me for completely other reasons, so widely known was this, but the news was important because he truly was a ‘giant in the field‘, who had been responsible perhaps more than any other single scholar—and there really weren’t many in this competition when he began—for bringing the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire into a wider Anglophone awareness. This was not because he was a populariser, though I don’t think he had any shame about writing for a public, but because despite being extremely learned in his subject matter he remained able to communicate it to outsiders whilst still being recognised by insiders. The result was that, if someone in the UK owned one book not by John Julius Norwich about Byzantium, Mango was probably either the author or a contributor, but also that if one went on to study Byzantium, he was in all the experts’ references too.6 The field has been oddly quiet about his departure from it, perhaps because it had been expected for so long, and I’m sure there are people from his 92-year-long life who could give him a better write-up than I can—indeed, several already have—but for now I hope this does him at least some justice.

[The only pictures of Professor Michael Clanchy I can find which show him as I remember him are attached to things written by his daughter about his death, which was apparently preceded very narrowly by his wife’s, and they’re painful reading and I would feel bad stealing the pictures. The obituaries linked below have pictures of him in happier times.]

And then lastly, and for me saddest because I knew him best, there was Michael Clanchy. Since he worked mostly in the same kind of fields as Giles Constable, and especially on the intellectual ferment around the creation of the first university in Paris and one of that ferment’s principal products, the philosopher, theologian and leading candidate for history’s worst boyfriend Peter Abelard, you might wonder why I knew Michael Clanchy at all, and then be surprised at how many papers of his, including one (before the blog) which was both his inaugural and retirement lecture, I’d been to. But, investigating, you would quickly then discover that that lecture was given at the Institute of Historical Research in London, one of my academic homes, and although he really only tuned in the eleventh century in terms of his own work, he was a regular at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because he found everything interesting as far as I can see. Consequently, because kindness returns kindness, people used to go to his stuff as well, but this was also because he made it all so interesting. His biography of Abelard may still be the only work that manages to make the man interesting personally as well as significant intellectually, as well as at least halfway comprehensible to the non-expert, not least because as its title suggests it is about far more than just Abelard.7 But as far as I know, excellent though that book is, especially if accompanied by his revision of the Penguin translation of Abelard’s and Héloïse’s letters, it only had the one edition, unlike the one that most people had heard of Michael Clanchy for, From Memory to Written Record, which argued for a fundamental shift in the way people used and stored information over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and in which by the third edition, under pressure from those who knew England before the Conquest better than after (and better than he did), he was beginning to extend that thinking backwards into a new way of thinking about how writing was being used then that I’m not sure anyone has really picked up.8 And there’s an article of Michael’s from 1970, even, that still gets cited, another of those things that are just too good to replace.9 But it is his kindness for which he might deserve to be remembered best. I don’t know how many conversations I had with him in the IHR tea-room in which he not just professed but maintained an interest in what I did, even once or twice asking very junior me for advice on early medieval archives, none of which, since he could never teach me and our periods barely even met at the edges, he needed to do. I will of course remember him for his work, but I will also remember those conversations and be thankful for him. I can picture him trying bashfully to shrug off the praise, and of course, again, I shan’t ever get to deliver it, but also again, I hope this is something.

I need to rethink what I am doing with this blog, again, since the backlog and the available time obviously don’t work together. I will try and do some of that rethinking for the next post, but even if that doesn’t sound thrilling, at least it more or less must be more cheerful than this one. Thanks for still reading and I hope to write more soon.


1. For Martin, the work for which he was famous beyond Apulia was probably his first book, which made that area well-known to a wider audience, J.-M. Martin, La Pouille du VIe au XIIe siècle, Collection de l’École française de Rome 179 (Rome 1993), but I confess, it is one of those I know I ought to have read, and actually what I know him for most is his contribution to Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, “Quelques réflexions sur l’évolution des droits banaux en Italie méridionale (XIe-XIIIe siècle)” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 339–344. Richard is easily most famous for The Crusades, c. 1071–c. 1291, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1999), one of the only textbook histories of the Crusades that gets beyond the Fourth one.

2. Embarrassingly, I now can’t work out what work it was that I was then reading; I apparently didn’t make notes on it, and several of the obvious things came out too late. It could, just about, have been, G. Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society (Cambridge 1995), then very new, and may more likely have been idem, “Renewal and Reform in Religious Life: Concepts and Realities” in Robert L. Benson (ed.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century(Cambridge MA 1982), pp. 37–67, but one could also mention Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge 1996) or idem, The Abbey of Cluny: A Collection of Essays to Mark the Eleventh-Hundredth Anniversary of its Foundation, Abhandlungen Vita Regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter, 43 (Münster 2010), as only two. For me especially, there’s also the quite out-of-area Constable, “Frontiers in the Middle Ages” in O. Merisalo (ed.), Frontiers in the Middle Ages, Textes et études du Moyen Âge 35 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 3–28.

3. Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 39 (München 1983), pp. 1–41; idem, Monastic Tithes from their Origins to the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 2nd Series 10 (Cambridge 1964).

4. Respectively, Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge 2003); idem, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge 2007) and idem, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072 (Cambridge 2012).

5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there Borders and Borderlines in the Middle Ages? The Example of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105–118.

6. While it doesn’t cover his whole œuvre by any means, I guess one has to mention Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York City, NY, 1980), idem, Le développement urbain de Constantinople, IVe-VIIe siècles, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Collège de France, Monographies, 2, 2nd edn (Paris 2004) and idem (ed.), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford 2002). Even that omits a number of critical source translations and a vital textual anthology of sources for Byzantine art, idem (ed.), The Art of Byzantine Empire (New York City NY 1972), and I could go on.

7. M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: a medieval life (Oxford 1999).

8. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd edn (Chichester 2013); one should probably also mention his England and its Rulers, 1066–1307, 3rd edn (Oxford 2006).

9. Clanchy, “Remembering the Past and the Good Old Law” in History Vol. 55 (London 1970), pp. 165–176.

Money doesn’t stink (once the blood’s dry)

There was, of course, lots in Michael Hendy’s magnum opus that I was writing about last post that might have provoked a blog post, but apparently I only stubbed one other, and this was it, a reflection on something he was willing to do that many scholars now are not, which is, cite material which he’d seen on sale as well as material in collections.* For example, when I worked at the Barber Institute, we were offered one quite large and fascinating collection; but English law on importing antiquities, which largely follows a UNESCO Convention about the same, made it such a headache to accept that instead the collector in question just sold the stuff. That was a bit of a loss to scholarship, because even if we could track every one of those coins through the market the corpus will still never be together again. But I can also point you at reasonably well-founded-looking stories about how antiquities looting funded ISIS and we’ve heard before here about one rather surreal case of how crime will feed the antiquities market if the antiquities market will buy from it, so though it’s a somewhat extreme position, that there are some scholars who won’t even cite material from sales, let alone buy things themselves, because you just can’t know who got it out of the ground when and whether you’d want them to be able to keep doing that because of your contributions to the market.1 And then I can remember a presentation at the International Numismatic Congress in which an Afghan curator whose museum had been looted had sent a message to the Congress urging us please, please, to ignore the law and buy his museum’s stuff if we saw it come up, so that at least it would not be lost or destroyed, and by now you get the idea that whatever the ethics of this question are, they’re not completely simple.2

Map of the location of Isauria in Asia Minor

The red dot shows where Isauria, the district within which the plurifocal city of Isaura lay, was within Asia Minor; image by Keith Johnston and Polylerus (talk), derivative work, made from Asia_Minor_Map,_Classical_Atlas,_1886,_Keith_Johnston.jpg, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Hendy, however, writing in the early 1980s, was able to remain unconcerned by such issues, and this became very clear when I reached his brief discussion of the Byzantine coinage of Isaura. Isaura was a mint only for a very short time, between 617 and 619, during the desperate campaigns of Emperor Heraclius against Persia. One of several such short-lived mints, and replacing one at nearby Seleucia, it seems to have been meant to provide deployed armies with small change at a time when that could not reliably be brought from Constantinople in time. Its products are rare, and Hendy alone knew of one from the final year of operation, 618/19, of which he said: “I owe knowledge of the so far unique coin (a follis) of this year, seen in the bazaar at Silifke, to Jim Russell.”3

Now, as far as I can see, that specimen—which Hendy himself had not seen, as he admits—remains unique, and we could probably more or less safely dismiss it as being either a fake or so very rare as to be historically insignificant. But the coins of Isaura are rare in any variety. Hendy’s collection of reference, the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington DC, largely assembled by Philip Grierson, contained none when catalogued in 1973, although it subsequently acquired two. The British Museum currently has eight—though if you follow that search link, don’t believe the single picture they have, which is of something quite different—but its catalogue of Byzantine material, published in 1920, contains only two, though the modern digital catalogue also counts two which Wroth thought belonged to Antioch, and I think, as apparently do the current curators, that he was wrong.4 The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has two, or did in 1970.5 The American Numismatic Society has one, only. And the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, of which Hendy was notionally curator when he wrote the above, has four, for what it’s worth, but none of 618/619.6 I bet there are more in collections from closer to the site, too, but I can’t straight away find their catalogues online. (I did just try the Hermitage in St Petersburg, not exactly closer but at least not Western, but no results there; the Istanbul Archaeological Museum so far doesn’t have a catalogue online.) So from the obvious Western collections at least, that’s a corpus of seventeen coins of Isaura, which is not all that many when just the Barber’s total sample of coins of Heraclius from all mints is more than a thousand pieces. The total corpus of Heraclius across those same collections is probably in the order of four thousand, and Isaura thus probably contributes nearly half a per cent of that corpus.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

An impressively messy example, a copper-alloy follis of Heraclius overstruck on one of Emperor Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

Now, forgive me if this is already an obvious point, but whence, and indeed when, did these coins arrive in those collections? In some cases, this information is not available: the ANS record, for example, doesn’t make this public, though they got it in 1984, rather after the UNESCO Convention. Dumbarton Oaks got its from Harlan J. Berk in 1977 and from none other than Simon Bendall in 1980, who apparently traded some Palaeologan coins for it. Perhaps the other party in the swap had full provenance details going back past 1970; perhaps. I can’t supply details for the Barber any more, though almost all its Byzantine stuff was given to the University of Birmingham by Philip Whitting in 1967 and he acquired almost all his stuff through London dealers, so the Barber is probably on the right side of UNESCO here, at least, if only by reason of age. One of the BNF’s coins came to them from the collection of Gustave Schlumberger in the 1860s and the other was already there when a catalogue was first made in 1853, so their trail vanishes into antiquity in a way which almost certainly involves colonial tourism and bazaars, but can’t be shown to. And the BM got its first one in 1859 from one J. B. Warren, bought another from Henri Hoffmann in 1862, these being the two which Wroth published; it subsequently ‘acquired’ four, we are not told whence, in 1920 (two of them), 1925 and 1927, and has no provenance for the remaining two that Wroth misassigned to Antioch, except that they must have arrived before he published in 1920. But if we were in a position to dig further, which for example at the Barber I was, we’d be able to find where Philip Whitting bought those coins, and at the BM possibly where Warren and Hoffmann bought theirs, and maybe even at Paris whence Schlumberger got his, and I bet you that they were all either bought from dealers in London or Paris or actually off market tables in Turkey or Syria, or from people who one way or another had got them from those tables. Perhaps one or two were actually found in archaeological digs, but archaeology in Ottoman territories was usually a matter of licensed European plundering anyway, and the Paris examples pretty much pre-date archaeology as a practice, as do the oldest London ones. Probably none of these coins would be bought, or even accepted gratis, by those collections today.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, CNG Classical Auctions, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1368

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, Classical Numismatic Group, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1365

But they’re out there, even so. This one was sold at auction by Classical Numismatic Group in 1997 and then again in 2005; there don’t seem to be any obviously available right now through the main dealerships, and looking at eBay through a proxy so as not to stain my own search history, I can’t see any there either, but every now and then one clearly comes up. Now, even by showcasing this coin here I’ve stepped over a line for some of my colleagues; for them to use anything that’s passed through trade is to validate it and the continuing market for such things. And it can’t be said that much would be lost if I hadn’t used it; I have access to other images of the type, as we’ve seen, and there’s nothing unique about this one. We can certainly say that without Hendy’s friend’s find we wouldn’t know the mint dragged on into late 618, but firstly no-one else has ever seen or recorded such a coin, secondly it’s a matter of whether it had an extra vertical stroke right out near the border of the reverse right field, a call which I find hard enough to make even on the photos above, and thirdly that detail probably makes no difference to our greater picture of Heraclius’s reign or Byzantine coinage anyway. If Jim Russell had not been in that bazaar when he was, or had not told Hendy, or Hendy not told us, probably nothing much changes for numismatic or historical scholarship.

But how far back do we want to go with that logic? What if we decided even the 617/618 coins were unusable because of their provenance, or their lack of it? Well, because of the scholarship which had used them already, we would still know that there had been a mint at Isaura and what its products looked like, but we might argue that we should not, because that scholarship was using materials that we would not ourselves use. What if, because this kind of selection had operated in the 1970s and 1980s too, and all the way back to the 1860s when Schlumberger was writing, we just didn’t know about the Isaura mint? What else would we then not know? Well, the series of short-lived mints that date from these years collectively tell us several things. Heraclius didn’t maintain these mints once they’d served their purpose, so they weren’t a new part of the system, they were emergency measures. Therefore, they tell us that the Empire was in trouble; we knew this from the narratives, but that it couldn’t ship small change around safely for several years is a bit of extra depth when otherwise we are mainly told that Heraclius couldn’t pay his troops in gold, once only, eight years later.7 On the other hand, that this could be done tells us something about the administrative ability of the empire even in crisis; mints, whose output seems negligible now but must have been in many thousands at the time, could be set up and shut down, or moved where necessary, quickly and usefully, and systems which were temporarily not useful could be circumvented.

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck onto one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of the same coin

Thus, the coins of Seleucia, Isaura, Alexandretta and maybe Cyprus—though Cyprus went on working as a mint, so doesn’t quite fit the pattern—do tell us not just how much trouble the Empire was in but also what it could do about it, in detail we wouldn’t get any other way. Obviously, any one of those mints by itself would suggest that; two together probably shows a pattern; we might not need the third. But since the same objections about provenance could doubtless be raised about Heraclian coins of Seleucia and Alexandretta, and indeed without Seleucia and Isaura being known I imagine we’d be attributing the Alexandretta coins to Alexandria because to hypothesize an entire mint on their basis would seem a little foolhardy, and we’d have no indication of where else it might have been anyway, I think the question has to be asked about the whole sample.8 And of course we could carry on up the scale from there ad absurdum; I’m not sure where the absurd starts on this ladder of hypotheses, myself, but we don’t need to climb it all to get there.

Of course, it is absurd, because we don’t do this; the known coins in collections are known, are somewhat published, and have been described in scholarly publication and synthesized into the history of the period, and I’ve not (yet) heard anyone suggesting we should actually roll back on what we claim to know because of it being based on dodgy antiquities and colonial looting, even if some might suggest those collections shouldn’t still be keeping the coins. But thanks to the UNESCO Convention and its pretty widespread uptake, really no other collections can get such coins, only ‘unscrupulous’ private collectors can. (The fact that sometimes those collectors do in fact contribute to scholarship is an issue I can’t look at now, but it has been noted.9) What that ends up meaning, therefore, is that the scholarship has to work with the established material in the big Western collections, because those were all bought, ‘acquired’ or looted long enough ago that we can ignore it. In other words, the Victorians and Edwardians did so much of our dirty work that we can afford to keep our hands clean and insist that others abstain without loss to ourselves.

Now, I myself don’t have a next step from this; I’m stuck in the dilemma. The loss to regional heritages from looting, nighthawking and sale of antiquities is well-documented and huge and I’ve done my bit in documenting it. But even that misnomer of a hoard was only acquired just in advance of a change in English law that now wouldn’t permit Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise Service to do that; now, the Barber’s hands would have stayed off and it would now presumably be in a crate on a shelf in Rotherham or somewhere, in an uncollapseable legal Schrödinger state from which it could be neither sold nor given, unknown to basically everyone in the world (next to the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps). Then again, when stuff comes up on eBay that’s probably out of Palmyra or the now-dispersed collections of the Iraqi National Museum, I wince, and if we did follow that Afghan curator’s advice and buy it anyway, to safeguard it, of course more would turn up to feed that demand and whether or not the money eventually paid for someone to kill someone else, what’s pretty clear is that the stuff would not be returned to the land and people whence it came. But, equally, if the Academy as vested in the global West didn’t have these massive colonial legacy collections to resource its scholarship, acquired by means just as dodgy but a century or two older, I wonder if it would be quite so unanimous about how we shouldn’t participate. I don’t think that means that we should just declare open house on looted antiquities, obviously, but I’d be more comfortable about the debate about what people should do if it involved just a bit more privilege-checking from those who aren’t at risk of exclusion because the international moral clock only started in 1970.


* The title of this post derives from a story told of the Emperor Vespasian, who infamously imposed a charge for the use of public latrines in the city of Rome. When it was put to him that it was beneath his imperial dignity to make money from people’s bodily waste like this, he is said to have held a coin to his nose and replied, “The money doesn’t stink.” I couldn’t find a good way to work this into the actual text of the post, though…

1. Here’s a selection of such scholarship ranging over the last couple of decades: Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade” in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Vol. 36 (Abingdon 1997), pp. 49-58; Neil Brodie and Colin Renfrew, “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” in Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 34 (Palo Alto 2005), pp. 343–361; Paula K. Lazrus and Alex W. Barker (edd.), All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on our Knowledge of the Past (Washington D.C. 2012); Blythe Bowman Proulx, “Archaeological Site Looting in ‘Glocal’ Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency” in American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117 (Boston MA 2013), pp. 111–123; Fiona Rose-Greenland, ‘Inside ISIS’ looted antiquities trade’ in The Conversation, 31 May 2016, online here. I started collecting things like this in order to help write Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe AZ 2012), pp. 459-489, but as you can see the problem has continued despite our short-lived digital contribution.

2. Reported in Michael Alram’s contribution to the closing ceremony, XVth International Numismatic Congress, Taormina, 24th September 2015.

3. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 416 n. On the coinages more generally, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 120-121, and in more details, Philip Grierson, “The Isaurian Coins of Heraclius” in Numismatic Chronicle 6th Series Vol. 11 (London 1951), pp. 56–67.

4. Warwick Wroth (ed.), Catalogue of the Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, 2 vols (London 1908), I, nos 274a & 275 (pp. 223-224), with the rest of Isaura as then thought at nos 266-268 (p. 221). Dumbarton Oaks would have had them, if they had had, in Alfred Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, 5 vols in 9 (Washington DC 1966-2006), vol. II pt 1, ed. Grierson, online here.

5. Cécile Morrisson (ed.), Catalogue des monnaies byzantines de la Bibliothèque nationale, 2 vols (Paris 1970), vol. I, nos 10/IS/Æ/01-02 (p. 290).

6. Though great efforts were continuing up until Covid-19 struck, these coins are among the part of the Barber’s Collection that has yet to go online. They can however be cited as Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B3493-B3496.

7. For more on this and Heraclius’s response, see Michael F. Hendy, “On the Administrative Basis of the Byzantine Coinage c. 400-c. 900 and the Reforms of Heraclius” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingaham 1970), pp. 129–154.

8. On the difficulty of attributing the Alexandretta coins see Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 73-74; their chronology is not quite the same, but shows Heraclius using the same strategy earlier on.

9. See Jackson Hase and Rebecca Darley, “Collections to think with: Collecting, scholarship and belonging in the R. E. Hart collection (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)” in Journal of the History of Collections Vol. 32 (Oxford 2020), pp. 369–378.

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

Staying where it was relatively safe in mid-2017, the workshop I’ve just described was only the first of three days’ funded activity, which Dr Luca Zavagno and I had scheduled to allow him to do everything we’d been given money for him to do in the UK in a single trip. Whereas the previous day’s work had been on my Frontiers project, we now turned to Luca’s one, The World of Byzantine Islands. Here we’d planned two things in Leeds, the first being a kind of consultation workshop with the most obviously interested medievalists on Leeds’s staff, and the second being a graduate seminar the day after. Actually, in retrospect, I think we might better have planned to do these the other way round, as the way the latter worked was that Luca effectively presented his project in a twenty-minute paper and then invited discussion, whereas in the former the presentation was much quicker, as for peers; I think that in theory he’d have got better discussion for the staff having had the extra day to think about his project having seen the fuller presentation. However, I say only in theory, because actually we got very little take-up for the graduate seminar – my own fault for late publicity as much as anything – and so it became an extension of the already-active discussion from the previous day. So maybe it all went as well as it could have done. Anyway, to write about it now probably means reprising Luca’s project brief, and then picking up on the same kind of points of interest as I did in the previous Frontiers post. There is inevitably some overlap, because several of the same people were involved and thinking with what they’d done the previous day, but I don’t think that was a bad thing either…

So, Luca has of course written about his own project and you can see the brief for it here. Plus which, we have subsequently published on it, together even, and you could also read that.1 Because of all that I’ll be ultra-short here. Basically, Luca is contending with an established historiography that sees the islands of the Mediterranean as a frontier zone of the Byzantine Empire, and that largely in the sense of a defensive bulwark, peripheral, cut off and generally hostile, both to outsiders to the empire and, sometimes, to outsiders from within the empire.2 Luca, whose research in this area started on Cyprus and has now spread, is however aware of an increasingly busy amount of archaeology which suggests that most of the Mediterranean islands remained quite vibrant, both in terms of their connection with the wider empire and of their own ecologies, economies and political self-determination within the imperial sphere.3 Where this leaves Luca is arguing that the islands, and particularly Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, maybe also Crete and Malta, all of which were Byzantine long after the land-ward coastlines that would be lost to Islam had been, were not an edge or somehow a central part of a landward territory but a kind of third space, whose characteristics he is now trying to define.4

View of the Mediterranean from the Castell de Santueri, Felanitx, Mallorca

View of the Mediterranean from the part-Byzantine Castell de Santueri (not this part, I suspect), in Felanitx, Mallorca, once a seat of Byzantine island government; image from Mallorca Tourist Guide, no copyright stated

So in the first of these workshops, as I say, Luca gave us less of this than he would in the graduate seminar the next day, I think because he didn’t want to exclude any approaches. As a result, he found himself in the midst of a kind of all-comers ideas tennis, in which the other players, apart from myself, were my colleagues Dr Alan Murray, who had been in on the previous day’s session too and who knew Luca independently, and Professor Emilia Jamroziak, then-Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, as well as Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London, who is an affiliate of the IMS but was also the third partner in Luca’s project. (Alan and Rebecca also came along to the graduate seminar the next day, but I’m going to concentrate here on the workshop, because it’s there that, going back over my notes, I can see the roots of a lot of things the project ended up generating, and it thus helps to explain a bit what it is that we academics actually get out of the travelling to talk to each other that we’ve largely had to give up this year. I’m not sure if we could have got the same results though video-conferencing, I will admit…)

So. Because Luca had left relatively little defined, we spent the first part of the discussion trying to establish what made good parameters for the project. The high medievalists wanted to know what it was about Luca’s 7th- to 9th-century timeframe that made sense, which is of course the Byzantine-Islamic transition in the islands; but that meant working out what that transition was for the islands and when it happened to them. Even the conquest dates of some of them are not very clear, but there were arguably bigger, slower changes afoot anyway. Rebecca, for example, argued (following Chris Wickham) that the critical change in the government of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity was not that of Islam but of the Vandal capture of North Africa in the early 5th century and the Persian one of Egypt in the very early 7th, both of which broke tax spines that maintained Roman capitals (Rome and Constantinople respectively) and ended the Roman mare nostrum.5 Luca pointed out that the islands didn’t necessarily fall out of imperial orbits when the coastlines did, not least because of their role as naval bases, which tended to maintain other features of control too.6 Nonetheless, we coalesced around the idea that cultural change might have been happening at different times and in different directions from place to place, or even the same things happening for different reasons, such as settlement moving off the coasts, which could be either because fewer people were coming to these places across the sea, making trade less viable a living and port cities less useful (as may have happened in Malta) or contrarily because more people were coming by sea and they were dangerous (as is supposed to have happened in the Balearics—but see my subsequent article on that…).7

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

The citadel of Mdina, Malta, another erstwhile site of Byzantine island government, image by 5-five-5, copyright not stated, linked through

With the idea of variation sort of established, I tried to apply that favourite intellectual jemmy of mine, scale, to try and group the variations and thus be able still to say something general about the change.8 It seemed to me that not all the Mediterranean islands could have had the same range of options in the period: some were too small to defend themselves, and some too big to be closed off from seaward access. I still think this is important, but in fact in the subsequent publication, it was Rebecca who really took this point and made it useful, whereas I kind of dropped it, so I’m not sure how much credit I can take.9 Still, it is interesting to review the notes and see the sharing of ideas that generated those papers which became articles; as I say, it maybe justifies the whole endeavour…

Perhaps the most interesting idea, though, at least for me, came from none of the project partners but from Professor Jamroziak, who rightly said that none of the categories by which we seemed to want to define ‘islands’ managed to include all Luca’s test cases terribly well and that we seemed to need a new definition or category. If not, he might have to deal with the possibility that things which were not, geographically, islands, still shared all the important characteristics of them. This really sparked thoughts for me, as I started coming with Byzantine landward fringe settlements that might fit. I should have thought of the various city-states down the Adriatic coast, like Ragusa or Dubrovnik, which was still basically an independent town in the tenth century as Emperor Constantine VII records, but what I actually thought of was Byzantium’s Crimean outpost at Cherson and the Islamic military colony at la Garde-Freinet, near modern Saint-Tropez.10 And you can see that this sank deep from what I ended up writing for the project.11 I don’t think I really gave Emilia the credit she was due for that thought in that piece, though; so, belatedly, I do so now. She started that hare, and my thanks to her!

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, site of Byzantine coastal government but for a long time linked to Byzantium only by sea; ‘island’? Image by Diego Delso, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By the end of this workshop, then, we’d all more or less prevailed upon Luca to develop a more variegated model of change in his study area, to reconsider his chronological scope and to rethink his optimistic view of connectivity as always being sufficient to have much effect on society or, if it did, always being positive. This last argument was still going on in the publication, indeed, but the use of the workshop was pretty clear and when Luca’s book on all this emerges you’ll be able to see where we were any help!12 This was not by any means what we spent most of that grant money on—in fact, we weren’t even able to spend all we’d got and had to give some back—but if I’ve shown you how it might have been usefully spent even so, then my purpose here is achieved, for today anyway…


1. Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley and Jonathan Jarrett, “Editorial” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–139, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

2. Perhaps centred upon Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, Byzantina Sorbonensia 8 & 9 (Paris 1988), 2 vols.

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see 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).

4. See for an early take on these issues Luca Zavagno, “‘Islands in the stream’: toward a new history of the large islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages ca. 600 – ca. 800” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 149–177, DOI: 10.1080/09518967.2018.1535393; now see Zavagno, “‘No Island is an Island’: The Byzantine Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages (600s-850s)”, The Legends Journal of European History Studies, Supplement 1 (Tokat 2020), pp. 57-80, DOI: 10.29228/legends.44375, and between the two one can set Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375.

5. Based on Chris Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ in Past & Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, DOI: 10.1093/past/103.1.3, revised in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), pp. 7–42.

6. On the navy in the period see most obviously Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine navy” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 100 (Berlin 2008), pp. 577-603, DOI: 10.1515/BYZS.2008.577.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101 at pp. 199-204 for the Balearics and pp. 218-220 for Malta, largely based on Nathaniel Cutajar, Core & Periphery: Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries, ed. Godwin Vella, Medieval Malta 1 (Valletta 2018), for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. My tools here come from Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: A Scale-Based Approach” in Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9–30, DOI: 10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4766.

9. See Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930 at pp. 239-241.

10. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, rev. edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967; reprinted 1993 and 2008), cap. 29 (pp. 122-139) covers the various cities of the Dalmatian coast, including Ragusa, and for what it’s worth cap. 53 (pp. 259-287) gives an extensive and mostly legendary account of Cherson.

11. Jarrett, “‘Nests of Pirates’?”, pp. 212-218.

12. It should be coming out pretty soon as Luca Zavagno, The Byzantine Insular World: beyond the periphery (Amsterdam forthcoming).

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back. Continue reading

Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

The last thing I promised I’d write about from the quarter-slice of 2017 through which this blog’s backlog is presently proceeding was the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, from 25th to 27th March of that year. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this conference, starting with the whole story of the Spring Symposium, which has, as that title suggests, been happening for 50 years, rotating away from and back to Birmingham like a short-duration comet; or one could tell the story of its founder, Anthony Bryer, who had died the previous year and so was being extensively commemorated here; or how it had fallen in this year upon Professor Leslie Brubaker and my two erstwhile Barber Institute collaborators, Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds, to organise it (which earns one the title of ‘Symposiarch’); but for me the chief story is probably always going to be how I arrived as a guest and was converted to presenter at twenty minutes’ notice and still more or less got away with it. So if that intrigues you, or if an international conference on Byzantine Studies does indeed, read on, and for the rest of you, since this post is long, I shall simply set out the running order of what I saw, then stick a cut in and expound at greater length beyond it. So! Here we go.

By now-ancient tradition, the organisation of the Spring Symposium wherever it is held is two-level, with keynote lectures and plenary sessions to which the whole gathering can go at one level, and at the other ‘communications’, these being shorter papers which run in parallel strands. On this occasion there was also a third part, in the form of a postgraduate workshop following the main proceedings. All this together means that my academic itinerary through the conference went like this:

    25th March

  • Michael Whitby, “Welcome”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “What is Global Byzantium?”
  • Catherine Holmes, “Global Byzantium: a Whirlwind Romance or Fundamental Paradigm Shift?”
  • Coffee break

  • Rebecca Darley, “India in the Byzantine Worldview”
  • Antony Eastmond, “Constantinople: Local Centre and Global Peripheries”
  • Francesca dell’Acqua, “What about Greek(s) in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Italy?”
  • Lunch

  • Matthew Kinloch, “Historiographies of Reconquest: Constantinople, Iberia and the Danelaw”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Clerical Marriage in Comparative Perspective”
  • Kristian Hansen-Schmidt, “Constantine’s Μονοχυλα: Canoe or Viking Ship?”
  • Lauren Wainwright, “Import, Export: the Global Impact of Byzantine Marriage Alliances during the 10th Century”
  • Jeffrey Brubaker, “What is Byzantine about ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’?”
  • Adrián Elías Negro Cortes, “Tributes Linked to Military Actions in Both Ends of the Mediterranean: from Byzantium to Spain”
  • Tea

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Forgotten Africa and the Global Middle Ages”
  • Tim Greenwood, “Composing History at the Margins of Empire: Armenian Chronicles in Comparative Perspective”
  • John Haldon, “A ‘Global’ Empire: the Structures of East Roman Longevity”
  • Robin Milner-Gulland, “Ultimate Russia – Ultimate Byzantium”
  • Champagne Bus and Conference Dinner1

    26th March

  • Liz James, “Byzantine Art – A Global Art? Looking beyond Byzantium”
  • Hugh Kennedy, “The State as an Econmic Actor in Byzantium and the Caliphate c. 650-c. 950: A Cross-Cultural Comparison”
  • Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “‘Maniera Greca’ and Renaissance Europe: More Than Meets the Eye”
  • Henry Maguire, “Magical Signs in Byzantium and Islam: A Global Language”
  • Coffee

  • Julia Galliker, “Silk in the Byzantine World: Transmission and Technology”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Attracting Poles: Byzantium, al-Andalus and the Shaping of the Mediterranean in the 10th Century”
  • Lunch and Auction

  • Claudia Rapp, “Secluded Place or Global Magnet? The Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai and its Manuscript Collection”
  • Robert Ousterhout, “The ‘Helladic Paradigm’ in a Global Perspective”
  • Arietta Papaconstantinou, “Spice Odysseys: Exotic ‘Stuff’ and its Imaginary”
  • Tea

  • Hajnalka Herold, “How Byzantine was 9th-Century Moravia? An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Nik Matheou, “New Rome & Caucasia, c. 900-1100: Empire, Elitedom and Identity in a Global Perspective”
  • Alexandra Vukovich, “A Facet of Byzantium’s Ideological Reach: the Case of Byzantine Imitation Coins”
  • Andrew Small, “‘From the Halls of Tadmakka to the Shores of Sicily’: Byzantine Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 11th century”, read by Nik Matheou
  • Flavia Vanni, “Transferring Skills and Techniques across the Mediterranean: Some Preliminary Remarks on Stucco in Italy and Byzantium”
  • Wine Reception

    27th March

  • Peter Sarris, “Centre or Periphery? Constantinople and the Eurasian Trading System at the End of Antiquity”
  • Linda Safran, “Teaching Byzantine Art in China: Some Thoughts on Global Reception”
  • Daniel Reynolds, “Jerusalem and the Fabrication of a Global City”
  • Coffee, then a closing round table session as follows:

  • Fotini Kondyli, “Material Culture”
  • Margaret Mullett, “Global Literature”
  • Joanna Story, “The View from… the West”
  • Scott Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World: Global Perspectives?”
  • Naomi Standen, “East Asia”
  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”

That’s exhausting even to have typed out, and I certainly can’t come up with something to say about every paper at three years’ remove without basically repeating my already-somewhat illegible notes, so instead I’ll try to pull some general trends out of that list and then focus particularly on the theme and people’s approaches to it. What with me not really being a Byzantinist, that may mean a slightly odd selection, but you’re used to that, I know. Everybody involved deserves a better press than this will give them, but there just isn’t sensible space.2 In any case, now you can see what the rest of the post may look like, this is a good place for the cut and then the deeply interested can continue at their leisure. Continue reading

I found this coin, 4: a Hungarian enigma

Marking jail continued further into the Easter vacation than it was supposed to and will resume tomorrow, but despite an intensive program of sleeping and eating between those sentences, I have found this time to write you a very quick blog post. And as so often when I need a quick post, this one is about a coin, another of the ones from the University of Leeds collection that I was using for teaching and had thus photographed, as you can now see below.

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Obverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of copper-alloy dirhem of King Bela III of Hungary, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-MED-HUN-1

Reverse of the same coin

Now, I have taught with this thing for several years, because I have a small teaching set I use for the university’s MA in Medieval History which display cultural identification of some kind, and these include a few which are apparently signalling ‘wrong’, such as Crusader dirhem imitations or Islamic coins with figural imagery. This would appear to be one of the former, at first glance, in as much as it appears to display Arabic but it’s only pseudo-Arabic, but the problem is firstly that a dirham should be silver and this is copper-alloy, and secondly that these coins are found nowhere near the Holy Land but instead in Hungary, a Christian kingdom more or less from the year 1000 until 1946.1 So why do we get these Islamic imitation coins? When I first put this coin in a teaching set I thought I dimly knew the answer, and then when I tried explaining it realised that I really didn’t. So I thought I should find out the answer and make a post of it, but it turns out that the answer is somewhat uncertain…2

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary

Manuscript illumination showing King Bela III of Hungary, from the 14th-century
Chronicon Pictum, image by unknown authorhttp://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/IV_Istvan_III_Bela_Imre_KK.jpg, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, because the text is all only pseudo-Arabic and doesn’t actually mean anything, attributing them is difficult. We tentatively assume that, because they occur in finds with pseudo-Byzantine copper-alloy coins (as seen below) in the name of King Bela III of Hungary (1172-1196, as seen above), and because otherwise no medieval Hungarian ruler seems to have issued copper-alloy coins, that these are probably also his. I knew one of the pseudo-Byzantine coins from the Barber Institute Collection, and that’s why this one seemed familiar to me when I first met it in Leeds. The pseudo-Byzantine type could be sort of explained by Bela having passed some time in exile at the court of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos as a youth.3 I grant you that that doesn’t wholly explain why you’d decide you needed copper small change that looked Byzantine, but it at least explained where he’d got the idea from. It doesn’t really explain pseudo-Islamic coinage at all, though, and that’s roughly where the words dried in my throat in that first class.

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Concave copper-alloy coin of King Bela III of Hungary, Ars Coin Wien, VCoins SKU: B42

Now, there was a Muslim population in Hungary of this period, and when these coins were first identified the suggestion apparently was that these were struck for them.4 There are Iberian-peninsula parallels for this but some of those coins, the Castilian morabitinos of Toledo, carry correct Arabic proclaiming King Alfonso VI and Christianity, and the others only have pseudo-Arabic but are gold, trying literally to cash in on the use of Islamic coin already circulating in the Christian kingdoms.5 This here, however, is neither an attempt to broadcast to an Islamic (or at least Arabic-reading) population nor an attempt to break into a market of Islamic coin use, not least because as far as we can tell from finds Islamic coins proper were not used in Hungary.6 Weirdly, this one’s antetype does seem to be Iberian-peninsular, which just complicates matters further.7

So the question is not solved. The work from which I glean a lot of this information suggests that Bela III found his kingdom in need of small change, for which it had no local prototypes, and had copper-alloy coins designed that imitated the two prestige denominations of the day, the Byzantine nomisma and the Islamic dirham, but even though this does seem to have happened, the reason why is still not very obvious.8 But they exist, and they confuse people, so now that I am happier that my ignorance at least accurately replicates the state of the field, I expect I shall go on putting it in front of students and saying, ‘Hungarian! How do we explain that?’ Maybe one of them will come up with an answer!


1. When I was reading up on Hungary very fast for the Inheriting Rome exhibition, I used Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, transl. Anna Magyar (Cambridge 2001), and found it very useful, but I’m no kind of expert.

2. Most of the substantive information about these coins in this post comes from Péter Tamás Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Hungary”, unpublished M. A. thesis (Central European University 2015) online here, pp. 33-41.

3. Molnár, Concise History, p. 31.

4. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, pp. 37-38, where this idea is also refuted. On the Muslims in Hungary see Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims, and ‘Pagans’ in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300 (Cambridge 2001), DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511523106.

5. Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 24-28 for an outline.

6. Nagy, “Islamic Art and Artefacts”, p. 40.

7. Ibid., pp. 35-36.

8. Ibid., pp. 38-40.