Category Archives: numismatics

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:

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…

Coins of an emperor about to lose some face

One of the very many things that needed doing when I arrived in post at the Barber Institute, as you may recall, was to see about getting its coin collection onto the Internet. Some attempt had been made at this by Jonathan Shea in 2008, a representative selection of our holdings, but although that was a start it was only 200-odd coins out of 16,000, so still a little way to go. It took me some time to improve upon it, though; quite some time just to work out what needed to be done, still longer to work out how to do it, and by that time I’d already started putting volunteers to work on it and had to deal with the consequences of setting workflows before I knew what was best to do. The result was that it was March already before stuff finally started to appear online. But when it did, what stuff!

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Because I was reliant on volunteer labour to a great extent, I was also guided very much by what those volunteers wanted to work on. As it happens, though, quite a lot of people wanted to see or teach with coins of Emperor Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), so it was just as well that one volunteer also needed to work on them for their undergraduate dissertation. They went through all our existing records for the coins of Justinian’s first reign, correcting them against what was in the trays and reference catalogues, and then typed those corrections into a spreadsheet. Then I proofed the spreadsheet, converted it laboriously into upload format and navigated the whole upload process until it was done. And the results are here!

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395; from the sublime to the seriously heavily-used… Also not to scale, this is a good bit bigger than the solidi.

Justinian II is famous among early medieval historians principally for getting deposed in 695 and having his nose cut off, so as to disqualify him from returning to the throne. It wasn’t enough, since, allegedly adorned with a false nose made of gold (because why would you settle for less?), he came back anyway, executed his supplanter Leontius and the man who had since supplanted him, Tiberius Apsimar, in the Hippodrome and managed six more years of rule before his enemies finally decided to finish the job.1 There are various ways one can view this career, more and less favourable, but even this essentially laudatory write-up concludes, justifiably I feel, that “Emperor Justinian II of Byzantium wasn’t a brilliant military strategist, a capable ruler, a benevolent dictator, or even a… half-decent human being” (and the ellipsis is over obscene language, so if you’re bothered by such, don’t click the link, you won’t like it). For numismatists, though, Justinian II has a more particular importance, because in about 692, he seems to have decided to remove his own portrait from the obverse, ‘heads’ side of his biggest gold coins and replace it with one of Christ, relegating himself to the reverse, where he hung determinedly on to the Cross and was named not as emperor but as Christ’s servant.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381. Its siblings B4380 and B4383 are currently on display in Inheriting Rome, so come and see for yourself!

There are various views about what was going on here, which I don’t think is obvious (or rather, several equally obvious interpretations spring to mind), and I will write about that a little way down the line, but a teaching point I like to make with these coins is that, whatever public image Justinian was trying to project with these coins, it wasn’t effective enough, as he was deposed and eventually killed anyway. I think this should make us think about the idea that coinage was somehow propaganda. But what should make us think about this still more is that this change only took place on the gold and silver coinage, and only at Constantinople.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422. Again, not to scale, this thing is about the size of a small fingernail…

So, on the bronze coinage that was the stuff anyone would actually have used in the cities every day, although Justinian’s coins did have some innovations (and we may have a unique one of them in the Barber collection) this changed policy of representation wasn’t reflected at all. Who was the audience for this propaganda supposed to be, exactly? To answer that, we would need to understand what the solidus was actually for and how it circulated better than we do, but for the time being, I like to think that it helps if you can look at the coinage as a whole.2 In which spirit, here are some links to particular searches for your enjoyment:

It’s all quite like actual numismatics, isn’t it? Thanks need to be added to this post to Emily Hancock, who did the spadework with printouts, catalogues and coins, and to Jan Starnes, wherever she may be, who did the original photography many years hence. Without them, it would have been a lot longer coming about!


1. Although I’ve never seen it, there is apparently a book-length study of the reign of Justinian, Constance Head, Justinian II of Byzantium (Madison 1972); some coverage can be found in John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: transformation of a culture, revised edn. (Cambridge 1997), pp. 70-78, but my immediate reference here was Paul A. Hollingsworth, “Justinian II” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II, pp. 1084-1085.

2. The most thorough guide to his coinage is Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 84-149 esp. pp. 97-99, but a recent contribution has been made by Michael Humphreys, “The ‘War of Images’ Revisited: Justinian’s Coinage Reform and the Caliphate” in The Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 173 (London 2013), pp. 229–244.

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453″
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death': new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

Continue reading

Name in Print XVI

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.

fsmasbbovo

No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!


Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…


The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

Seminar CXLIII: turning coins into sources for the Islamic conquest of Persia

Back when I taught at Oxford, I was twice asked by students taking the General History I paper if they could do an essay on Sasanian Persia, and I had to tell them no. This was not because I knew nothing about it; that was true, but as anyone familiar with the Oxford tutorial system will probably know, doesn’t usually represent an impediment. What stopped me was that I had too much trouble putting together a reading list; aside from a couple of chapters in Cambridge Histories, one very quickly descended into pop-history retellings of the Shahnameh or single-article accounts of Sasanian policy told entirely from Roman sources, very few of even these were in UK publications so not usually available in Oxford and I couldn’t see any way of setting something up for students to frame an argument around.1 I now know a bit more about the field and suspect that in fact I could have done something, but there is still a dearth of work considering how important this massive polity was for more than four hundred years in jointing the West to the rest of the world and occasionally shaking it to its roots.

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

Map showing the rough extent of the Persian Empire in the period just before the Islamic conquest, from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, design by Blind Mice Design

That dearth is most certainly down to a dearth of internal sources, and the few that there are, mainly epigraphic, being in languages like Pahlavi that no-one can learn outside a really big university. In this respect, then, Persia is to late antique history somewhat as Mercia used to be to Anglo-Saxon history: we can see that it’s important, but all the sources we read about it are written by its enemies and not sufficient to explain. Persia, however, has yet to receive its Frank Stenton. And the comparison works in another dimension, too, because one thing that Stenton did was to properly integrate the study of the coinage into Anglo-Saxon history, and coinage is one source of which the Persian empire has actually left us quite a lot.2

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Shiraz, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

Silver drachm of Shahanshah Khusro II (590-628) struck at Nishapur (I think)Shiraz, showing Khusro’s bust right with legends either side and issue marks in the margin outside and a Zoroastrian fire temple on the reverse with its two attendants, in a triple border with crescents outside in each quarter, Barber Institute of Fine Arts S0881

The Sasanian state minted a large and surprisingly consistent coinage of silver drachms, along with various other gold and copper issues of less panregional regularity. There’s lots of it left, and it continued not just up to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 650s but beyond it, as the new Islamic rulers of the old state struck ‘Arab-Sasanian’ coins of basically similar kinds into the 690s. The devil here is in the word ‘basically’, of course; there are lots of variations and they’re really intriguing. Hardly anyone works on this, however, because if you add the obscurity of dead languages to the geek isolation of numismatics you have an area where few indeed care to tread. [Edit: a commentator has handily provided a list of the few below!] But, a person who does is Susan Tyler-Smith, and she came to Birmingham on 29th January as part of the schedule of supporting events for the Faith and Fortune exhibition at the Barber Institute, where she gave a lecture entitled, simply enough, “Faith and Fortune: Arab-Sasanian coinage”.

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

A silver drachm struck in the name of Shananshah Yazdigerd III (651) at an uncertain Persian mint between 651 and 700, with almost no change except that (I am told) the local governor’s name in Arabic now occupies the right-hand legend and the one in the outside margin “La illah ila Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, ‘there is no God but Allah [and] Muhammad [is] the Prophet of Allah'; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0967

There is a lot we don’t know about these coinages: we’re not clear on a number of the mints or who controlled the designs, though they sometimes name governors and can thus be pinned to provinces and even sometimes dates. On the other hand we do see, as above, that while they developed Arabic outer legends on the obverses (the side with the face) right the way up to the full “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet”, as here, they do so around an unchanged coin type that not only names the last Shahanshah, Yazdigerd III (651) and may even show his portrait, though if not it’s Khusro II’s (591-628). That type, moreover, still carries a Zoroastrian fire altar with two attendants on the reverse, despite the orthodox Islamic position on such religions as it would be formulated. (Exactly the same continuity of types and portraits was going on with the bronze coinage of the ex-Byzantine provinces now under Islam, too, which is slightly better studied.3) The picture the coins give us, of an inclusive Islam keen to keep the public faces that people in its new lands knew and respected, is a rather different one from that of the mostly eighth- and ninth-century texts which tell us of non-stop triumphal and singly-religious conquest.4 It’s not that it’s any less Islamic—Sue started by telling us that one of these coins, from Marv in 685/686, is the first text we have using the name Muhammad—but that that Islam, as work on Egypt and Bactria, whence there is also contemporary documentation, has shown, was far keener to engage local populations on the terms they were used to than it would later become.5

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700, showing the dead Shahanshah’s bust right as before but paired with a Gopatshah, what the site I found this image on quite correctly calls a man-faced bull; the coin was sold at Baldwins in London some time back, whence the picture.

One can also do more concrete stuff with this material than ideology, however. The silver coin of the Persians was probably primarily a fiscal coinage, struck for tax payments, and the real work of money in the market, as in Byzantium, was done with copper-alloy coins of a much more local circulation. We know much less about these: they didn’t travel as far and they have been much less collected in the West, while their original areas of circulation have become and stayed difficult for outsiders to reach. They share the use of old images, and some very old ones, including Mesopotamian figures (said Sue) like the Gopatshah above; again, whatever signification these images still had was not worth losing in favour of starting a new-look régime until very nearly 700. Much could be done, however, with a better picture of where these local coinages came from, where they got to, what their striking authorities might have been and how if at all they adhered to standards, a picture of control and interrelation that might match or challenge that of the Egyptian evidence. Sue might be the only person in the UK, and alarmingly more widely, who could do this, but there is work like this to be done with both these and the Arab-Byzantine coinages and I hope, in the reasonably near future, that both Sue and I will be parts of a project to do it using the coins at the Barber Institute among others. This lecture was an excellent demonstration of how this could be done and how it could be explained to the non-expert, which set the standard of such an exercise enjoyably high.


1. I suppose that the place any such reading list would start is the relevant chapters of Ehsan Yarshater (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 3: the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods (Cambridge 1983), 2 vols, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521200929 and DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521246934, perhaps topped up with Ze’ev Rubin, “The Sasanid Monarchy” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume 14: Late Antiquity. Empire and Successors, 425-600 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 638-661, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521325912.025. After that, though, things get tricky…

2. I’m thinking here of Frank Merry Stenton, “The Supremacy of the Mercian Kings” in English Historical Review Vol. 33 (Oxford 1918), pp. 433-452, repr. in his Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris M. Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 48-66, but also that article’s reprise and the heavy use of coin evidence along with everything else in his Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford History of England 1 (Oxford 1943, 2nd edn. 1947, 3rd edn. 1971).

3. I say this, but the basics are still catalogue publications on both fronts, books such as John Walker, A Catalogue of the Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum: A Catalogue of the Arab-Sassanian Coins (London 1941), Steven Album & Tony Goodwin, The pre-reform coinage of the early Islamic period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), Tony Goodwin, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, Studies in the Khalili Collection 4 (London 2005) and Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008). Recent work in the Arab-Byzantine series is collected in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (Oxford 2012), whereas there’s no such work to point to with the Arab-Sassanian stuff, really.

4. An account and critique in Hugh Kennedy,The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

5. For Egypt I’m thinking of Petra Sijpestein, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132; for Bactria there’s Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan (Oxford 2001 & London 2007), which is not to say that’s the easy way in, because there’s not one!