Category Archives: numismatics

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Chronicle V: July-September 2016

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds, 2nd December 2019

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds this morning

Some negotiations are afoot, but the strikes continue, and so I am free to write you more blog. Let’s, as I promised yesterday, look back now to happier times, to wit the summer of 2016, for my next Chronicle post. Admittedly, despite the recent rush, the last one of those three-month slices was a bit more than three months ago, but hopefully this one, covering as it mainly does the summer vacation, will catch things up a bit. So, what did this UK academic do with his summer before he was all unionized and on strike?


Well, you’d think teaching stopped over the summer, and of course it mostly does in as much as the undergraduates go home for a bit, but in actual fact as I look through the old diary it is obvious how one never quite gets clear. I got through July with only one Ph. D. supervision, for the visiting Chinese student I’ve mentioned, and in August I saw him again, for the last time, plus one of my postgraduate mentees, but I also spent an hour and a half in an empty classroom recording a canned lecture for our first-year medieval survey module I was taking over, so I was obviously also doing teaching planning. Then in September, as well as a meeting with a different postgraduate mentee, I did a taster lecture for prospective undergraduates, had various meetings to coordinate the upcoming year’s teaching and then in the last week of September of course normal undergraduate teaching began again, with me running three modules, including that whole-cohort survey and my all-new two-semester Special Subject, which had needed an immense amount of translation doing for it, and on the last day of that week I also had to do a transfer interview for one of our doctoral candidates. All of this, course, needed preparation previously. So, given that, I’m not sure I actually took that much time off from teaching in the summer. I certainly did have some actual time off, and I will show you photographs from it as well, but there was no point when teaching was all finished and could be put away. One of my lessons from that summer was that I needed to construct one of those, and I’ve been trying and failing ever since…

Other Efforts

Well, actually quite a lot of this time was spent house-hunting, for reasons I won’t go into, but I was also now starting that coin cataloguing project with an undergraduate that I’ve mentioned here before, which also meant a meeting every few weeks, and also some larger coordination with Special Collections about the further development of work on the coin collection, which at this point I was still also slowly inventorying for an afternoon a week when I could. So coins were definitely a feature of these three months. By September I was also undergoing training, because one of the things in the year ahead of me was my eventually-successful application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, not a simple process at first. But here things were fairly light, which is how it should probably be during an academic summer.

Other People’s Research

Obviously, summer also means no seminars, but on the other hand, also obviously to those of us in the circuit, July also opens with Leeds’s own International Medieval Congress, so I definitely saw some other people talk. It was also my first one as staff, and I suppose that even after three years’ delay that may still make it worth blogging separately. That was actually my only conference that summer, however, so even here things were lighter than they might have been.

My Own Research

All the which, therefore, would lead you to suppose that I must mostly have been doing research. And sure, while the look of my diary is mainly house-hunting and (believe it or not) a holiday, there are also a lot of blanks which must have been so filled. I was presenting at the IMC in my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier strand, but of course that was (almost) done by the time July started. I must have been reading for ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, because I had drafts of it done in June and October that this time must have made the difference between, and I also turned round a new version of my old piece ‘A Likely Story’, then as now still on its way to publication. Closer examination however reveals that what I was probably doing most of was trying to work out how many of Borrell II‘s relatives I could track down. (The answer, should you be interested, was 66 whom he could actually have met, not including relatives by marriage, whom I probably should have included, but, well, if the book ever emerges you’ll see there were reasons not to bother.) This involved getting deep into the early work of Martin Aurell, whom you may just know proposed long ago that the ninth- and early-tenth-century comital family of Catalonia was seriously and incestuously interbred.1 Let us suffice here to say that on closer examination of the sources I disagree, and that as long-term readers may remember there were just a lot of women called Adelaide in that area at that time, some of whom are not in fact the same as each other. By the end of the summer I was sure that this now needed to be a separate article, but I was not yet in a position to extract it, and I have to admit, have got little closer since then (though I did at least finish Aurell’s book, some two years later). So that was apparently where the rest of the summer went. Looking at that, I shouldn’t feel bad, really; I redrafted one piece for publication and did some serious work on an article and a book, which ought to be good enough for three months. Nonetheless, my life would have been easier in the following year if it had been more.

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway service into the town

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moor Railway service into the town, and about as close as I got to anything medieval on this trip, but sometimes that’s OK

What does this all tell us, then? Firstly, I guess, looking back, I was tired and fraught, but that was largely the stress of having to move house again, and my partner bore most of that weight. Even that was not all bad – I got a much better sense of West Yorkshire from going looking at many places – but also, I suspect I was still probably working full days most of these weeks, at least those where I was not actually on leave (and then sometimes in North Yorkshire, as above). I just don’t seem to have finished the summer with that much to show for it, and I think that has to be down to the lack of actual downtime and the need to have new teaching ready for the coming year. In fact, I wasn’t really ready, but I didn’t know that then.

1. Specifically, Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Jalons pour une enquête sur les stratégies matrimoniales des Comtes Catalans” in Frederic Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, I pp. 281–364, online here; Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); and idem, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 467–480.

Links of hopefully-still relevant interest

Way back when I was a more diligent blogger and used to read other people’s stuff too, I used occasionally to gather up possible links of interest, most obviously for the rotating festival of such links that was Carnivalesque, which I now find is defunct; I guess a lot of us have suffered as I have with shortage of time, but I also suppose that such news goes round by Twitter now. Well, I am not a Twitteratus and will not be, so every now and then I still stash links in case someone reading would be interested, and in my massive backlog I now reach one such stash of material. Of course, these are all years old now, but as fellow blogger Saesferd (used to?) put it, “it’s mostly old news” in the first place, and maybe not all of it was on your radars when it was new… I’ll attempt some headings.

Discoveries in the West

Billon coins from the Cluny hoard

Billoin coins from the Cluny hoard, described below

Viking sword fragments from an Estonian hoard

Fragments from the Estonian hoard

Discoveries beyond the West

I owe notice of all these to Georgia Michael, to whom many thanks; this section is all her work, really.

A small hoard of Byzantine coins discovered down a well in Israel

Possibly actual dicovery photo, but either way, the small Byzantine hoard described below

Lastly, things people have put on the Internet

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman's collection

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman’s collection linked below

With several of the blog’s themes thus covered, I leave it for the weekend, hoping that some of you at least hadn’t already heard at least some of this… I think I am now through all the content I promised out of the last Chronicle post, so the next post, tomorrow unless strikes end very sharply indeed, will be the next one of those, covering July to September 2016. See you then maybe!

I Found This Coin, 2: Byzantine small-change weirdnesses

It is day two of the UK higher education strikes, 2019 edition, so I suddenly have a gap in my to-do lists such as has not existed for many a month, and consequently you get another blog post!

University and College Union strike pickets at the University of Leeds, 2019

Strangely familiar… The entrance to the Parkinson Building at Leeds yesterday. Already forecasting more photos like this for 2020!

So, if we go back to May 2016, before all this blew up, I still then had time occasionally to volunteer in Special Collections at my beloved university, working through their mostly-uncatalogued cabinets of coins. As in the previous one of these posts, sometimes I’d find something cool. In May 2016 I was mainly doing Byzantine small change, it seems, and in there were two especially interesting pieces. The first one I have shown here before:

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a copper-alloy follis of an uncertain mint struck perhaps in the Middle East in 613-28, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/BYZ/TH/302

It deserves more explanation than it’s had, however. In aspect this is a fairly normal-looking follis of Emperor Phocas, pictured enthroned alongside his empress Leoncia. The reverse has the ‘M’ that indicates 40 in Greek, telling you how many nummi the coin is worth, and below that the mint-mark… And there’s the problem, because that is no mint-mark that the Byzantine Empire used. Sort of nearly NIK or NIC for Nicomedia, modern-day Iznik, but obviously not, and an imperial, literate, die-cutter should have known. So what’s going on here? Well, between 602 and 629, the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a fight for its life with its neighbouring empire, Sasanian Persia (or as the Sasanians thought of it, Iran). At the high point of this, for the Persians, they controlled most of the Middle East and Egypt, and in Syria and Palestine that situation lasted a decade. Now, this is not the only coin like this, whose designer seems to have known what a Byzantine coin looked like but not understood why, and Clive Foss is not the only scholar to suggest that these might be the small change of the Persian administration, keeping things running but with no real need to care about the traditional pedantries of Byzantine money. This is one of the types he mentions as a possible case of it, and I don’t have a better explanation!1 So this may be a Persian occupation coin, which would be pretty cool, and if it’s not, it’s an enigma, which is also cool.

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of the same coin

It was the Byzantines who eventually won the war, however, by dint of continuous and heroic efforts by both the home administration in Constantinople in raising tax and of the Emperor Heraclius in spending it in fast-moving and devastating field campaigns, often deep in enemy territory without contact with home. The whole story is quite exciting, but a big part of it was the desperate raising of money to pay troops.2 In the course of this all kinds of corners seem to have been cut to make money quicker, and this is particularly true of the small change, effctively valueless in and of itself and so of no actual need to make nicely. Rather than melt down old coins, therefore, the mints often just struck new designs straight on top of them, and as here, the old designs often remained partially visible. Now, Heraclius had risen to power by toppling and indeed executing Phocas, whose own coming to power had precipitated the war with Persia, and it is one of Phocas’s coins that was the victim of overstriking here; you can see on the face side, around the bottom left, the letters dN FOCAS that began that coin’s old legend, for ‘Our Lord Phocas’. But the actual emperor has been obliterated by Heraclius and his eldest son Constantine. That could be a powerful act of symbolism, and might just explain why, apparently, looking at its impression the new die was square. Was it actually designed to leave the old text visible to make it clear what had happened here? Well, almost any other coin of this period suggests that no such subtleties were being administered, and that these things were just overstruck on anything any old how, including after a while on Heraclius’s own old coins. What the point of this was, no-one has really figured out, and I have fun debating it in class every year now, but this particular example remains, at least, a poignantly expressive coincidence (and I still don’t know why the die was square).3

1. See Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008), pp. 11-12, for the argument.

2. Probably the best account, for all that I would not recommend it methodologically, is James Howard-Johnston, “Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the Eastern Roman Empire, 622–630” in War in History Vol. 6 (Abingdon 1999), pp. 1–45, reprinted in Howard-Johnston, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot 2006), chapter VIII.

3. Compare Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 45 & 92, with Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 288; neither really had good explanations for the phenomenon.


This week’s is a very short post, with some surprising news. That news is: on 25th November this year, on the Smithsonian Channel, at 8 pm (the site says ‘All times ET/PT’, and I admit I don’t understand how it … Continue reading

I Found this Coin, I: Maxentius and his Temple

There was no post the week before last and only one last week, and the post I wanted to put up next is stalled for lack of information, plus which, I’ve decided not to do two of the ones I promised in my last ‘Chronicle’ post because I reviewed my notes and found that the things in question weren’t quite as exciting as I’d remembered. So instead I shall do what I so often do when at a blog-loss and show you a coin. I spent a decent number of Friday afternoons in the academic year 2015/16 inventorying Byzantine and late Roman coins in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections and every now and then something came up about which a story could be told. This post is about one of them.

Copy of a bust of the Emperor Maxetius now in the Pushkin Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Plaster cast in the Pushkin Museum of a bust of the emperor Maxentius (307-12) in Dresden, photograph by shakko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

The Emperor Maxentius is one of the unlucky figures of Roman history, partly just because of events and partly because he had the misfortune to be up against one of history’s winners, Emperor Constantine I (306-37).1 Constantine was raised to the purple by the soldiers of his father, Constantius I (293-305), when Constantius died, and he handled it relatively well, communicating his submission to the other three reigning emperors and being grudgingly accepted as a new junior colleague. This, however, angered young Maxentius, the son of the now-retired emperor Maximianus I (285-305, 307-308 and 310), who had very much not been allowed to succeed when his father retired. Now that another emperor’s son had, he rebelled, at first rolling his father out of retirement to set up with him at Rome and then, finding him more of a problem than a help, carried on alone. Somewhere in there he had a son, whom he gave the portentuous name Romulus, but who quickly died; this is what I mean about bad luck, really. Eventually, it was Constantine I in 312, who now, as one of only two other emperors, closed Maxentius down in Rome, defeated him in the field at the Milvian Bridge, with God very clearly on Constantine’s side as he later told it, and Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber in the retreat.2

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum, photo by your author

Maxentius thus tends to get a fairly pitiful write-up in the scholarship, but if you stop and look at that, you’ll notice it means that he was in control of the Empire’s notional capital for half a decade, and more than that, he was also in charge of and even suppressed a rebellion in Carthage, shipping point for Rome’s North African grain supply. In fact, he held a decent slice of the middle of the Empire and, apparently, a warfleet, without any real opposition from the other emperors until 312 (a brief and ultimately fatal coup by his father in 310 aside). Furthermore, he built in the city on a serious scale; his ceremonial basilica was not finished at his death, and was indeed finished by Constantine, but its ruins still stand and you can see the scale of the thing. He did finish a smaller but still impressive temple for his dead son, which you can still see in the Forum (and above). He was evidently not a nobody or a do-nothing. He just had bad luck and a very dangerous third opponent. It’s a pity we don’t know more about him, but the winners get to write the history and Constantine really did a number of that. Still, we have some of his coins.

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of the same coin

This coin in particular brings out the ambiguity of our understanding of Maxentius’s reign.3 It was evidently cut fairly carelessly from the sheet, or else the blank was poorly made and no-one cared. The dies were neatly done but not very well applied, and you could plausibly argue that whoever was making them was under pressure to produce quickly. In terms of design, however, it shows Maxentius’s aspirations pretty clearly. Firstly, the portrayal is almost exactly like that of the other emperors of the time, down to beard and dress; he was aiming to join the college and was here showing himself as one of them, and is accordingly entitled AVG(ustus) like them. On the other hand, he had something they did not have, possession of the signal city of the Empire, and he signalled this with the reverse, which shows not any temple of his own building but the temple of the city deity put up by Augustus himself, the very first emperor and origin of their imperial title, Maxentius here identifying himself with the very seat of Empire in several ways at once.4 Of course, we don’t know that Maxentius himself chose that design, rather than telling someone off at the mint to make him some suitable coins, but whoever did decide on it knew what they were doing. Were it not such a rush job, it would look like the work of a successful and self-aware administration. Alas, it was not to be, and at the end of all this I still don’t really know what to think of Maxentius except how different several sorts of history might have been if the elder emperors in 307 had just accepted him as they had Constantine. Probably Constantine would have eliminated him as he did all his other rivals, in time, but it’s still hard to see why it was so easy for him when he in fact did so.

1. I’ve taught this stuff so often now I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s coming from, but at least one source will be Alan K. Bowman, “Diocletian and the First Tetrarchy, A. D. 284‒305”, Averil Cameron, “The Reign of Constantine, A. D. 306‒337”, and Elio Lo Cascio, “The New State of Diocletian and Constantine: from the Tetrarchy to the Reunification of the Empire”, all in Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Cameron (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193‒337, 2nd edn. (Cambridge 2005), pp. 67‒89, 90‒109 and 170‒83 respectively.

2. On the tangly question of what Constantine saw in the sky and what stories were told about it, try Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), pp. 84-105.

3. I reckon it one of C. H. V Sutherland and R. A. G. Carson, The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 6: From Diocletian’s Reform (A. D. 294) to the Death of Maximus (A. D. 313) (London 1966), Ticinum 91.

4. He wasn’t the first to put this temple on coins, either; that seems to have been Caracalla (198-217), though the exact type originates with Philip I (244-248). And, of course, he wasn’t the last either, though it went through some changes

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!

1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in 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 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.