Tag Archives: Heraclius

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

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

Map of the location of Isauria in Asia Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse of the same coin

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gallery

Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

This gallery contains 19 photos.

I promised you a couple of posts ago a set of surprising medievalist photographs, and now the post has come. You may remember that I was being shown hidden bits of the Middle Ages lying in the general area of … Continue reading

A prophetless coinage

I stubbed this post quite soon after starting at the Barber Institute with no intent more serious than to post a picture of a marvellous coin and enthuse about it. And I hope you can see why!

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

This is, as the caption says, a solidus of Heraclius with his two sons, whom we usually know as Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas but whose given names were both Constantine, and the former of whom subsequently reigned briefly as Constantine III (641). There is lots to say about this coin type, which was novel in many ways: there is for example no legend identifying the emperors, only a monogram of Heraclius’s name on the reverse to the left of the cross, which will be important in a moment; it is making a strong point because the Church opposed the legitimacy of Heraclonas, who was Heraclius’s son by Empress Martina who was also Heraclius’s niece; and one could go on. But I mainly wanted to post it because they look so much like a poster for a superhero movie; one can almost see the cloaks billowing in the studio wind. (My original title for the post was Emperors Assemble…) I am not the only person who’s put these online, but who cares? But then very recently, while looking up stuff for a different project, I found a web-page discussing an Arabic imitation of this coin type which had a couple of things badly wrong with it, and a bigger point emerged.

Gold dinar struck in Syria between 639 and 705, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

Gold dinar struck by an unknown authority in Syria between, well, who knows? 639 and 705 would be probably-safe outside guesses. Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

You can immediately see both the similarities and differences. The Latin legend is replaced by Arabic, and the Arabic reads, for those who can, ‘bism Allah la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu Muhammad rasul Allah’ [Edit: corrected, it turns out I cannot], ‘In the name of God, there is no god but God, Muhammad is the prophet of God’. The monogram goes, being replaced perhaps by the beginning of the Bism Allah in Latin letters. All crosses are replaced by pellets, so that the three figures now look oddly as if they’re holding walking canes and the cross-on-steps becomes a pole-on-steps. But it’s plainly the same type underneath it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

All of this is something that can be seen on copper coins of similar types which are presumed to come from the same period, normally guessed at between the 670s and 695 or so, in which latter year Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have begun a reform of the disparate coinages of his realm which would unite them into one system of coins with no pictures, only script, running over Arabia and Persia alike. Before then, however, and in some places also after then, coins like this that echoed, imitated and adapted previous types, both Byzantine and Persian, had been the working currency. Few of those were gold, however, and few of these ones are known; the web article I linked to above says that all the known ones are in the British Museum. Well, one of them is in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts—in fact, it and I have both spent much of the week in the School of Chemistry with an XRF machine, but let that pass—and that is the first mistake I wanted to correct.

The second, though, is that the article suggests, following a Flickr site called Taboo Numismatics to which it links, that the Arab-Byzantine type (as these adaptive coinages are canonically called) actually depicts the Prophet Muhammad. Now, one can see the argument: there is a bearded figure on it and the reverse legend names the Prophet, albeit in terms that might equally just be a profession of faith. Still, the name is there and the picture is there, and the fact that they’re not on the same face is a problem but one that also exists for the Heraclius coin.

There is also the problem that Islam is supposed to abhor images of people, of course, and as we know of recent years to be especially keen that the Prophet not be depicted. This has not always been so, however, and indeed the point of the first site that I linked to is explicitly that, that many medieval images of Muhammad from Islamic contexts are known. There are also coins for which this case would be much stronger, which take a new image of a standing figure in a headdress, carrying a broad sword, and place the legend ‘Muhammad rasul Allah’ around him. The type also exists naming ‘Abd al-Malik, and the ‘Muhammad’ version of it seems only to have been struck in Palestine, but we don’t know how they relate; it’s usual to assume that ‘Abd al-Malik introduced the design and that for some reason Palestine only struck it anonymously, but it seems equally possible to me that Palestine did actually strike a coin showing the Prophet and that ‘Abd al-Malik borrowed the design for his halfway-house pre-reform coinage. The Barber does have some of these coins, but I’m chary of putting images of them on the web right now: you can see one that was sold in 2013 here, and here’s one of the ‘Abd al-Malik ones.

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

If there is to be a search for early Islamic coins showing Muhammad, therefore, it’s with the ‘Standing Caliph’ types of Palestine that it must start. The Three Standing Figures gold dinars won’t really work for it. Yes, there is the legend, but there are also many points against. In the first place, the portraiture is so exact a copy of the coins of Heraclius, right down to the barbs of the moustache, that it is clear that one of those coins was before the engraver. They would, indeed, have been fairly frequent among gold coins in the area and so the resemblance would have been noticeable more widely. What message could this be meant to send if that coin were showing Muhammad? That he had somehow been Heraclius? It seems unlikely. But even then, there are three figures: who are the others? The site I started with makes a spirited attempt to explain them as Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, at Heraclius’s right and Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, at his left, but this also won’t really work; that site has the advantage (for these purposes) of a fairly poor image that allows him to maintain that the right-most figure is veiled, but our own won’t easily allow that. It seems very much simpler to say: they’re not supposed to be anyone, but they are supposed to look like what the figures on those gold coins the people of the area knew looked like, with suitable adaptations to point out that something new was in fact going on. There is gold of the Standing Caliph type, too, naming ‘Abd al-Malik, so this presumably didn’t last very long, but in any case. I’m pretty sure that what I’ve just put online is not a picture of Muhammad!


The most accessible study of the Arab-Byzantine coinage is Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of he Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008), which does discuss the Muhammad problem. Note that Tony Goodwin, “The Arab-Byzantine coinage of jund Filastin – a potential historical source” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 28 (Leeds 2004), pp. 1-12, also argues that the Standing Caliph coinage of Palestine is earlier than ‘Abd al-Malik’s. To Tony Goodwin also goes the honour of publishing the Barber’s dinar, along with some others from this part of the collection, as “Some Interesting Arab-Byzantine Coins from the Barber Institute Collection” in Numismatic Circular Vol. 111 no. 4 (London 2003), pp. 196-198. It remains for me and my collaborators to get any more of them out there…

Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy

Returning now to my seminar backlog, I find myself reliving my last term in employment at Oxford, and fittingly in many ways, it more or less opened with a paper by Dr Mark Whittow, Byzantinist and generalist both and a man whom I think can cope with being described as a ‘good egg’ and who had on 22nd April 2013 taken convenor’s privilege at the Medieval History Seminar to present a paper called “Worlds in Motion: Byzantium’s Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire, 550-630”.

Mark’s essential question was whether the Byzantine state of his period had anything that could be described as a foreign policy towards the area north and east of its great enemy, Persia, and he knew his audience well enough to know that this would mean setting out in some detail what actually happened in the area and, for example, why we were talking about Türks with a diaresis. Specifically, in fact, we were talking about the Gök Türks, a supposedly-ethnic group who emerged as a political quantity in the mid-sixth century in what is now Mongolia as subjects of the Avars (something we know largely from Chinese sources) but in 552 blew up and occupied the Eastern steppes, in 556 destroying the rule of the Hepthalites or White Huns in cooperation with Persia and beginning to move in on trade along the incipient Silk Roads in Sogdia. The Persian link didn’t serve them well, however, and in 568 their western ruler made an approach to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, leading to a joint attack on Persia in 573 that however went very badly, so that the Türks then gave up on Byzantium and in fact nicked the Crimea off it. (I have to admit, I had not known till this point that Byzantium had ever held the Crimea. I have a lot to learn.)

Sixth-to-eighth-century petroglyphs supposedly showing Gök Türks

This is the best Wikimedia Commons can do me for pictures of Gök Türks, pictures in stone from Mongolia dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries, which is at least about right for our purposes. All the same, I don’t feel this illustrates much…

This was the beginning of the end for a Türk empire that had for a while stretched from Mongolia to Iran. In 581 Persia and China managed to put together simultaneous campaigns that broke up the Türks’ eastern Qaghanate, leaving only the western one. It was however to this that a desperate Emperor Heraclius, he of beards but not badgers as I think we have shown, turned in 624 when no other expedient against the lately-triumphant Persia seemed available. the Türks had already raided Persia in 618, and no other help was to be had, so in 626 Heraclius began attacking Persia from the east, rather than the west, and next year the Türks joined in. (This we have from Nikephoros.) Exactly what contribution this made to the emperor’s following victory and the Persian collapse of 628 is probably still to be worked out but the Türks descended into civil war the next year and that is about the last we see of the Gök Türks as an autonomous polity.

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius's victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius’s victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but found on Wikimedia Commons

Can all this be counted as a policy, then, asked Mark? Well, in some senses no: it’s not a policy for Eurasia in the way that China had a policy for the steppes, a continuous attempt to consider them as part of their total strategic picture. What it could be seen as is a continuation of attempts to use groups from this area as an outside threat to the Persians, a diplomatic outflanking manœuvre, like the Huns and before them the Sarmatians, the Hephthalites, the Avars, a continuation which meant, even if contact was sporadic and very much to current purposes, maintaining some kind of awareness of who was out there, what languages one needed to deal with them, and what interests they had. This presumably all became a lot more relevant when Persia was strong or active, and that information might not be something emperors carried round in their heads at all times, but the further part of the strategic map was, Mark argued, never quite empty in this period, because one never knew when it would become advisable to use it.

This all raised a goodly number of questions. I asked the obvious and perhaps unfair one about what made up Türk ethnicity, unfair because it’s a question we don’t really have the means to answer. There was also some interest in what role control of the Silk Roads played in the Türk position, which seems to have been something the Türks themselves emphasised but about which again we can say little. There were also questions about how all this looked from other perspectives, not least that of the Türks: what did they want from Byzantium, did they have policies of their own that we can guess at? To this Mark’s answer was that their priorities seemed to be to hold onto access to the Silk Roads and keep the Avars at bay or beyond, though it does seem to me that in that case their involvement with Heraclius was an own goal, as it seems likely to have made the Avars stronger, but perhaps Persia was become too much of a threat, or too rich, to ignore. I wonder about the possibility of a régime in crisis turning to outside victories to bolster its status in what was, if so, obviously an insufficient ploy. But for the most part I was happy to sit back and learn from this paper, which was immensely informative about an area of which I know far less than I should.


I couldn’t attempt to footnote this paper given the state of my knowledge, but two major references which might be good places to start were Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford 1999) and James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010).