Byzantine Gold Coins
Making The World Go Around Since 395 AD
(Coin Week) - In 1092 CE the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus enacted sweeping coinage reforms. He stopped production of previous denominations and introduced five new ones:
The gold hyperpyron (which served as the unit of account for the new money), the electrum aspron trachy, the billon (copper and silver) aspron trachy, the copper tetarteron, and the copper noummion or half-tetarteron. Three electrum aspra trachea equalled one hyperpyron.
Electrum is a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver, and was the metal of choice for the Lydians of Asia Minor, who are generally agreed to have made the first coins in European history. When found in nature, the admixture of the two precious metals can differ depending on the geographical point of origin. But in the case of the aspron trachy, the Byzantines mixed the electrum themselves, with six karats of gold to 18 karats of silver.
This predominance of silver in the alloy gave the denomination the first part of its name; aspron was a Byzantine term meaning “white” when used in reference to silver. The second part (trachy) referred to the “rough” or uneven shape of the coin.
“Cupped”, in other words.
Starting in the early 11th century–almost 60 years before the reforms of Alexius–the Byzantine Empire began to produce gold coins with a slight curve. Within a hundred years, the majority of Byzantine coinage in all metals and alloys was deeply cup-shaped. Exactly why has intrigued numismatists for generations, but according to CoinWeek’s Mike Markowitz, a thin and debased coinage became increasingly concave in order to improve its sturdiness and durability.
Design-wise, Byzantine cup-shaped (scyphate) coinage typically features an image of Jesus Christ on the obverse (the convex side), with the ruler featured on the reverse. The coin pictured above and below is a fully struck aspron trachy minted at Constantinople during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (ruled 1143-1180 CE).
|Manuel I Komnenos (November, 28 1118 – September, 24, 1180). Eager to restore his empire to its past glories as the superpower of the Mediterranean world, Manuel pursued an energetic and ambitious foreign policy. In the process he made alliances with the Pope and the resurgent West. He invaded the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, although unsuccessfully.
The passage of the potentially dangerous Second Crusade was adroitly managed through his empire. Manuel established a Byzantine protectorate over the Crusader states of Outremer. Facing Muslim advances in the Holy Land, he made common cause with the Kingdom of Jerusalem with a combined Byzantine-Crusader invasion of Fatimid Egypt. Manuel reshaped the political maps of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, placing the kingdoms of Hungary and Outremer under Byzantine hegemony and campaigning aggressively against his neighbors both in the west and in the east.
A bearded Christ stands on a dais facing the viewer, wearing a tunic known as a colobium and a full-body cloak called a pallium. A halo with a cross inside it (nimbus cruciger) surrounds His head. Two eight-pointed stars appear next to Him, one on each side. To the left of Jesus are the letters IC; the letters XC are to the right. In His left hand is a book of Gospels.
There appears to be significant strike doubling of the halo and Christ’s left shoulder.
A bearded, front-facing and full-body image of Manuel I stands on the left while a similarly bearded, front-facing and full-body image of St. Theodore (presumably St. Theodore of Amasea, one of two military saints named Theodore in the Eastern Orthodox Church) stands on the right. Manuel appears to be closer to the ground than St. Theodore. Both men hold a Patriarchal cross (a version of the Christian cross with a second, smaller crossbar on top) between them, St. Theodore’s right hand above Manuel’s left. At the bottom of the cross is a ball or globus.
A halo surrounds Theodore’s head. The emperor wears a crown, along with a long, close-fitting military tunic (divitision). A long, embroidered, gem-encrusted scarf (loros) is wrapped around his abdomen. St. Theodore appears to be wearing some kind of military tunic, possibly armor, and boots. Both men rest their other hands on the handles of unsheathed swords.
The letters MANOVL are usually found to the left of the emperor, but here are practically illegible.
|The Wealth of Constantinople
Constantinople was a prime hub in a trading network that at various times extended across nearly all of Eurasia and North Africa. The Eastern Roman Empire had the most powerful economy in the world. From the 10th century until the end of the 12th, the Byzantine Empire projected an image of luxury, and the travelers were impressed by the wealth accumulated in the capital.
.By the end of Marcian's reign, the annual revenue for the Eastern Empire was 7,800,000 solidi, thus allowing him to amass about 100,000 pounds of gold or 7,200,000 solidi for the imperial treasury. The wealth of Constantinople can be seen by how Justin I used 3,700 pounds of gold just for celebrating his own consulship. By the end of his reign, Anastasius I had managed to collect for the treasury an amount of 23,000,000 solidi or 320,000 pounds of gold.
.By 1343 the Byzantine economy had declined so much that Empress Anna 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 while across the Golden Horn in the Genoese colony of Galata, the annual revenue was 200,000 hyperpyra.
(Coin week) (Manuel I Komnenos) (Economy)