Category Archives: Byzantium

The Empress, her Son, her General and his Heir

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck at Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4598

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, his mother, with his dead ancestors on the reverse, struck at Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4598

Another day, another upload of Barber Institute coins to the web! This one is only small, 27 coins, and these comprise the coins of the notorious Empress Eirini, with her son Constantine VI (780-797) and then without (797-802), and those of her successor Nikephoros I (802-811). The former are here and the latter here. This turns out to be not quite all our holdings of his, but it’s a good start. The work of Maria Vrij lies behind this upload, again, and as usual extremely thorough, including working hard to track down all the provenance information that we have. This allows me to say something quite unusual about one of these coins, that we know where it was supposedly found—this one was sold to Philip Whitting on the understanding that it came to light in Paros in 1956. It’s better than we usually have!

Gold solidus of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck at Constantinople between 803 and 811 and found in Paros in 1956, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4613

Gold solidus of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck at Constantinople between 803 and 811 and found in Paros in 1956, with who knows what history between those dates? Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4613

Also, of interest mainly to numismatists perhaps but still interesting, here’s one that has been pretty clearly struck on an Arabic dirham, traces of which still show through on the reverse, where the right arm of the cross hasn’t made it down and around the left of the rim:

Silver miliaresion of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck between 780 and 797 on an Arabic dirham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4601

Silver miliaresion of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck between 780 and 797 on an Arabic dirham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4601

This raises questions about what happened to Islamic money that came into the Empire, where that was happening and how close in standard the Byzantine and Islamic silver coinages were. Presumably quite, which has been used to explain why these Byzantine silver coins, almost uniquely among the empire’s money, do not use any portraiture in their decoration, so that they would (despite the huge Cross!) be acceptable to Muslims… Thus this coin has something weirdly topical about it despite being 1200 years old, as a recent commentator has only too well illustrated.

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo IV and Constantine VI, struck between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4584

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo IV and Constantine VI, struck between 775 and 780, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4584

For those that don’t know the story of the rulers in this update, by the way, it’s all very bloody and Roman-seeming. Eirini was wife of Leo IV, whose coins already went online. When he died in 780, their son Constantine VI was still a child. He had already appeared on coins with his father, as you see above, but now had to share power with his mother acting as regent. This is also shown on the coins, as first he and she appear together with his ancestors:

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople 780-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4585

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople 780-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4585


Bronze 40-nummi coin of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4590

Bronze 40-nummi coin of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4590

… and then, before long (though we don’t know how long—in fact, I have to admit, we only assume that these coinages are sequential, though it seems plausible), the ancestors were dispensed with, leaving him and his mother a face each:

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, or possibly the other way around, struck in Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, or possibly the other way around, struck in Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597


Bronze 40-nummi coin of Empress Eirini and Emperor Constantine VI, struck in Constantinople between 780 to 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4608

Bronze 40-nummi coin of Empress Eirini and Emperor Constantine VI, struck in Constantinople between 780 to 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4608

Notice on the bronze here that the actual emperor is relegated to the reverse side, with the denomination mark and immobilised date. He did at least get named first on the silver:

Silver miliaresion of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck at Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4603

Silver miliaresion of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, struck at Constantinople between 780 and 797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4603

Eirini was removed from court between 790 and 792, but this doesn’t seem to have altered the coinage; Constantine never appears alone. Not so Eirini, however, who in 797 had her son blinded and deposed, after which he soon died. Her moneyers, faced with the problem of what to put on the now-free side of the coin, seem to have gone for a choice she was likely to be happy with:

Gold solidus of Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople between 797 and 802, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4609

Gold solidus of Empress Eirini, struck in Constantinople between 797 and 802, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4609

This was quite the big story at the time, and the theoretical vacancy on the Eastern throne (since it was held by some that a woman didn’t count) was one of the justifications used when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome on Christmas Day 800. This supposedly didn’t stop Eirini proposing marriage to Charlemagne as her position, military and domestic, became increasingly desperate, but nothing came of it and finally in 802 one of her generals, Nikephoros, led a coup to depose her. She was exiled to Lesbos and died there in 803.

Bronze 40-nummi coin of Empress Eirini, struck at Constantinople between 797 and 802, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4611

Bronze 40-nummi coin of Empress Eirini, struck at Constantinople between 797 and 802, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4611

Nikephoros, on taking over, ruled alone at first:

Gold solidus of Emperor Nikephoros I, struck in Constantinople between 802 and 803, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4612

Gold solidus of Emperor Nikephoros I, struck in Constantinople between 802 and 803, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4612


Bronze 40-nummi coin of Emperor Nikephoros I, struck in Constantinople between 802 and 803, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4616

Bronze 40-nummi coin of Emperor Nikephoros I, struck in Constantinople between 802 and 803, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4616

but very quickly raised his son Stavrakios to be co-emperor.

Gold solidus of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck in Constantinople between 803 and 811, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4615

Gold solidus of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck in Constantinople between 803 and 811, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4615

Bronze follis of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck in Syracuse between 803 and 811, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4619

Bronze follis of Emperors Nikephoros I and Stavrakios, struck in Syracuse between 803 and 811, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4619

Thus it was that in 811 they were both on the field together in a battle against Khan Krum of Bulgaria that went badly wrong for the Byzantines. Nikephoros was killed, and his skull allegedly turned into a drinking cup for Krum, and Stavrakios was brought back to Constantinople badly wounded. Although he had been proclaimed emperor on the way, he was not the only one, and he was quickly persuaded that he could not rule, and abdicated, to die as a monk within two months. He never struck coins by himself either. As for his rival and successor, Michael I, Maria has already finished correcting the catalogue for his coins and they may even go to the web ‘ere I depart Birmingham. If so, you will hear about it here!

Faith and Fortune is back, in Exeter

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, now on show again, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

If you remember me mentioning Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage, the rather excellent coin exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which preceded my current one, and thought it sounded fun but did not in fact manage to go to it, you may be pleased to know that there is now a second chance! By a happy series of coincidences the fine people in charge of the Street Gallery at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter got to hear about it and decided they would like to host it, and so in April we packed the boards up and sent them down with supporting materials and one of the original curators, Dr Rebecca Darley, in tow to give an introductory lecture. It has been open since 25th May (sorry) and will be until 19th December 2015, so there is plenty of time to go and see it still! I present the exhibition information:

Faith and Fortune is the first exhibition in several years that draws exclusively from the in-house collections of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The principal chronological focus of the exhibition spans the years A.D. 300-750 but includes later 13th-century Turkmen material. The exhibition has been the focus of a presentation at the British Museum and has received positive reviews from specialists in medieval history, the Middle East and numismatics. It focuses on these particular themes and the current scholarly and research interest in Late Antiquity. The over-arching theme of the exhibition concentrates on the use of Late Antique coinage as a platform for the promotion of the respective political and religious ideals of the Byzantine, Umayyad and Sasanian Empires. This focus serves as a springboard for the exhibition to explore divergent attitudes among Byzantine, Sasanian and early Islamic societies regarding the representation of divine figures or religious subjects. The exhibition is curated by Rebecca Darley (4th-7th century Byzantine and imitation coinage) and Daniel Reynolds (7th-8th century Arab-Byzantine and early Islamic coinage) and the expertise of the Coin Collections Assistants Maria Vrij (7th-9th century Byzantine coinage and iconography) and Ali Miynat (Turkmen coinage).

Display of the exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic Coinage, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

The display in situ at the Street Gallery

This image was a bit peculiar to receive, because I’ve been there: two of the conferences I’ve been to at Exeter have been held in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and I clearly remember not being able to afford to buy Richard Hitchcock’s books in that gallery space. Nonetheless, it is a good space for actual displays too! You will observe that there are no display cases, so we were not able to send the actual coins along with the boards; instead they have been replaced with life-size photographic reproductions that get the points across nearly as well. I must also acknowledge the help of Rebecca Darley of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project at the Warburg Institute, University of London, Evelina Kuvykovaite of the University of Warwick and Jane Clark and the team at the Street Gallery for making it all so easy for us collectively to set this up; it was remarkably easy to do, and hopefully worth it for many visitors!

Byzantium before Byzantium

Silver tetradrachm of King Lysimachos, struck in Lysimacheia between 328 BC and 281 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0008.

Silver tetradrachm of King Lysimachos, struck in Lysimacheia between 328 BC and 281 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0008, not relevant to any of the below but something of a flagship coin for the Inheriting Rome exhibition.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about some of them. As I mentioned before, not everything we’re uploading is medieval, and least of all this, in some ways, our thirty-six Ancient Greek coins from various places. There is some very beautiful stuff here (by which some partisans of the later material would say I mean ‘naturalistic’) and it certainly gets good reactions from people in handling sessions, but it is of questionable relevance to the blog, for sure. Except maybe these five.

Silver drachm struck at Byzantion between 357 BC and 340 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0019

Silver drachm struck at Byzantion between 357 BC and 340 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0019

What is relevant about this is just that these are from Byzantium, or more properly Byzantion, the Greek city on or close to the site which Emperor Constantine I (306-337) chose for his new imperial capital, given of course the unassuming name of Constantinople, now Istanbul. Some of them pretty much say so, too. It’s from this predecessor settlement, in fact, that modern scholars have given the later eastern empire its appelation ‘Byzantine’.

Bronze unit struck at Byzantion between 430 BC and 293 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0025

Bronze ‘unit’ struck at Byzantion between 430 BC and 293 BC (I could use some help there, to be honest), Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0025, with the city name lettered in Greek around the reverse, right to left

I like these mainly because they emphasise that there was a before here, some reason to pick the site and something that explains the word we use for the empire that refocused there. From some of the textbooks on the later Roman Empire you’d get the idea that before Constantine spotted it Byzantion had been little more than a village. And well, it was not a big place perhaps but it was big enough to have its own local coinage, one which ran right up to the time of Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian (284-305), and to show its own patron god on it. And now you can see it, and him, online.

Bronze coin of Byzantion under Roman rule, struck between 125 BC and 127 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0034

Bronze coin of Byzantion under Roman rule, struck between 125 BC and 127 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts G0034, showing the god Byzas on the obverse and a ship on the reverse, as befits a proud port city.

Star volunteer helpers here were Amy Walsh, with us from the University of Melbourne on the International Museums and Collections Award intern scheme, and Evelina Kuvykovaite from the University of Warwick, both of whom made my work much the less. Thanks to both and I hope the readership will forgive the brief run into the ancient world!

A problem of concavity

Now that I am returned from all my conferences, I have a few very frantic months left as a numismatist before I demit that noble calling so as to return to medieval history of more traditional sorts. In fact, of course, I will not be leaving the coins completely behind me: almost the first thing I will be doing in my new rôle is to give a guest lecture back at the Barber Institute, as part of my own exhibition there, and then I’ll be going to the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, and I should just be back from that in time to start teaching the aftermath of the end of Roman rule in the West. And in fact, even then, I shall have enough publication projects in hand what with All That Glitters and a couple of other things to do with the Barber’s collections that it may take a while for anyone to notice that coins are not, in fact, what I work on… In that spirit, therefore, here is something like an informal presentation of the problem my paper at Taormina will be addressing, which I do mainly so as to have a first go at posing the problem in text. Basically, my question is: why did Byzantine coins turn concave?

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, all concave, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

It is perfectly reasonable for your first reaction to this question to be “What?”, don’t worry. But this is a thing that happened: from the 1050s onwards, more or less the reign of Michael IV (1034-1041), Byzantine precious metal coinage began to be manufactured with a slight dish-shape that became more and more pronounced, and then spread to the lesser metals too. It also went badly downhill in metal quality, and by the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) the situation was so bad that despite the massive calls on his empire’s much-reduced resources he reset the coinage in the only way one really can in an international precious-metal economy, by accepting the degradation of the existing coins, reclassifying them and introducing a new, 80%-gold denomination, the hyperperon at the top of the tree.1 The old supposedly-gold nomismata became either electrum (gold-silver alloy) or billon (lightly-silvered copper) ‘trachies’, and this meant that the small change was also now concave, though there was also a flat bronze tetarteron that was used especially in what is now Greece.2 Anyway, I digress. The real question is, why adopt the dished design anyway?

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

One thing, and really one thing only is sure about this, which is that it was not an easy thing to do. In the first place, the designs on the dies with which the blank coins were struck were carved in such a way as to keep the design correctly proportioned: it looks straight even though it’s bent, something that becomes very evident when you try to photograph them in such a way that they face you but are still clearly concave. Scanning is better for this because the fall of light emphasises shadow, but with adequate lighting the concavity is quite often visually undetectable in conventional photography. So that was cunning artistry, and not least because the dies themselves, we are fairly sure, were made curved, rather than deforming flat coins by striking them.3 In fact, it seems likely that the flat blanks were first struck with blank dies to curve them, and then the resulting curved blanks were struck with two obverse dies, one for each side of the coin’s design, to ensure a good impression all over the coin’s surface.4 This means that the manufacturers were readier to triple the production process complexity than to make dies that fitted each other snugly, apparently, but we can mainly take from this: there must have been a point to all this, but what?

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

None of the existing ideas seem very satisfactory. They are, roughly:

  1. it made the coins stronger, preventing them snapping;
  2. it made the metal quality of the coins more evident, reassuring people that they were good;
  3. it made the coins stackable in a way that the relatively high-relief flat ones were not;
  4. it brought coins whose low standard had made them much bigger than the older solidi with which they were notionally interchangeable, because gold is denser than anything it might be replaced with, back down to a more acceptable width;
  5. it made the coins better to play tiddly-winks with.5

Now, don’t worry if you’re already laughing at this; I think it is fair to say that thinking about this problem has not been the highest achievement of numismatics as a discipline. But if you’re not quite seeing the problems here, let me set them out for you.

  1. The concavity may make the coins harder to bend, but it makes them far more prone to cracking, because the edges come out so thin, as you see below. And once a coin is cracked, it’s actually in much more danger of snapping; we take a lot of care not to drop these things, in case that fault line should just complete on impact. Yet the practice was maintained for long after that would have been apparent. So, no.
  2. Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702

    Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702, nothing a bit of solder wouldn’t fix! (I jest.)


    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758

    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758, probably beyond the soldering iron…

  3. The metal quality certainly is more evident, because of those same thin edges, but in that case it would be quite important to maintain that quality. Yet the concave coins went through just the same nosedive of purity again once reformed, and you’d think that even if making them flat again would have been some kind of admission of failure, at least it would have been unclear how badly you’d failed, whereas with the concave coins there’s no hope of concealment.
  4. They just don’t stack, seriously. The manufacture was not regular enough to guarantee anything but the most basic fit. And why on earth would this have been a desirable thing here, when even cultures that use money in strung-together multiples like Chinese cash are still flat? A much better way to do this would have been to cut the designs in lower relief, or just cut them deeper than the surrounding border, so that that became the point of contact between any two coin faces. I find this one actually a silly explanation, sorry.
  5. This seems to me to presuppose a point beyond which coins were just thought too big to use, one which is only obvious if you accept that this practice shows that the Byzantine Empire had passed it. But it had used bigger coins than this before and done nothing similar. So I see no reason to accept this kind of supposed cultural universal, but even if you do, one could have achieved the same result just by making the coins thicker, which would also make them stronger. It would make them harder to strike, in terms of force, but less fragile in manufacture, easier to cut dies for and anyway, brute force was not something any pre-modern state really lacked a supply of.6
  6. In so far as I’m going to take this seriously at all, why would you start with the gold for something that would ordinarily, surely, be played with low-value coins? And why on earth would the emperor care anyway? Still more why would any subsequent emperor not repeal this in the next reform?

So, we don’t have a good explanation. In Taormina I will try to propose one that is at least less bad, and that focuses more on the manufacturing process and its changed characteristics. I have a lot to read still, and I don’t want to give away my unique selling point as yet, although I’ve tried it in the classroom a few times by now, so for now I’ll go no further, but I hope I’ve at least intrigued you with the question! And if you have answers you’d like to offer, I promise due credit if I wind up using yours alongside mine in the paper…


1. On the circumstances leading to this reform see most easily Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2012), pp. 56-71, online here, but you might wish to compare Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 513-517 and Alan Harvey, “Financial crisis and the rural economy” in Margaret Mullett & Dion C. Smythe (edd.), Alexios I Komnenos. Papers on the Second Belfast Byzantine International Colloquium, 14-16 April 1989, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations 4.1 (Belfast 1996), pp. 167-184.

2. For the actual coins, the best guide is indubitably Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 211-228, esp. pp. 223-228.

3. Simon Bendall & David Sellwood, “The method of striking scyphate coins using two obverse dies, in the light of an early thirteenth century hoard” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 93-104.

4. David Sellwood, “The Production of Flans for Byzantine Trachy Issues” in D. M. Metcalf & Andrew Oddy (edd.), Metallurgy in Numismatics, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 13 (London 1980), pp. 174-175.

5. Strength: as well as the article linked, Cécile Morrisson, “La concavité des monnaies byzantines” in Bulletin de le Société française de numismatique Vol. 30 no. 6 (Paris 1975), pp. 786-788, criticising the work of Hendy cited below, for which reason no doubt Hendy not unjustly responded in Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, p. 510 n. 313, “Neither explanation [that of Grierson mentioned below or Morrisson’s] is totally satisfactory by itself, as neither takes full account of the curious inconsistency of its early usage”, and indeed I could show you flat nomismata contemporaneous with the earliest concave ones right here where I write. Indicator of metal quality: Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081-1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XII (Washington DC 1969), p. 6; Alfred R. Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Volume Three: Leo III to Nicephorus III 717–1081, by Philip Grierson, Part I: Leo III to Michael III (717–867) (Washington DC 1973), pp. 5-7, to which cf. Morrisson, “Concavité des monnaies byzantines”, p. 787, accepted by Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 197-198. I don’t yet have cites for the stacking or tiddly-winks theories, alas; they are much repeated but never with attribution. For the idea that the flans were now too big and had to be reined in, see Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda; structure of the issues 976-1067; the concave/convex histamena; contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Italo Vecchia, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), pp. 103-124 esp. pp. 122-124.

6. This last point, though obvious, I had to have pointed out to me by Dr Rebecca Darley.

Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which were uploaded on April Fool’s Day by complete coincidence and with the help of Evelina Kuvykovaite, or those of the Roman Civil War (44 BC-31 BC), with Mark Antony popping up everywhere looking untrustworthy, for which the help of Esther Newman was invaluable—but the medieval ones have, so far, all so been Byzantine, and they have continued from where we left off with the reign of the controversial Emperor Leo III. Thus, early in June we were able to boast to the Internet fifty-two more coins of the reign of Emperor Constantine V (741-775) than it had before, which had been checked, tracked down, righted and sorted by my most stalwart volunteer, Maria Vrij. And now I finally get round to boasting about them to you also!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4549

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4549

Constantine is an even more controversial figure than his daddy, whom you may remember is often credited, in the eyes of the latest scholarship wrongly, with starting the Byzantine persecution of images of holy persons known as Iconoclasm. Whether or not he did, it seems fair to say that Constantine, once he had succeeded and defeated that coup by his brother-in-law that we mentioned last time, did add imperial endorsement to that position at the Council of Hieria in 754, if not earlier.1 Since, in the end, Iconoclasm did not win out, and in fact became the focus point of a very bloody and vicious factional battle for imperial power as the empire’s position disintegrated in the early ninth century, the sources that describe this era do not, shall we say, aim for neutrality.

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4545

Except of course the coins, which basically preach dynastic continuity and little more! Unhelpful if Iconoclasm’s all you care about, but there may have been other things happening. This is a gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4545

The most famous account is that of the chronicler and monk, exiled for his position on the anti-Iconoclast side, Theophanes, a relative of later emperors as one of them happily pointed out but far from disinterested, and he reports, among other things, that Constantine V on one occasion in 766 paraded a bunch of monks in the Hippodrome and forced them to marry, and then four days later had nineteen leading officials executed, and then seven days after that exiled the Patriarch of Constantinople, whom he then summoned back the next year so as to have him executed.2 Theophanes also records that the emperor was widely known as Constantine Kopronymos, pretty much “crap-for-a-name”, because he was supposed to have defecated in the font while being christened. I feel that the reportage of the first-listed of these incidents may be telling us more about Theophanes’s personal demons than anything else but you can see how all the rest fits into a fairly sustained campaign of political character assassination.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Constantine V and Leo V, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4554

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Constantine V and Leo V, struck at Constantinople between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4554; remnants of the coin design over which this one was struck are clearly visible, and the overtype is made almost unintelligible by them and by the very basic workmanship of the dies

It could be true, of course, and goodness knows none of this family were likely to have been nice people, but against it we have the fact that unlike almost all the icon-happy emperors for a century before or after, Constantine had a long and fairly successful reign ending in his natural death, in which time he presided over consistent military success against the forces of Islam and the Bulgars and instigated a celebratory building programme in Constantinople. Mark Whittow has argued that Constantine was sufficiently popular in the capital that when his daughter-in-law Empress Eirini wanted to reverse his policies, she had to move the proceedings out to Nicæa because of mob opposition making the council impossible.3 It certainly seems completely clear that by, say, 830, his name had become a byword and an excuse for everything that had gone wrong in Byzantium in the eighth century, and that his father and his son (Leo IV (775-780), whose coins also went up in this upload) caught the stain of his reputation as well, but how much he did to earn this, either in terms of what he is historically accused of or in terms of making the kind of enemies who would raise those accusations, we will probably never sort out.4

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Syracuse between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4559

Gold solidus of Emperors Constantine V and Leo IV, struck at Syracuse between 751 and 775, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4559

What we can do, however, is remember that the coinage is a contemporary source with which no-one really subsequently messed (except in as much as they may have gone and struck their own coin images onto some of it), and now that you can look at it you can see that it sends the normal message of the era: inheritance, business as usual, a trustworthy and recognisable gold standard and an evident and continuing need to cut every corner going, and plenty of edges that had had no corners beforehand too, to produce enough bronze coin to supply the demand of the busy city markets of his maritime empire. It’s not going to settle the question of his theological policy, but maybe it might remind us that that was probably not what most people he ruled thought was important about his rule.

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4561

Behold the cutting of corners, on this clipped bronze follis of Emperor Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 741 and 751, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4561

Some searches that may interest you, then, as is becoming canonical!

And by mint:

You’ll have seen that Constantine V struck coins showing his father, and when his son was born added him alongside himself too; the software we’re using to show these coins on the web doesn’t admit of searches for plural issuers, alas, so I can’t separate them for you, but there are not too many to hunt through. Enjoy! More will soon follow…


1. Contrast here for example Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium (London 1996), pp. 139-151, with Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 156-247.

2. Theophanes’s Chronographia is edited as C. de Boor (ed.), Theophanis Chronographia (Leipzig 1883-1885), 2 vols, and translated as Cyril Mango & R. Scott (transl.), The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford 1997), and the relevant chapters are 436-439, but here I am basically following Whittow, Making of Byzantium, pp. 147-149.

3. Ibid. pp. 145-147.

4. Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 248-252 & 262, more or less dismiss any importance of policy on the religious front mooted by Leo IV.

While it’s been quiet I have been reading (and writing)

So I am back from Leeds and there are now two Leeds folders of my notes to blog about in the pile which means that, sadly, I am about a year behind again. How has this occurred? Well, I explained a few posts ago that since January my days have been basically taken up with getting stuff written that might get me hired, one way or another—which of course worked, or something did—and also dealing with a truly heroic level of over-commitment, and that this has basically most days taken me up till midnight and bedtime before getting to any space of time in which I might blog. But I felt like some kind of list of what has passed before me in that time and what it was for might also be explanatory, maybe even provocative of thoughts and comments, and mostly generally make me feel better about the lag. So, this is basically a commented bibliography of my life over the last six months or so and I’ll then carry on attacking the backlog…

Jonathan Jarrett's workspace in Birmingham

The workstation as it currently stands, lacking only your humble scribe

Roughly in order then…

  1. Michel Zimmermann, “El bisbe català durant els segles X-XIII” in idem, En els orígens de Catalunya: emancipació política i afirmació cultural, transl. Antoni Bentué, Llibres a l’abast 248 (Barcelona 1989), pp. 137-165.
  2. This was for my Kalamazoo paper. I had to go to the British Library for the first time in possibly years to get at it, having completely failed to find a copy for sale anywhere; most of it is reprinted but without having access to a copy you can’t know how much, the online presence of it doesn’t get as far as a contents list. If it would help people I can actually say what’s in it, but I made a list, read this one chapter (which is only printed here) in a hurry, and then basically didn’t use it as though it’s quite interesting it has no references, which were deferred to a French version that seems never to have come out…

  3. Lutger Körntgen & Dominik Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011).
  4. Also for the Kalamazoo paper, which as you may be beginning to guess was about bishops, and much more useful, especially for the Englishing of a seminal German paper by Timothy Reuter.1

  5. The first 95 pages of Albert Benet i Clarà, Història de Manresa dels orígens al segle XI (Manresa 1985).
  6. This largely because for reasons that will sort of get blogged about, I had a spare day in Barcelona which I largely spent in the Biblioteca de Catalunya. I have been needing to get at this for a long time, even before I started working on priests around Manresa but especially since then, and I can really only do so in Catalonia. It turns out to be about eight hundred pages, though, so I will need a few more visits…

  7. The introduction of Antoni Pladevall i Font, Tona: mil cent anys d’història, L’entorn 16 (Tona 1990).
  8. For much the same reasons of opportunity, to break up the solidity of the Benet volume and because I’ve repeatedly cited it as a thing I know exists and I felt that I needed to see what it actually says in case this was a bad idea. I only had time for the introduction, though, so the jury is out till next visit.

  9. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: sanctity and power in medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16, DOI: 110.1353/cat.2002.0006.
  10. I should have read this years ago too, given how I like St Ermengol as an example case, but now I did so as to get it clear for the Kalamazoo paper, and in fact it turned out to be one of the pieces of scholarship around which I oriented the paper, so that was good to have done.

  11. Cécile Morrisson, C. Brendt, J.-P. Callu, J.-N. Barrandon, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé 1 : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest-Babelon 2 (Paris 1985).
  12. For work, really, and specifically the All That Glitters project, and for that very educational; there will be blog posts about this in due course…

  13. John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: studies of episcopal power and culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).
  14. Another volume of studies about bishops, and this one very useful; there were many case studies in here which I thought paralleled what I wanted to say, and it turned up a lot in the Kalamazoo paper’s footnotes.

  15. Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004).
  16. And another, and in some ways the most useful to think with; it also exposed that even Timothy Reuter was not above publishing roughly the same thoughts twice, however…2

  17. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
  18. Read very rapidly, but avidly, for a paper I was giving in Oxford the week after Kalamazoo, a repeat offence I’m afraid, but I had a lot of reactions to this book (some of which, I will admit, were incredulous) and I will definitely be writing about this here as well as in the final version of that paper.

  19. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967).
  20. For the recent Leeds paper, and a fascinating read as well as being my first real brush with Byzantine source material; there will also be blog posts about this!

  21. Mark Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).
  22. Ths I was reading largely because it kept coming up in a project bid I was part of, about which there will be further blogging if it comes off at least, and I kept telling people how important it was on the basis of the paper I saw Mark give once when he was writing it, and felt I had better make sure. But it turns out it’s brilliant, so I was reassured. I’m not just saying this because he may be reading, I haven’t actively enjoyed a work of scholarship this much for ages. I have one post stubbed coming out of this which will engage with a tiny part of it, but meanwhile I can only say that not only is it required reading for anyone working on travel in late Antiquity, it’s also a good read. Enjoy the footnotes…

  23. Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperii. A Commentary, 2nd edn. (Washington DC 2012).
  24. Given the speed at which I was having to amass knowledge about the De Adminstrando Imperii, the fact that there existed a commentary volume was a godsend, even if it is by now fifty years old in its original form. I saw it while I was at Dumbarton Oaks (about which also future blog) and then made sure to read it, and without it the Leeds paper could not have existed. It was also illuminating about why the work on the De Adminstrando I’ve read is so unbothered about the obviously questionable state of the text, and I will certainly blog about that in due course too.

  25. And lastly, bits of Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008).
  26. This lastly just to get some kind of sense of where Byzantine scholarship on these areas has gone since Ostrogorsky and the edition of the De Adminstrando, and for that also vital, but it gives me less to say that wasn’t actually in the Leeds paper except that I wish Armenia and eastern Turkey were currently safer to visit.3

So that not only wraps up a list, but tells you quite a lot about what I’ve been doing and what you can expect here as, I hope, I reduce the backlog. Meanwhile, any questions? And thanks as ever for reading.


1. Timothy Reuter, “Ein Europa der Bischöfe. Das Zeitalter Burchards von Worms”, in Wilfried Hartmann (ed.), Bischof Burchard von Worms 1000-1025, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 100 (Mainz 2000), pp. 1-28, transl. Dominik Waßerhoven as “A Europe of Bishops. The Age of Wulfstan of York and Burchard of Worms” in Lutger Körntgen & Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011), pp. 17-38.

2. Reuter, “Bishops, rites of passage, and the symbolism of state in pre- Gregorian Europe”, in Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004), pp. 23-36, which has maybe a three-quarters overlap with “A Europe of Bishops”.

3. George Ostrogorsky, Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates, Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft XII.1.2 (München 1940), transl. Joan Hussey as History of the Byzantine State (Oxford 1956), 2nd English edn. from 3rd German edn. (Oxford 1968) and then reprinted four times by the date of the copy I bought a few days ago, and as that implies still very much the standard reference.

Alleged iconoclasm and actual usurpation, now on the web

I meant to leap in quickly with another announcement about coins on the web, but then there was a need to write a Leeds paper and I really haven’t been able to get enough sleep lately and and… well, never mind. The short pause is over and here are some more coins. This time it is forty coins of the Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, and one of his one-time buddy Artabasdos, whose name I find very difficult to spell.

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Leo is a controversial figure, which is why Maria Vrij, who did the actual numismatic work behind this upload, identifying coins and tracing provenances and so on, is working on him, and in turn why she was doing the coins for me; many thanks to her. My part, merely laboriously to convert from an old non-relational database format designed for coins to a new relational one designed for things where one description makes more sense than obverse and reverse, and… yes, well, I can put it down, I can. Back to Leo. He is controversial because of being the emperor under whom the movement known as Iconoclasm, a prohibition of images of heavenly persons and objects, is supposed to have started. That may be true but there are big questions about the extent to which he himself started it or was unfriendly towards images, as opposed to being concerned that people might worship rather than merely venerate them. The detailed sources are largely later and there’s no sign in what remains of what he built or ordered made—of which there is very little—that he thought that images of holy persons were evil per se. But this is much debated, so I’m going to step lightly over it, observing only that, if the written sources for Leo’s reign are awkwardly late and therefore deformed by later disputes, the coins should be all the more vital as an exactly contemporary primary source for his rule and self-portrayal, and what they demonstrate seems mainly to be continuity and dynasticism, making them quite unhelpful for the Iconoclast case.1

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521. And yes, look, there are no images of the human form here, but there were on the gold (above) and bronze (below), plus which, Leo was later remembered as having removed images of the Cross also, which makes it odd how it’s on his coins, no? But the Cross had been on the miliaresion since it was first struck, in the seventh century, so it doesn’t really mean anything except that Leo didn’t change things here.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741 (the date on the coin being immobilised), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534. This was a change Leo did make, putting his son and heir on the coin with him, but that too was nothing that had not been done long before… This coin is much more fun, in fact, because of being overstruck onto an older one, of whose design traces can still be seen around the new one, especially a ghost head and patriarchal cross above the ‘M’ that signals the denomination on the reverse. Resource-saving, or just a really low-effort minting operation?

There are other things Leo was remembered for: he issued new law for the Roman Empire for the first time since Justinian had codified it all, and in 717-718 successfully defended Constantinople against everything the Caliphate could throw at it, among other deeds. But it’s for his Iconoclasm or lack of it that we will continue to know him today, because no-one comes to eighth-century Byzantium except via a course of study and since this is a controversy we’ll teach it…

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople, probably between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

So instead, I just want to bring out a nice little irony in the fact that we put these two rulers’ uploads together.2 Leo first appears in the second reign of Justinian II, who used him as an undercover secret agent against the Caucasus-dwelling people known as the Alans. He came through that and a subsequent emperor, Anastasios II, put him in charge of the miltary in Anatolia, and so when Anastasios was deposed in 715, Leo refused to accept it, and his commander-next-door in Armenia, a chap called Artabasdos. Yup, that one. So Leo now marched on the capital, but predictably, once he had arrived there and forced Emperor Theodosios III to abdicate, he did not haul Anastasios out of the monastery but instead took power himself. In fact, he then had to quell a revolt in Sicily intended to restore Anastasios against him! Artabasdos remained a very senior commander in all of this, and Leo married his daughter Anna to him, so there was some sort of understanding between them at the very least.

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578. Here, I suppose, you could argue that Leo had in fact replaced the canonical image of the Cross with one of his son, but since they’re both holding Crosses, again in perfectly traditional style, it’s a difficult case to make that that was for theological reasons!

That may explain what happened at the end of Leo’s long reign, by which time he had had another child, and indeed crowned him co-emperor in 720 as Constantine V. By 741 Constantine was fully grown and so when his father died he succeeded fairly naturally. But Artabasdos seems not to have liked this, and when Constantine went on campaign in 742 Artabasdos seized control in the capital and raised those bits of the army loyal to him to keep Constantine out. Artabasdos followed this by proclaiming himself and his son Nikephoros emperors, and his wife, Constantine’s sister, empress. There followed a year or so of fighting which Constantine ultimately won, and he duly had both his uncle-in-law and his nephew executed. Noblesse oblige, huh? I don’t know what happened to Anna.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544. This image has the obverse and reverse transposed, sorry. There’s an argument about which they should be, in fact, but maybe that’s too much for a caption…

Artabasdos doesn’t seem to have issued any bronze coin: there is only gold and silver known for him, and not that much of that. This adds to the impression that precious-metal coin and small change were for very different things in the Byzantine Empire, and forms part of the reassessment of the coinage in the Byzantine economy that we probably still need.3 But it’s also a reminder that the machinery of this immense government didn’t rely on any given ruler to make it go; if you held Constantinople, you could get bits of metal out into the world that proclaimed you as emperor to anyone who knew how to read them. And again, with Artabasdos as with Justinian II, we see that although people did this, doing it didn’t necessarily keep you in that position.

Some maybe-interesting searches:

And by mint:

And finally:

How long do you have to rule after taking power by force for history not to call you a usurper? Longer than Artabasdos, anyway, even if maybe less long than Leo… More soon, anyway; till then, back to the backlog!


This post was written with the aid of Pray for a Good Harvest by Das Ludicroix, which I haven’t played for far too long but is still the oddest thing they recorded.

1. See on all this Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 69-155, which sets a very high evidential standard of proof but certainly has enough to find wanting.

2. I’m here basically following Walter E. Kaegi Jr, “Leo III”, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-III, last modified 19th May 2014 as of 2nd July 2015, but more detail is to be found in Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 70-79.

3. Despite the existence of Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage (London 1902), Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985, repr. 2009) and Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine money: its production and circulation” in Angeliki Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the seventh through the fifteenth century, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39 (Washington DC 2002), 3 vols, online here, III, pp. 909-966. In fact, at least partly because of Hendy…