NGC Ancients: A Brief Survey of Roman Gold — Part 3

Posted by Josh Illingworth, NGC Ancients on 12/16/2013

This month, NGC Ancients concludes a study of the evolution of Roman gold coinage.

The so-called Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire in the East, continued to produce gold coinage as the centuries passed and the glory of Rome faded to nothing more than a memory. Unsurprisingly, the quality of the coins continued to reflect the generally declining fortunes of the empire.

Around AD 692, the emperor Justinian II (first reign 685-695; second reign 705-711) made numismatic history when he became the first emperor to place an image of Christ on a coin. This gold solidus was struck c.692-695 and bears a bust of Christ with a full-length figure of Justinian II on the reverse. It is worth noting that this emperor placed himself on the reverse of the coin, designating himself as subservient to Christ, who occupies the position of honor.

Almost as quickly as it was inaugurated, this important change to Byzantine coinage was reversed with the 8th Century advent of iconoclasm (“image-breaking”). Images of Christ disappeared from coinage, replaced once more by imperial portraits and figures. The quality of the portraiture began to suffer around this time, as evidenced by this gold solidus, issued at the mint of Syracuse, Sicily, under Theophilus (829-842). The portraits of the emperor that appear on both sides of this coin are crude and rudimentary, especially when compared to the solidus of Justinian II discussed above, issued about one hundred and fifty years prior.

Production of the solidus continued into the 10th century, and coins once again featured Christ after iconoclasm fell out of favor near the end of the 9th century. The emperor Nicephorus II (963-969) introduced the tetarteron, a gold coin weighing about 8% less than the solidus and often having rough, irregular edges. This coin is an example of that new denomination - it was struck under Constantine IX (1042-1055), and features Christ on the obverse and the emperor on the reverse. Nicephorus II (963-969) continued production of the solidus, but in a form now referred to as histamenon nomisma. The design elements of the coins initially remained fairly close to those of the solidus, as evidenced by this fine-style piece, struck under Nicephorus II. Christ appears on the obverse, while the Virgin (left) and the emperor (right) appear on the reverse.

However, over time the appearance of the histamenon nomisma would change almost as dramatically as the fortunes of the empire. By the middle of the 11th century, the coins were increasingly broader and thinner, and distinctly cup-shaped (“scyphate”). This histamenon nomisma, issued under Michael VII (1071-1078), exhibits these changes, necessitated by economic setbacks. By the 1030s the Byzantine economy was in crisis, and coinage reflected this: the purity of gold coinage fell, and a half a century later it was debased to mere electrum. When Alexius I (1081-1118) became emperor and reformed the coinage in 1092, the histamenon nomisa was only about 25% pure, so he abandoned the old system and introduced a new gold denomination, the hyperpyron.

This hyperpyron, struck under Andronicus II (1282-1328), illustrates the increasingly crude style of Byzantine gold coinage by the early 14th century. The obverse features the Virgin within city walls, and Christ crowning the emperors Androncius II and Michael IX on the reverse. Though relatively well-struck for the issue, the coin is still crudely designed and executed.

The gold coins of the realm continued to be debased to the point where it would be generous to even call them “electrum.” The final issues of John V and John VI (1347-1353) were only 11 carats fine, and were extremely crude, as evidenced by this piece. It employs the same design elements as the piece struck under Andronicus II, with the Virgin within city walls on the obverse, and Christ crowning the two reigning emperors on the reverse.

Sometime during the 1360s or 1370s, the Byzantine system of coinage was scrapped entirely by John V in favor of a new one that basically eliminated any traces of gold from the coins. From this point on, the Byzantine “Empire” declined to the point where it was essentially a small, weak dependency of the Turkish Empire. In 1453, the walls of Constantinople finally fell to Turkish cannon fire, bringing to an end over fifteen hundred years of Roman influence in the Western world.

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