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Byzantine 101 Print E-mail

Byzantine 101

by Mark Lehman

Emperor Maurice Tiberius 582 – 602 AD

Byzantine The word itself conjures up images of formality and intrigue.Although they would be unlikely to readily recognize the term, this is the name we commonly give the Eastern successors to the Western Roman Empire and their millennium-long influence on World history. They called themselves “Romaion” – the Greek word for Roman – and that is a very appropriate metaphor to consider when embarking on any examination of their empire – they literally wrote the second volume of Roman history in Greek. It is important to bear in mind that the Byzantine era is primarily typified by the gradual shift of its power-base, culture, and point-of-view from a Western, to a more predominantly Eastern one.

  The city we call Istanbul – its modern name hammered-out by linguistic degrees from the Romano-Greek construct: “Constantinopolis” – had been since prehistoric times a crucial crossroads-of-continents and was known as Byzantion when Constantine the Great chose it to be his Imperial seat and the hub of a new, Eastward-looking Roman Empire. It had been throughout its long history the virtual “ground-zero” of “East meets West”. Uniquely positioned to control and profit from trade between Europe and Asia, both by land and sea routes, it has ever been a portal between continents for armies as well as ideas, and a window through which East and West could view one other.

 The Byzantines gradually moved away from more traditional Western Roman habits, tastes and viewpoints, developing over the centuries a rich and unique culture through the fusion of Christianity with the pragmatism of the Roman State and the absolute monarchical concepts of the East. They combined Western cultural and political traditions with those more normally associated with the Hellenistic Roman East and points even further east, far beyond the scope of the historical Roman Empire. The resulting sophistication and formality inseparable from deep religious faith pervaded Byzantine culture and was reflected in Byzantine art and coinage – both ever a synthesis of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Even the alphabet with which they inscribed their coins and monuments seems at first glance to be an incomprehensible mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar – compounded of Latin and increasingly of Greek letter-forms, plus a sprinkling of their own unique characters - as their alphabet drifted from its Latin roots towards the Cyrillic alphabet that would be derived from the Byzantine.

 As the power of the Western Roman Empire waned, that of the East grew, making an exact date for the start of the Byzantine Empire difficult to pinpoint. By the various times usually cited for the “beginning” of the Byzantine Empire, the West had been in serious decline for many decades. Formerly important provinces had been abandoned or ceded to increasingly Romanized, “barbarian” neighbors. Rome itself had been abandoned as the Western Empire’s capitol in favor of the more easily defendable Ravenna, and the true seat of power for the entire Roman Empire had been in Constantinople for over a century. We need, therefore, to choose some point in time to divide the “ancient”, clearly Roman coinage from the more properly medieval Byzantine coinage. Since the political events of the era don’t provide us with a clear and convenient temporal “landmark, the monetary reform of Anastasius I in 498 A.D. is generally accepted as the dividing line between the traditional Roman and the unmistakably Byzantine coinages. This however, only applies to the bronze coinage, since the major gold denomination, the Solidus, had replaced the long-lived Aureus during the reforms of Constantine even before he moved his capitol to Constantinople. The stylistic conventions of the late Roman gold - from Solidus to Tremissis - were continued under the Byzantines with little change. Anastasius I reintroduced a series of large bronze coins, the follis and its fractions – absent from the Roman Imperial series for a century - which, although retaining a familiar, profile portrait and Latin legend, in a departure from the Roman Imperial bronzes invariably carried a numeric mark of value. The value of each denomination was a multiple of the tiny bronze “AE4” 1 nummus coins that had made up the bulk of small change for the past century. Each coin’s denomination was now boldly represented by a Greek numeral in place of the deities and personifications that had populated the reverses of Roman coinage for over half a millennium. On the new coins’ reverses, a large “M” stood for 40, “K” for 20, “I” for 10, and “E’ for 5 nummi respectively. These were not the only denominations of bronze coins, but they were the more typical, long-lived, and widespread denominations. Some few mint cities had their own specific denominations at various times, 6 nummus, and 12 nummus pieces in Alexandria and 16 nummus pieces in Antioch, as well as a few 30 nummus pieces in other mint cities, but the Follis of 40 nummi and it’s half, quarter and eighth were ubiquitous for centuries.

 Anastasius' successors were able to reoccupy many of the areas conquered by “Barbarians” during the 4th century, including much of Italy, North Africa and parts of Spain. The Empire reached its greatest extent under Justinian I (527-565 AD). Facing busts completely supplanted profiles on his coins, including some of the largest and most spectacular bronze coins ever made. More Greek letter-forms entered the legends. Fierce competition from neighbors resulted in a rapid loss of many of the Empire’s territories to the new Islamic culture and states under Justinian’s successors, including Justin IIMaurice Tiberius. Despite the efforts of successful Emperors like Heraclius to reclaim some of the lost territories, eventually the Empire dwindled and fell on lean times reflected in coins like the folles of Constans II. Interestingly, the coins of this era were extensively copied by the aggressor-states as Arab imitative coinage. The Byzantine Empire managed to survive, however, and the bronze coinage, albeit reduced in size and sophistication, would continue and even enjoy an era of renewed size and plenitude as the emperors’ portraitsfirst joined by, then replaced with the image of Christ on the ubiquitous anonymous issuesCrusader era. It introduced new types and denominations that appear strange to modern eyes, like the scyphate (cup-shaped) electrum and gold Hyperpyra, and billon and AE Trachea, as well as more conventional silver types that influenced European ypes in Venice and Bulgaria They also produced large numbers of small AE Tetartera. Constantinople finally fell to the Turks under Muhammed the Conquerer, May 29, 1453, only 39 years before Columbus’ fateful voyage – thus, the Byzantine Empire truly spans the gulf between the ancient and modern worlds.