Category Archives: numismatics

Missing Michael Matzke

While still not wanting to let this blog become an obituaries column, this is obviously not a good time in human history to ask people to stop dying. However, this is late news that only came to me when my partner opened up the current issue of the Numismatic Chronicle and found a review of Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy, over whose text I myself toiled for a while in 2008-2009, and noted the fatal † by one of the author’s names.1 And that’s how I found out that I had missed Michael Matzke, Kurator of the Münzkabinett at the Historisches Museum Basel and erstwhile Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, dying at the age of 54 last year.

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel; the (German) article linked beneath provides links to many other notices of his passing

I could not say that I knew Michael well; he was out of the department at the Fitzwilliam before I got there, and our scholarships hardly crossed paths. There is, all the same, a certain closeness to someone you only get by editing them, trying to think far enough into their thoughts to make them sit more accurately on the page in your language that they’re currently obliged to use. Without my knowing that much about his life, he thus became very familiar to me as an intellect. Michael was, in any case, very much not a problem to edit, and always polite and helpful in the event of queries, and although due to reasons beyond either of our controls the volume didn’t come out until years after I’d left the Fitzwilliam, I’m glad to say that the last time I saw him was actually at a party celebrating its then-actually-imminent publication, at the XV International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, which of course I reported here.

Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, during a party

Michael’s not in the picture, sadly, but here is the party, in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

The evening before that, I’d been able to introduce that same partner of mine to Michael, among other people, on an extremely crowded balcony four floors up, where one of the Congress receptions was being held. The considerable press of people would be unthinkable now, of course, even without the low parapets, but was getting close to it even then; as Michael observed in stagey discomfort, “this would never be allowed in Germany”. I shall never know now whether he was laughing at his own nation or not, but given what I knew of his humour, utterly deadpan and razor sharp, I shall always suspect it. I’m glad I got to laugh with him and I’m sorry I won’t any more.


1. Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016), reviewed by Monica Baldassarri in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 180 (London 2020), pp. 507-509. I should give more reference to Michael’s work but I wouldn’t really know where to start, other than the Bibliography of MEC 12! The links in the text will take you to more if you need to know, however.

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

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

Map of the location of Isauria in Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse of the same coin

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

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

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

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

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

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

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

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

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

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

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

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

Session in progress

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

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

24th June 2017

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

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

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

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

25th June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Gallery

Bolton Abbey Priory

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner … Continue reading

Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

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

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

    25th March

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

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

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

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

    26th March

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

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

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

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

    27th March

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

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

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

Seminar CCXLVI: controversies in studying Carolingian coinage

As promised, the Bank Holiday bonus blog post is also about coins. I promise you only very minimal quantities of numismatics in the next post, but for now we’re still in my whirl of monetary study at the beginning of 2017. On 22nd February of that year, I did something that was already becoming a rarity, which was to head down to London to hear someone speak at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, and as previously mentioned that someone was the Reverend Dr Simon Coupland and his topic was “New Light from Carolingian Coinage”, and this bears on enough things I care about that I wanted to write it up separately in old style.

Obverse of a silver portrait denier of Charlemagne, probably struck at Aachen between 813 and 814, now in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, image from Wikimedia Commons

Here at least is a Charlemagne denier I haven’t pictured before, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Cabinet des Médailles, image by PHGCOM – own work by uploader, photographed at Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason there is new light to be shone, it turned out, is because the stuff keeps being discovered. Although the Carolingian coinage is still probably smaller in survival than its Merovingian predecessor, and there are still therefore questions about its actual use to settle—we’ll come back to that—the hoards corpus has trebled in size since Dr Coupland began his study of the subject, and weird and wonderful groupings keep turning up, especially in the border areas of the Empire where foreign coin didn’t get reminted at entry. Dr Coupland also has the kind of contacts that means he hears about the single finds that Continental antiquities laws tend otherwise to prevent coming to light. Who knows what has come up even while I haven’t been writing this paper up, indeed?1 So there were a number of big-ticket declarations he felt he could now make, and then some curiosities we have still to resolve.

Among the big-ticket items were things like:

  1. Charlemagne’s monogram coinage is found further from its mints than any preceding Carolingian coinage; whatever it is was that joined up his empire, it meant that his late money travelled further than the early stuff.2
  2. His son Louis the Pious, however, seems to have minted more coin per year than any Carolingian ruler before or after him; the latter fact was because the civil war between his sons seriously damaged the production and circulation of the currency and Charles the Bald’s reset of his coinage in 864 did not fully repair the situation even in the West (though if it had, we might conceivably not know, since coins from after that point are very hard to date).
  3. On the other side of the war of the Carolingian brothers, Emperor Lothar I seems to have lost control of his coinage somewhat: there seem to be a lot of Viking imitations, which may be because he had farmed out his biggest mint, Dorestad in Frisia, to a Viking warlord called Rorik and apparently Rorik’s moneyers didn’t much care what Lothar’s name was. This, however, raises the question whether the Frisian imitations of gold solidi of Louis the Pious are also Viking occupation productions, which against this background suddenly seems likely…3
Anglo-Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area, Sussex, UK, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC

Viking-made? An imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area , Sussex, UK, 5th May 2019, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC, image licensed under CC-BY.

On the scale of smaller curiosities, we had observations like this:

  1. We now know that King Pepin III struck a very small portrait coinage, so that’s pretty much every mainline Carolingian with one now.
  2. On the same subject, we now have 47 examples of Charlemagne’s portrait coinage, and the persistently small number of them against the background of his wider coinage makes the question of what they were for still harder to answer, not least because we now have 362 of Louis the Pious’s; it seems clearer that the son of Charlemagne was keener on circulating his imperial image, so what was Charlemagne doing?4
  3. Hoards from around Dorestad continue to indicate the place’s major rôle as a clearing house for international economic contact even before the Vikings were running it, with not just now five hoards of Pepin III and quite a mixture of other Carolingiana but also now a small hoard of King Eanred of Northumbria…5
  4. Despite that, coins from Venice, which was in some ways outside the actual Empire, actually form as large a part of the single finds distribution as do coins from supposed no. 1 port Dorestad, so the high level of finds recovery from the Netherlands may be bending our picture somewhat.
  5. Two hoards from near the major Carolingian mint of Melle, meanwhile, add considerably to the confusion of what was going on in Aquitaine while it was contested between King Charles the Bald and King Pepin II of Aquitaine, as we now have one hoard each of coins in the name of Charles but with Pepin’s monogram (Dr Coupland’s ‘Poitou-Charente 2014’) and one of coins in the name of Pepin but with Charles’s monogram.6 Is it possible some kind of joint rule is reflected here, or was it just blundering, or mint officials trying to play it safe? Why did they have dies of both to mix up? And so on…
  6. Lastly, of many other snippets I could mention, a hoard of 2000 Temple-type coins of Lothar I from Tzimmingen gives us a robust die sample for the coinage and suggests that, if one accepts the infamous Metcalf multiplier of 10,000 coins usually struck per die, that this would have been a coinage of around 4,000,000 pieces.7 But of course, we should not accept the infamous Metcalf multiplier8

You may get the impression that this paper was substantially composed of numismatic gossip, and you wouldn’t be all wrong about that, but behind all this, especially when one starts dealing with numbers like that, are bigger questions. Long ago now Michael Hendy argued that whereas Roman coinage had been primarily intended for tax and was run in the state interest rather than out of any concern for commerce, something in which he has been much disputed since, by the Carolingian era enabling trade was a primary concern of coin-issuing powers, not least because they didn’t really use coin for anything else, since the imperial tax system was gone and they raised troops on obligations relating to land, not by paying them wages.9 We might, now, have enough additional respect for the Carolingians’ estate management and desire to transport wealth in durable forms around their empire to suspect that they did, in fact, have at least some governmental uses for coin, and Hendy would probably not have denied that, but when we’ve got figures like these, and coins moving so far before then getting lost, as Metcalf managed to argue for the early Anglo-Saxon coinages, it seems like trade must be the bigger part of the answer. That raises its own questions about whether this relatively high-value silver coinage was actually very generally available or whether it was, effectively, a tool of professionals. That goes double when one factors in professional soldiery or banditry that might explain hoards in Viking territories, I suppose, but Dr Coupland would argue for a trading factor there too, and I think Mark Blackburn would have agreed with him.10

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389, ex Coin Galleries sale, 14 November 2000, lot 576

As Rory Naismith raised in questions, the place that doesn’t fit into this picture as one would expect is Italy, part of the Carolingian realms at least down to Rome and sometimes further from 774. While it’s probably not ideal metal detector territory for much of its surface, Italy is nevertheless pretty thoroughly archaeologically surveyed and dug, and yet, as Alessia Rovelli has repeatedly argued, the finds of coins from the Carolingian era are way fewer than from the Roman, Byzantine and even Lombard eras before it.11 She has therefore concluded that the Carolingians didn’t really strike much coin in Italy, and yet beyond the Alps Venice and Milan are major parts of the sample. If those mints were primarily striking for what turned out to be export, it’s hard to argue that this was a coinage for the market, when Italy’s concentration of cities even then should have provided a much more urgent market context than the other side of the Alps. In this respect, at least, this coinage looks like a tax one, a point made on this occasion by Caroline Goodson, in which case why does it look like a trading one inside Frankish territories? For Dr Coupland this was probably something do with the finding circumstances, but an alternative might be that Italy was something of a colonised territory under the Carolingians, from which they extracted wealth that was really only being spent in the heartland, whereafter it spread more normally. But what was Italy doing for money in its own markets if that was so? There is a bigger answer needed here if it is to contain all this evidence, but of course, one has to know what the evidence is. Certainly, the audience of this paper had to ask their questions differently by the end of it from how they would have at the beginning, such was the new evidence presented. As you can tell, I am still thinking with it now, and now, after much delay, so can you!


1. Dr Coupland has been trying to keep track of this for a while: see Simon Coupland, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards 751-987” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 171 (London 2011), pp. 203–256, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards, 751-987”, ibid. Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 213–222, on JSTOR here; idem, “Seven Recent Carolingian Hoards”, ibid. pp. 317–332, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, ibid. Vol. 175 (London 2015), pp. 273–284, and Simon Coupland and Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian Hoards”, ibid., pp. 267–272, are just the ones I easily have reference to; I suspect there are more…

2. See now Simon Coupland, “The Formation of a European Identity: Revisiting Charlemagne’s Coinage” in Elina Screen and Charles West (eds), Writing the Early Medieval West: studies in honour of Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge 2018), pp. 213–229.

3. See Simon Coupland, “Recent Finds of Imitation Gold Solidi in the Netherlands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 261–269.

4. Simon Coupland, “The Portrait Coinage of Charlemagne” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 145–156.

5. For a view predating these recent finds, see Simon Coupland, “Boom and Bust at 9th-century Dorestad” in Annemarieke Willemsen and H. Kik (edd.), Dorestad in an International Framework: New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times (Turnhout 2010), pp. 95–103.

6. This is presumably that covered in Coupland, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, and I guess the other one is in either idem, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards” or idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards”.

7. Metcalf in D. M. Metcalf, “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, on JSTOR here, but for a statistical sanity check of the methods (which basically aren’t sane) see Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, on JSTOR here.

8. See for a final word on this, at least as it should have been, S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again” in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135.

9. Michael F. Hendy, “From Public to Private: The Western Barbarian Coinages as a Mirror of the Disintegration of Late Roman State Structures” in Viator Vol. 19 (Turnhout 1988), pp. 29–78, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301364.

10. Obviously there are the important methodological cautions of Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, on JSTOR here, which I do love to cite still, but against it in this context see D. M. Metcalf, “Viking-Age Numismatics 4: The Currency of German and Anglo-Saxon Coins in the Northern Lands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 148 (London 1998), pp. 345–371, on JSTOR here, and idem, “English Money, Foreign Money: The Circulation of Tremisses and Sceattas in the East Midlands, and the Monetary Role of ‘Productive Sites'” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 15–48.

11. Alessia Rovelli, “Coins and Trade in Early Medieval Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 45–76.

Things I did not know about coinage in al-Andalus

I owe you all some blog posts! So I hope you don’t mind if they’re mostly about coins, because apparently at the beginning of 2017 I was dealing with coins at pretty much every level. The Roman stuff just discussed was being catalogued while I could still catalogue, but I’d chosen that stuff to catalogue because I needed to know what there was for teaching my late antique survey module. Teaching with coinage on my final-year special subject is harder, because for much of the period of Iberian history it covers there was no, or almost no, coinage being issued in the Latin kingdoms, and I don’t read the Arabic with which I might better understand the Muslim state’s or states’ stuff, and either way the Leeds collection has basically none of it. I did, however, run one class on the economy of al-Andalus, focusing on money and slaves, and for that I wanted to show the students some coins, even if the most they got from it would be that the state had considerable powers of standardisation, that the Islamic standard of coinage was fairly universal and that when the caliphate began it reintroduced gold coinage and that was no coincidence. Those all seemed like worthwhile teaching points…

Gold dinar of Caliph 'Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

Gold dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

So I went hunting for a resource to use and remembered the existence of something I had once found, the Tonegawa Collection. If you haven’t met it, this is an increasingly-comprehensive open online and expressly anti-copyright collection of images of and information on coins of al-Andalus; but right now, it was an English-language resource with many pictures and so I leapt at it. Of course, I had actually to look at it first to ensure that this would probably work, and in the course of that I learnt many cool things about Andalusī (i. e. Iberian Muslim) coinage and stubbed this post in which to tell you all of them.

Gold solidus struck in Spania in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Gold solidus struck in ‘Spania’ in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Some of these things I knew already, like this one. The Visigothic kingdom that the Muslim forces took over in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 had had a mostly-gold coinage of so-called tremisses, technically one-third of a Roman/Byzantine solidus. Unlike most places where Islam took over a tax system, where it just maintained the existing coinage until the application of a new one had been worked out, here something more studied was done: the new régime struck solidi, which the Visigoths had not for a long time, on the Byzantine weight standard and with halves and thirds like the Byzantines, but of a new design with Latin inscriptions recording the value, country of issue (Hispania) and the Islamic date, and a star on the other side. There were also copper-alloy coins of a less standard kind.1 Conventional wisdom is that this was the application of the system the Muslims had met at Carthage when they took that, but that had been thirty years before, since which time coinage there had been regularised with that of the rest of the Islamic world, and in any case the last solidi from Islamic Carthage were fat globby things quite unlike these in both fabric or design.2

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Next, five years later, came coins closer to Islamic dinar weights, with both Latin and Arabic inscriptions as you see above, and then five years after that regular Islamic dinars, then soon after that gold ceased to be issued and it was only silver dirhams and copper-alloy fulūs till the new Caliphate in 929 (see the first illustration). Whatever was going on here involved some deliberate decisions about how this was going to work and perhaps some early sense that this was going to be a new province of a different kind to the other Islamic possessions. There’s a story from the later Arabic sources that the first delegate governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Azīz, son of the governor of Ifrīqīyya who had conquered the peninsula, married the widow of the last Visigothic king and started looking as if he would set up as the new one, so that his men murdered him for his pretensions; I wonder if this coinage is showing us the same thing, a potential breakway régime which thought it was too far from Damascus to be stopped and in the end proved to be wrong.3

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187x1

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187×1

Likewise, it’s interesting to me that throughout the history of the rule of some kind of the first, Umayyad, ruling dynasty of Islam in the peninsula, the mint named on the precious-metal coinage was almost never more specific than the whole province, first Hispania then al-Andalus, as if any minting place was the same given the uniformity of control.4 Given how shaky Umayyad control often was here, that might have been quite an important thing to assert: coinage of Toledo or wherever would have been politically contentious when the city rebelled, as it often did, but while all the coinage was from ‘al-Andalus’, even when the governors or emirs controlled relatively little of that space, at least their money would not make that obvious. It’s frustrating not knowing where they were made, of course, but there was probably a point to it.

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10. The Arabic which identifies the issue apparently more or less renders as ‘Son of Cassius/Qāsī’ and ‘Conquest’, which is fascinating if so, but obviously isn’t all the script on the coin so if anyone feels like decoding the rest for me I would be in their debt and would footnote their assistance in subsequent publication…

Now this much I already knew, largely because of long ago having copy-edited the volume I’ve been citing for it all. But the Tonegawa Collection showed me lots of new things. For example, I dimly knew that Islamic law considers only precious-metal coinage to be the business of the state, so that base-metal small change can effectively be provided privately.5 It could, though, also be provided at intermediate level, such as by city or March governors, and that’s how come the above is a coin of the infamous Banū Qāsī, the frontier warlords about whom at this point I’d only a year before written the first English-language synthesis longer than a paragraph.6 Was that just necessity, at one of the periods when they held the big city of Zaragoza, to keep the markets and tax systems running, or was the chance to issue even base-metal coin part of how they tried to embed themselves into the area before anyone could come along and push them out of it again? I hadn’t realised that the coinage could be a source here, because no-one who works on them mentions it, but now when I finally revise that paper, I can.

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

I could go on for a while, but I’ll keep it to just these two further things. This is a copper-alloy fals, and I can’t tell you anything really about who issued it or when—though if anyone reading can make anything of the legend I would love to know—but I can tell you that it didn’t start this way, as this has been struck straight onto a Roman nummus of Emperor Maximian (285-305, 307-308 and 310). Coins like this have been the seed of a long (friendly) argument between me and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, who has indeed now published his side of the dispute (on which more in a couple of posts). I maintain, backed by now considerable finds evidence, that there were Visigothic base-metal coinages struck in the Peninsula; he maintains that coins like these show that the circulating medium of small change was actually reused or still-used Roman coins.7 I thought that unlikely, but there are, as this demonstrates, coins that make him at least part right. They don’t make me wrong about the Visigothic stuff, though! Nonetheless, what this is is a coin that, even if not continuously, had been in use for at least 429 years when this happened to it, perhaps rather more, and which presumably then went to be used some more before someone helpfully lost it or hoarded it. You can see why I was sceptical, but as it’s true it is, as Neil would have said, pretty heavy, man.

Double-pierced silver dirham of 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Double-pierced silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Lastly, as any of you who have worked closely with me and my numismatic buddies will know, we think piercing of coins is really interesting.8 Apart from anything else, it tells us that despite the presumably-fixed value of the coin in precious metal, it was still worth more for someone to bore some of that metal out of it and hang it on a string or whatever than to maintain that. You can sometimes tell a lot by how a coin is pierced; if it was hung on a string, for example, what face would be the right way up? Which way through was the hole pushed? Does that match? If there are two holes, it was probably going to be stitched to fabric; how does that change our picture? Here, we seem to have both: the damage at the edge seems to be where a single piercing caused the edge to crack off, and then someone put two holes through it more centrally. Or perhaps those things happened the other way round, who knows? So had this coin been crossing some kind of culture divide, was this change of use, or had it just fallen off whatever it was attached to and someone decided to make sure? We can’t answer these questions, of course, at least not normally, but their answers would make up individual object biographies in which the coin interacted with its different and equally individual users, and this coin apparently did more obvious interaction than many.9 I wonder what?

Anyway. That is enough numismatic effusion for now, especially given that the next post will contain more. Imagine how much worse it would be if I could read these things…


1. My guide here is of course Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 54-61.

2. See Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 147-148.

3. On the story and its background see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain 710–797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 37-38.

4. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, p. 59. The exception is the period 947-961, when the coins of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III were issued from his palace at Madinat al-Zahra’, outside Córdoba.

5. See Stefan Heidemann, “Numismatics” in Chase F. Robinson (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam: Volume 1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge 2010), pp. 648–663 at pp. 649-651.

6. Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qasī, 842-907”, unpublished paper presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2015; it does, alas, remain unpublished, but I can also offer you Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40 at pp. 28-29, assuming of course that you cannot access the much more comprehensive Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografias 17 (Madrid 2010).

7. Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Alberto Canto, “The Value of Wealth: Coins and Coinage in Iberian Early Medieval Documents” in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711-1085) In Honour of Simon Barton, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 76 (Leiden 2020), pp. 169–197. In my defence I cite Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Madrid 2015), pp. 125–160, for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. On coin piercing see Rebecca Darley, “Money, Art and Representation: the powerful and pragmatic faces of medieval coinage” in Rory Naismith (ed.), A Cultural History of Money in the Medieval Age, Cultural History of Money 2 (London 2019), pp. 99–124 at pp. 119-121.

9. You probably don’t need a reference for the idea of object biographies but if you want one, here are two, Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” in idem (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 3-63, and Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: from production to consumption” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2009), pp. 123–138.

I found this coin, 5: Roman public image regulation

I should apologise for the lack of a post last week; the time in which I had meant to write it all went on processing the photos from which I was going to construct it. These were, as you may guess from the subject line, all coins, in fact most of the coins that I selected for the first run of one of the modules I suggested that I could when I applied for the job at Leeds, a second-year option based on the social and political changes of the late antique period in the West as seen through its money. As I originally conceived it, this module was going to work using the collections in the Leeds Discovery Centre but, as you’ve heard, soon after arriving I was informed there were resources as good much closer to hand and so it ran with the materials in Special Collections in Leeds University Library instead. This year I ran it as an MA module instead for the first time, which worked a lot better, but since firstly very few of my students seem to read my blog and secondly, and more grimly, it seems very unlikely we’ll be able to run any modules based on supervised handling of objects any time soon, there seems no harm in dedicating a post to one of its teaching points, which is to what the images I have finally processed most obviously lend themselves.

Obverse of ilver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of the same coin. I freely admit that this one has nothing to do with the post, I just couldn’t read the date or mint signature and am hoping that someone who can will be reading… It’s happened before!

So, if you ever read much in the way of numismatics and coinage history for the pre-modern period, you may have met the idea that coinage is in some sense state propaganda.1 And one could debate whether that is its primary purpose or whether it’s mainly for ensuring the operation of the economy; but since to be recognised as coin it must identify an authority of guarantee, or else it’s just a round disc of metal, many issuers have indeed used that fact to say something about themselves with their money. Where it gets tricky, though, is when from there we try to extrapolate the public image policy of ancient and medieval rulers. Do we, after all, imagine that modern heads of state choose their coinage designs? Those of us who remember the first UK pound coins will remember that they had eight different edge inscriptions and a different reverse design every year, which was basically anti-counterfeiting and although the designs did have some purposes of eliciting national pride in our great achievements and heritage, I don’t suppose any of us thought the Prime Minister came up with them, let alone Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.2

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin, showing the Forth Bridge in Scotland

But when one tries the same argument on ancient or medieval rulers, one finds people weirdly reluctant to let go of the idea of royal or imperial agency. I once had a ten-minute argument with someone in the Institute of Historical Research about the coinage of William the Conqueror and the intended significance of the portrait iconography, with the other party believing that his facing portrait was a deliberate echo of Byzantine imagery which indicated William’s quasi-imperial status as now being a ruler of plural realms, and because they wanted this to be William’s initative they loudly asserted that since the coin bore his image and name, and thus directly touched his reputation, he could not have afforded not to take a personal interest. My counter-argument was more or less, “You mean he really thought he should look like this?”

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087, from Tony Clayton’s Pictures of Coins of the UK, linked through for your perusal

Y’see, I believe that someone chose that crown and the facing portrait, which do indeed look like Emperor Justinian I’s coins a bit (see below), but I don’t believe that it had to be William who chose them, still less that it was intended to be portraiture; I think the designs would have been settled at a much lower level, and I don’t think William expected it to resemble him so much as generally to look like the kind of royal or imperial figure wot belongs on a coin. But neither of us had any proof of our positions, which is why the argument went on for so long. And so the question arises: lacking any actual documentation of these decisions, as until the maybe-fifteenth century we are, can we hope to show any case where the decision about what a coin looked like really did rest with the ruler?

Obverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001 Reverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001

A halfway position has been achieved with one or two Roman imperial coinages, which is possible because Roman minting happened on such a scale that there were obviously a great many separate pairs of hands at work in the coinage and there must therefore have been some higher-level direction about what the designs should look like. This gets even truer when plural mints are involved, and long ago a scholar by the name of Patrick Bruun did a careful analysis of one sort of coin of Constantine I, the so-called Gloria Exercitus coinage (The Glory of the Army) focusing on the differences between the mints’ interpretation of the design. I won’t trouble you with the detail here and now, mostly because I can’t remember it, but the point was that only some of the details varied. Therefore, he argued, the things that didn’t must have been in the instructions sent to the mint.3

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Actually, the instructions must have been sent to the die-engravers, and they might not have been at the mint—they might even all have been in the same place and the dies distributed once carved, though that would be a bad way to cope with wastage and still avoid forgery—but the basic point holds, that we can see (a) that there were instructions and (b) roughly what they included. Even this, however, doesn’t get us as far as (c) who came up with those instructions. Did Constantine say: “I want a coinage that’s about the soldiers, man, I want to really speak to those guys, let them know that they all together support the unified Empire, so let’s have two soldiers both holding the same standard, it’ll be super deep”, or was it only the first clause or two then some artist came up with the rest and the under-secretary of the Count of the Sacred Largesses or similar went, “That’ll do, send out orders for a hundred dies in that pattern to be delivered in a month”? Can we ever know? Well, there might be just one coinage where we can, and it’s this next one.

(Top: billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972.
Second row: billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962.
Third row down: billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885.
Bottom: billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued.)
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

You will quickly note that these coins are quite similar. That is true even though they are coins of four different emperors and each struck at a different mint in a different year. Nonetheless, there they are, pretty much indistinguishable except by text. Coincidence? Strong tradition? Well, almost certainly not, because these four all ruled together. They are the four Roman emperors known as the First Tetrarchy, a college of four rulers selected by their eldest member, Diocletian (284-305) to rule with him as delegates in different parts of the Empire. Despite that geographical delegation, their edicts all went out in the name of all four emperors, their monuments often depicted all four of them together even though that probably happened only twice, and, importantly for us, all the mints of the Empire issued coins in the name all four emperors at once.4

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki, third register down; image by Armineaghayanown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reasons for this are pretty clear if you know about the so-called third-century crisis, a fifty-year run of short imperial Roman reigns brought to an end by a seemingly-endless series of military coups as frontier situations bubbled out of the control of any single ruler: wherever the emperor could not be, there a resentful army appointed their own and the result was continual civil war.5 Diocletian, whose entire military career up to his succession—in a military coup—was spent in this political environment, seems to have realised that the need was for multiple emperors, but not plural emperors as had hitherto been tried, with a ruler’s young son who could be seen as inexperienced or second-best promoted up, but four more-or-less-equally experienced military officers any of whom could stand in for any of the others.6 And that seems to be what their public image was intended to convey: the emperors are all the same, and speak together; if you have one you have them all; they can’t be turned against each other and there is always one to whom you can address yourself.

Silver argenteus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, again, this time on the reverse of a silver argenteus of Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

So I wouldn’t like to say, especially given the more naturalistic image on the coin above, that there was a meeting in which Diocletian and the others decided, “you know what we should all have? Beards and really really thick necks, like, unreal necks, OK?” The basic design details might still have been due to someone else lower down the chain, and the key thing might have been that it was easy for most die-cutters to reproduce, so, basic but characteristic. But that the same design went everywhere and every emperor struck the same coins for all four of them in his mints, I think must have been settled in such a conference between the top men themselves, and I would imagine that that being so, they probably did actually approve the designs before the dies were ordered. But this might be the only case where I’m prepared to admit that it really was the rulers’ decision…7


1. You need examples? How about Barbara Levick, “Messages on the Roman Coinage: Types and Inscriptions” in G. M. Paul and M. Ierardi (edd.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire (Ann Arbor MI 1999), pp. 41–60 or Cécile Morrisson, “Displaying the Emperor’s Authority and Kharaktèr in the Marketplace” in Pamela Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium (Farnham 2013), pp. 65–80?

2. Of course, the anti-counterfeiting didn’t in the end work, which is why we now have the new seven-sided bimetallic ones, but by then people were already trying to solve the problem with lasers, as so often happens nowadays: see Andrew Appleby and Thangavel Thevar, “Identification of British One Pound Counterfeit Coins using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy” in Optical Engineering Vol. 55 (Bellingham WT 2016), pp. 044104-1-044104–6, DOI: 10.1117/1.OE.55.4.044104.

3. Patrick M. Bruun, “The System of the Vota Coinages: Coordination of Issues in the Constantinian Empire” in Norsk Numismatisk Årsskrift Vol. 96 (Oslo 1958), pp. 1–21, repr. in Bruun, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: papers from 1954 to 1988, ed. by A. Tammisto, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 12 (Rome 1991), pp. 27–36.

4. A good guide here is Roger Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Edinburgh 2004), which has a useful appendix of translated sources.

5. Here I like Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999), despite the obvious case it wants to make for the brief reign of its imperial subject.

6. The alternative had been attempted by Valerian (253-260), whose son Gallienus (253-268) did OK until Valerian was captured by the Persians and he had to raise his own young sons to the purple, which ended badly for them. See for an attempt to save Gallienus’s reputation, of which there is now pretty much one per emperor, John Bray, Gallienus : A Study in Reformist and Sexual Politics (Kent Town 1997), an attack on the older Lukas de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden 1976). Actually, I don’t think anyone has tried to rescue Valerian yet…

7. Actually, that’s not quite true: I’m pretty sure that Emperor Nero chose most of his coin designs, but my main justification for that belief is that he fancied himself an artist and their iconography’s often very clever, which however much I like it as an idea still isn’t proof…