Tag Archives: Arab-Byzantine coins

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assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it.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.

Standing figure facing with two long crosses

It seems to have been a while since we had anything here about coins, so here’s a little coincidence that I notice every time I teach with it on my late-antique survey module, Empire and Aftermath. Predictably, I use coinage as a source on this, because we have a good collection to play with and it gets students involved who might not react so well to purely textual sources, but each year I do I am struck by something I remember from much longer ago in my career, which is this coin:

Obverse of an early English penny, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Obverse of an early English penny of the so-called Series L, struck at London in the late-seventh or early-eighth century, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of an early English silver penny struck at London, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, De Wit Collection, CM.1815-2007

Reverse of the same coin

This is an early Anglo-Saxon penny, and it’s one of the very rare ones that actually carries some legible information about its place of issue: you may not believe me, but the letters around the presumably-royal bust decode as LVNDONIA, London. How many people could have read this, given that the actual coin is about the size of most people’s little fingernails, is another question, but it does, and a sibling of this coin in the same collection was even recovered from the River Thames, so that’s nicely coherent.1 However, today I’m more interested in the reverse imagery. Here it is bigger and clearer:

Reverse of a silver penny probably struck in the Thames Valley between 730 and 745, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

So, what can we be sure that we have here? A figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long-hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, seems reasonable. But he or she is also standing on some kind of crescent, perhaps? And the people who have tried to read this image have therefore wondered if she or he is on a boat, and thus even perhaps a missionary bringing the Christian faith to the English peoples as had indeed happened scarcely two generations before this coin was likely struck.2 It leaves the armoured-looking dress a little hard to explain, but as an iconographic reading it certainly fits its context nicely. But compare it to this one:

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown

Copper-alloy Arab-Byzantine follis struck probably in Syria in the mid-seventh century, provenance and location unknown, though I found it in 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), p. 32. It’s not actually part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, however, so I don’t know where it now is

I’m sorry that I have no better image of this, but it is one of those enigmatic coins produced in Syria during the earliest decades of Islam that I love to talk about so much.3 And here, again, we appear to have a figure, apparently in a tunic and body-armour, with long hair or a head-dress of some kind, holding a long cross in each hand, standing on some kind of crescent. And the people who have tried to read this image have not usually got much further than that it is a development or degeneration of a standing figure of the Byzantine emperor such as is seen on the later coinage of Emperor Heraclius, where he stands in campaign attire with a long cross and cross on a globe, and indeed it doesn’t seem too far a stretch. It might seem weird that a putatively Islamic issuer changes a small cross for a bigger one on a figure that is, putatively, still the emperor who no longer ruled them, but again, we have reason—from the coins!—to suspect that this was a very fluid period and we can’t, for example, be sure that the issuer of this coin wasn’t Christian and didn’t think that the emperor was still in charge, despite the current local régime change, so it’s all far from impossible.4

Copper-alloy 4-<i>nummi</i> of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732

Copper-alloy 4-nummi of the Emperor Heraclius, overstruck at Constantinople onto a cut portion of an older coin, probably of Anastasius I or Justinian I, in the early seventh century, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3732. The coins of this type usually carry Heraclius’s son standing behind him at his left, but many, like this one, were so carelessly made that he escapes the impression

The problem thus arises only when you know about both of these coins at once. If this is one design, as it appears, then it can’t easily be both a derivative Heraclius and Saint Augustine of Canterbury or whoever, not least because the Anglo-Saxon one also has a royal or imperial bust on it. It is possible, just about, that both engravers were deriving from the bronze coinage of Heraclius, but that is very hard to imagine being available as a model in Britain, since being copper-alloy it only had value inside the Empire; a few Byzantine bronzes are known from British contexts, but very few and to my knowledge from no later than the 580s.5 Also, we have to explain two unconnected engravers both deciding to do exactly the same things to the same design about half a century apart. It’s even less likely, to be honest, though still not impossible, that someone brought the Arab-Byzantine coin to Britain or the Britain-based engraver had met it in Syria.6 There are, admittedly, other versions of this design in both Britain and Syria that come closer to their supposed archetypes, and parallel evolution is maybe more plausible than I just made it sound, but there is, thankfully, a simpler answer. It looks like these:

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection

Copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantine I struck at London in 310-312, private collection, image from Wildwinds under Constantine I, RIC VI 195

Silvered copper-alloy <i>antoninianus</i> of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins

Silvered copper-alloy antoninianus of Empress Severina struck at Antioch in 274, CNG Coins, image from Wildwinds, Severina, under RIC 20 V

The shared reverse type between these two issues is a figure of Concordia with two military standards, personifying harmony among the soldiers, Concordia militum, sometimes such an important message for a Roman ruler to send… It’s an image that still turns up out of the ground every now and then in Britain even now, and I imagine it’s not unknown in the Middle East either, but anyone digging up Roman settlements in either place in the seventh century would have had a chance of coming across one. The design, of course, is not a bloke with two crosses, but a lady with two imperial standards, but three or four centuries later some adaptation to the times probably shouldn’t surprise us, and it’s less of an adaptation than is required to get there from Heraclius and his campaign shorts.

Now, of course, that both engravers had such an image before them explains some things, but it doesn’t tell us either what they thought their model showed or what they understood in what they turned it into. The people who think the English coin shows a saint on a boat may still be right; that may be what the engraver decided the border of the original design meant, or even what it could mean; there was all kinds of scope for invention here.7 Likewise, in Syria, the choice to super-Christianize what had been a secular and indeed pagan image could have a lot of possible meanings, but they could certainly have been deliberate. By suggesting a model I don’t mean to suggest that the engravers of the coins didn’t have anything of their own in mind. But I do think it’s kind of cute that to do that, they themselves were probably engaged in exactly the same game as that we’re playing here, trying to figure out what was shown on these coins from hundreds of years before their own time.


1. There’s an absolutely huge literature on early Anglo-Saxon pennies, or sceattas as they’re widely known, and no space here to try to list it all, but the introductory discussion to coins like these particular ones that I use for students is Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage, 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.

2. E. g. Catherine Karkov, “The Boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage”, in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 63–71.

3. Citation is in the caption, obviously, but Foss is also a pretty good guide to the whole coinage, at least if you are prepared to be more relaxed about chronology than he wants to be.

4. Helpful here, or at least I find it so, is Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72.

5. Known to me from gossip but also from Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575–c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), p. 92, where his source is also gossip, but hey…

6. For a realistic assessment of pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land in this period, see Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

7. On which see Anna Gannon, “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” in Barrie Cook and Gareth Williams (edd.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250, The Northern World 19 (Leiden 2006), pp. 193–208.

Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

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

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdgerd III {Edit: struck at Jayy (Isfahan),and] islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God In the name of Allah’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas. Thanks to Yngve Karlsson for corrections in comments below!

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch (not conquered until 637) and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire [Edit: for nearly four centuries].

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD Hisham struck at Wasit in 734/35, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the early caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.


1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A copper fals struck at Bishapur between 651 and 700

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

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


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

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

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

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

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