Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Byzantine Gold Coins - Making the World Go Around Since 395 AD

Gold Solidus of Emperor Arcadius (383 - 408 AD).

Money Equals Power
The Eastern Roman Empire died in 1453, but 
their money still has value today.

The raw power of money is underrated in history.  Money buys not only political influence, it buys the military power to defend yourself and enforce your will on others.  Roman gold coins represented that power for thousands of years.

Money used in the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the West consisted of mainly two types of coins: the gold solidus and a variety of clearly valued bronze coins.  By the end of the empire the currency was issued only in silver stavrata and minor copper coins with no gold issue.

The start of what is viewed as Byzantine currency by numismatics began with the monetary reform of Anastasius in 498, who reformed the late Roman Empire coinage system which consisted of the gold solidus and the bronze nummi.

The only regularly issued silver coin was the Hexagram first issued by Heraclius in 615 which lasted until the end of the 7th century. It was succeeded by the initially ceremonial miliaresion established by Leo III the Isaurian in ca. 720, which became standard issue from ca. 830 on and until the late 11th century, when it was discontinued after being severely debased.

The gold solidus or nomisma remained a standard of international commerce until the 11th century, when it began to be debased under successive emperors beginning in the 1030s under the Emperor Romanos Argyros (1028–1034).

The Byzantine solidus was valued in Western Europe, where it became known as the bezant, a corruption of Byzantium

Theodosius II (408-450), Heavy Miliarense, Constantinopolis, AD 408-420; diademed, draped and cuirassed bust r., Rv. GLORIA – ROMANORVM, emperor standing facing, holding spear and resting on shield.

As part of his currency reforms, Constantine introduced a fine silver coin called the miliarense (from the Latin miliarensis (meaning “of a thousand”), because a thousand of these coins roughly equaled the value of a pound of gold, a unit used to express large sums such as the salaries of officials). There were two versions: a “light” miliarense struck at 72 to the pound, and a “heavy” 60 to the pound. One gold solidus was worth 14 heavies or 18 lights.
Miliarenses were handsome, well-made coins, and many surviving specimens are pierced for wear as ornaments or amulets. A typical obverse design was the emperor’s portrait, while the reverse often showed his standing figure in military garb, striking a noble pose and surrounded by the Latin motto GLORIA ROMANORUM (“Glory of the Romans.”)

In the late Roman period, coins were minted in a number of cities, mainly because of the danger and cost of moving large quantities of precious metal from place to place. This system was inherited by Byzantium, and in the 6th century there were six mints in the Eastern Empire (Constantinople, Nicomedia, Cyzicus, Antioch [Theoupolis], Alexandria and Thessalonica) and three in the Western provinces that Justinian had reconquered from the Vandals and the Ostrogoths (Carthage, Rome and Ravenna).

Gold coins were minted mainly in the capital and consequently have the mint mark CON (for Constantinople), with OB added on the solidi to show that they were minted of pure gold.

Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius No.: 617 Light miliarense, Constantinople 400-404, AR 4.46 g. AEL EUDO – XIA AVG Diademed and draped bust r., wearing earring and necklace; crowned above by the Hand of God. Rev. The Empress seated on throne facing, wearing diadem (?) and mantle, crowned above by the Hand of God; at sides, two crosses.
The rarest fifth century silver was struck for empresses. For Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius (Byzantine Emperor 395-408), a light miliarense shows the elaborate helmet-like hairdo favored by imperial ladies of this era. On the reverse she sits enthroned, flanked by plain crosses, while the “hand of God” reaches down to crown her. Aelia Eudocia (the similar names are an endless source of confusion), wife of Theodosius II, appears similarly coiffed on a rare silver siliqua of Constantinople, but the reverse is simply a cross in a wreath.

Gold Medallion of Constantine I
Multiple solidus struck at Sirmium in 324.  
More than 10 years after his victory under the sign of the 
cross, the
emperor is shown wearing the radiate crown, a 
reflection of his
continued devotion to the Sun God, Apollo.

The Economy of the Eastern Roman Empire

The Roman Empire effectively created one large free trade zone.  Under the protection of a central military goods could be produced and shipped from Africa to the Balkans and from Mesopotamia to Italy.  A universally accepted imperial currency of gold, silver and copper coins helped stimulate trade.

Constantinople was a prime hub in a trading network that at various times extended across nearly all of Eurasia and North Africa. Some scholars argue that, up until the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century, the Eastern Roman Empire had the most powerful economy in the world.
Copper follis of Emperor
Anastastius I (491-518)

The state exercised formal control over interest rates, and set the parameters for the activity of the guilds and corporations in Constantinople, in which the state has a special interest (e.g. the sale of silk) or whose members exercised a profession that was of importance for trade. The emperor and his officials intervened at times of crisis to ensure the provisioning of the capital and to keep down the price of cereals.

Silk was used by the state both as a means of payment, and of diplomacy. Raw silk was bought from China and made up into fine brocades and cloth-of-gold that commanded high prices through the world. Later, silk worms were smuggled into the empire and the overland silk trade became less important. After Justinian I the manufacturing and sale of silk had become an imperial monopoly, only processed in imperial factories, and sold to authorized buyers.

Other commodities that were traded, in Constantinople and elsewhere, were numerous: oil, wine, salt, fish, meat, vegetables, other alimentary products, timber and wax. Ceramics, linen, and wooven cloth were also items of trade. Luxury items, such as silks, perfumes and spices were also important. 

Trade in slaves is attested, both on behalf of the state, and, possibly, by private individuals. International trade was practiced not only in Constantinople, which was until the late twelfth century an important center of the eastern luxury trade, but also in other cities that functioned as centers of inter-regional and international trade, such as Thessaloniki and Trebizond.

Follis of a new type, minted in large quantities in celebration of Emperor Theophilos' victories against the Arabs from ca. 835 on. On the obverse he is represented in triumphal attire, wearing the toupha, and on the reverse the traditional acclamation "Theophilos Augustus, you conquer".

Byzantine Coinage

"The use of coins welds together our whole life, and is the basis 
of all our transactions. Whenever anything is to be bought or 
sold, we do it all through coins."
John Chrysostom

The wealth of the Byzantine emperor was equalled only by the kings of Sasanian Persia and the caliphs of Baghdad.

A vivid description of the Byzantine court's sense of superiority toward the "barbarian" West has been preserved by Liutprand of Cremona, the ambassador of Emperor Otto II to Constantinople in 950, who quotes a high court official's arrogant comments:

"We surpass all other nations in wealth and wisdom and with our money which gives us power, we will rouse the whole world against [your emperor] and break him in pieces like a potter's vessels."
Emperor Heraclius (610 - 614)

The annual budget of the Byzantine Empire in periods of great prosperity, such as the 6th and 12th centuries, has been estimated at some 7 million gold coins, but even in the 9th century, when so much territory had been lost to the Arabs, it still amounted to some 3 million nomismata. Although precious metals were available from mines in Asia Minor and the Balkans, apparently the government raised most of its revenue through taxation. The land tax was the most important source of imperial revenue and taxes were also levied on households as well as on commercial transactions and imported goods.

The wealth of Constantinople can be seen by how Justin I (518 - 527) used 3,700 pounds of gold just for celebrating his own consulship. By the end of his reign, Anastasius I (491 - 518) had managed to collect for the treasury an amount of 23,000,000 solidi or 320,000 pounds of gold. At the start of Justinian I's reign (527 - 565), the Emperor had inherited a surplus 28,800,000 from Anastasius I and Justin I.

The Byzantine-Arab Wars reduced the territory of the Empire to a third in the 7th century and the economy slumped; in 780 the Byzantine Empire's revenues were reduced to only 1,800,000 nomismata

From the 8th century onward the Empire's economy improved dramatically. This was a blessing for Byzantium in more than one way; the economy, the administration of gold coinage and the farming of the Anatolian peninsula served to meet the military's constant demands. Since Byzantium was in a constant state of warfare with her neighbors the military required weapons to be manufactured by the bigger cities (such as Thessaloniki) whilst the smaller towns were subject to grain, wine and even biscuit requisitions by Imperial officers. 
Emperor Leontius (695 - 698)

Even though the soldiers' pay was minimal large armies were a considerable strain on Byzantium. As gold coins were spent on soldiers to serve in the army, these would in time spend their money acquiring their own goods and much revenue would return to the state in the form of taxation. As a result, the Byzantine economy was self-sufficient, allowing it to thrive in the Dark Ages. The success of the Byzantine army was in no small part due to the success of her economy.

When a massive Muslim army invaded the empire in 806, forcing Nikephoros I to pay a ransom of 50,000 gold coins and a yearly tribute of 30,000 gold coins. In order to impress the Caliph of BaghdadTheophilos distributed 36,000 gold coins to the citizens of Baghdad, and in 838, he was forced to pay 100,000 gold dinars to the Caliph. 

The Byzantine economic recovery in the early 800s can be seen by the fact that Emperor Theophilos was able to leave 7,000,000 nomismata in the imperial treasury for his successor in AD 842.

From the tenth century, however, until the end of the twelfth, the Byzantine Empire projected an image of wealth and luxury. Constantine V's reforms (c. 765) marked the beginning of a revival that continued until 1204. 

The travelers who visited its capital were impressed by the wealth accumulated in Constantinople; riches that also served the state's diplomatic purposes as a means of propaganda, and a way to impress foreigners as well its own citizens. When Liutprand of Cremona was sent as an ambassador to the Byzantine capital in the 940s, he was overwhelmed by the imperial residence, the luxurious meals, and acrobatic entertainment.

Gold solidus of Romanos I with his eldest son, Christopher Lekapenos.
Romanos I Lekapenos, was an Armenian who became a Byzantine
naval commander and reigned as 
Byzantine Emperor from 920 until
his deposition on December 16, 944.

In exchange for an alliance, Alexios I (1081 - 1118) sent 360,000 gold coins to Emperor Henry IV. The wealth of the empire under the Comnenians can be seen by how Emperor Manuel I (1143 - 1180) was able to ransom some Latin prisoners from the Muslims for 100,000 dinars, then 150,000 dinars for Bohemond III in AD 1165, 120,000 dinars for Raynald of Châtillon, and 150,000 dinars for Baldwin of Ibelin in 1180. 

When Manuel became emperor he ordered 2 gold coins to be given to every householder in Constantinople and 200 pounds of gold (including 200 silver coins annually) to be given to the Byzantine Church. When his niece Theodora married King Baldwin III of Jerusalem in 1157, Manuel gave her a dowry of 100,000 gold coins, 10,000 gold coins for marriage expenses, and presents (jewels and silk garments) which were worth 14,000 gold coins total.

The economy and the availability of gold declined with the dismemberment of the Empire after 1204, the successive territorial losses to the Turks, and the Italian expansion in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

By the time the Palaiologoi took power, Italian merchants had come to dominate the trade by sea whilst Turkic incursions prevented any success from trade across roads. Michael VIII Palaiologos strove to restore the capital's greatness, but the resources of the empire were inadequate.

By 1321, only with extreme effort was Andonikos II able to raise revenues to 1,000,000 hyperpyra.

The Byzantine economy had declined so much that by 1343, Empress Anne of Savoy had to pawn the Byzantine crown jewels for 30,000 Venetian ducats, which was the equivalent of 60,000 hyperpyra. In 1348, Constantinople had an annual revenue of 30,000 hyperpyra.

In February 1424, Manuel II Palaiologos signed an unfavorable peace treaty with the Ottoman Turks, whereby the Byzantine Empire was forced to pay 300,000 silver coins to the Sultan on annual basis. Emperor Constantine XI owed Venice 17,163 hyperpyra when he died in AD 1453.

The Decline
The rapid decline of the late empire forced the coinage of silver.  Above is a silver Stavraton of the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391–1425).

(Coin Exhibition)      (Byzantine money)      (Coin Week)

(Byzantine coinage)      (Byzantine economy)

No comments: