This article was written by Zach "Beast" Beasley for the December 2006 issue of the Celator. Zach shares his unique perspective on this often unappreciated type of coinage.
Byzantine Coinage - They Are NOT Just Ugly Scraps of
By Zachary ‘Beast' Beasley
& Kevin Barry
When I began collecting ancient coins, I started out with a
Gordian III AR antoninianus. It's an eye-appealing coin and still in my
collection. The Latin legends, good metal and well-executed design attracted me
to Roman Imperials. Looking around at some other ancient cultures, I saw
high-grade Greek silver was going to be too expensive for my meager budget on
one end and some scrappy, ugly, poorly-stuck, bronze things, supposedly
Byzantine bronze coins. I knew I certainly didn't want to throw away good money
collecting THOSE terrible hunks of garbage!
Well, about a year after my very quick decision I wanted
nothing at all to do with Byzantine coins, along comes who would become a good
friend of mine, Steve Santore. Steve and I both extensively collect Late Roman
bronzes, but Steve also had collections in other categories, such as European
AR thalers and Byzantine. Byzantine?! I
was stunned. Why on earth would anyone collect Byzantine coins? Well, thanks to
Steve showing me the light, I now have several hundred wonderful Byzantine
coins and actually go out of my way to look for more.
Byzantine coins tend to get a bad rap. For an empire, which
lasted 1000 years, there is something for everyone. The history alone is
amazing and this site shows maps of the Byzantine empire
during the different periods, so the viewer can appreciate how the territories
were won and lost, expanding and contracting over vast areas: http://byzantium.seashell.net.nz/articlemain.php?artid=mapbase_565
There is disagreement as to when the Byzantine period
officially began - some place it with the move of the capital of the Roman
empire from Rome to Constantinople
by Constantine the Great in 330. Others contend it began during the reign of
Anastasius in 491. Personally, I use the coinage reform of Anastasius as the
beginning, since it is radically different from the Roman Imperial coinage.
Beginning with Anastasius, we find very large folles,
attractive gold and silver issues.
Follis (Large Module), 498-518, Post-Reform Copper Coinage, Constantinople, Officina 2
36mm, 17.88g -
Photo courtesy of Beast Coins, VCoins store
Throughout the entire millennium-long run of the empire,
there are many different denominations issued by a wide network of mints. Some
pieces are as intricate and interesting as even the Greek coins, what many
numismatists consider the high point
of ancient art on money.
Alexius III, AV Hyperpyron,
3.52g - Photo courtesy of
Classical Numismatic Group, Sale 64, Lot 1361
Oh sure, there are "scrappy"
Byzantine bronzes, but often they are only scrappy at first glance. When one
begins to study the coinage, a whole new appreciation for them comes into play.
I have to admit, when I first saw some of the AE folles, I was put off by the
seemingly simplistic art, ragged flans and overstrikes. However, looking at
what was going on in the empire, taking into consideration the movement away
from personalization on coins and iconography and the lack of funding for art
in general at the beginning, it makes sense why the coins look the way they do.
Constantine VII and Romanus I, Æ Follis, 920-944, Constantinople
29mm, 6.23g; Overstruck on a Romanus I, AE Follis - Photo courtesy of Beast
Coins, VCoins store
Many times, folles are found
overstruck on folles or even a different denomination of a previous emperor.
This can make identifying the host and sometimes even the new coin challenging,
but I've found it is an entertaining and exciting challenge. Countermark punches also were used, but I've
not encountered this practice too often and I struggle with calling it a
countermark versus an overstrike, when so much detail was used.
Heraclius, AE Follis, 630-641, Sicily
23-28mm, 7.79g; punch on Sear Byzantine 810 host - Photo courtesy of Beast
Coins, VCoins store
Some of the series will even appeal
to the "must have one of every year" type of modern collector. For example, the
Maurice Tiberius dated folles can be collected by mint and year. Just don't try
to put them in a Whitman folder!
Tiberius, Æ Follis, Year 8 (589/590), Theoupolis (Antioch)
29-31mm, 12.30g; - Photo courtesy of Beast Coins,
Normally you would have seen several
links by now in this column, however, I could not find too many Byzantine
collections on-line! Why? I don't know. Come on you Byzantine collectors - show
the world Byzantine coins are worth collecting! Yes, there are some of the
usual haunts, such as Dave Surber's excellent site: http://wildwinds.com/coins/byz/i.html
and your humble writer's own Byzantine section: http://www.beastcoins.com/Byzantine/Byzantine.htm
and even a new kid on the block, the Tantalus database: http://tantaluscoins.com/browse.php?type=4&cur=1
but I could not really find any collector-specific site in my searches. There are some great sites out there with a
lot of Byzantine empire information,
which includes some coin photos, such as http://www.wegm.com/coins/byindex.htm
and a private collection of Byzantine coins at http://www.byzantinecoins.com but
that site has not been updated since 2002.
Hopefully I've enticed you to at
least give Byzantine coins as chance. They may not be something you ever
considered collecting, but with 1000 years of history under their belts, there
are a lot of challenges in them.
The Internet Site of the Month is the Dumbarton Oaks
Research Library and Collection at http://www.doaks.org
Until writing this column, I had not heard of this site and only found it via a
search at http://www.google.com The
Dumbarton Oaks collection is one of the largest Byzantine collections in
existence - around 12,000 coins!