Chaos and Coinage: Post-Reform Bronze Issues of the Byzantine Empire

Posted by Josh Illingworth, NGC Ancients Grader on 10/11/2011

This month, NGC Ancients examines the coinage reforms of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius I (A.D. 491-518).

By the late 5th century A.D., what remained of the Roman Empire was in disarray. When the European territories of the empire fell to German invaders in A.D. 476, the Eastern portion of the empire was preserved, and came to be known as the “Byzantine Empire.” Since the Byzantine world was constantly beset by invasion, religious turmoil, and political infighting, the term “Byzantine” retains its unique meaning to this day.

Considering the chaos and general decline that characterized this society, it is hardly surprising that the coinage system deteriorated as well, and was subject to constant reform. Previous attempts at monetary reform under the Roman Empire had rarely succeeded and were usually short-lived.

Gold coinage of the late Roman and early Byzantine world – comprised of three main denominations, the solidus, semissis, and tremissis – was remarkably stable. The same cannot be said of bronze and silver coinage of the late 5th century, which was unstable, and subject to adjustments in weight and purity.

When Anastasius I (491-518) ascended to the Byzantine throne in the spring of 491, he inherited a host of problems that had gone unchecked for decades. By 498, he was finally able to address some of the more pressing problems, including the bronze coinage, the declining standard of which had not helped to contain inflation. To this end, Anastasius introduced an entirely new series of bronzes intended to supplant the confused system employed at the time.

The basic economic unit of his new system of copper coinage was the nummus. Bronzes were denominated at 40 nummi (“follis”), 20 nummi (“half-follis”), 10 nummi (“decanummium”), and 5 nummi (“pentanummium”). For the first time, Greek letters appeared on the reverse to denote the value of each piece – a clear reflection of the prominence of Greek culture in the territories of the Byzantine Empire.

A large “M” (the Greek letter Mu) signified a value of 40 nummi. Similarly, a “K” translated to 20 nummi, an “I” equated to 10 nummi, and an “Є” was used to denote the 5 nummi piece. The pieces shown here are fairly representative of the series as a whole: the follis and pentanummium were struck under Maurice Tiberius (582-602), and the half-follis and decanummium under Justinian I (527-565). For about the next three centuries, these basic reverse types would remain in effect, with some exceptions, including several 7th century rulers who used Latin letters to denote value instead.

The largest of these coins, the follis, was struck on a broad, thin planchet. These coins are popular with collectors because of their large size and bold, striking design. This piece, an issue of Anastasius I, is an excellent example of an early-style follis. It features on the obverse a bust of the emperor, and on the reverse the value, denoted by the large M. The monogram and letters in the exergue record that it was struck at the first workshop (officina) of the Constantinople mint.

It is interesting to note that after Anastasius, the profile bust largely disappears from the series. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I was responsible for initiating this trend, as he introduced the facing portrait to Byzantine copper coinage. He also introduced a system of dating these coins based upon the year of his reign. This follis, the first dated issue, was struck during the twelfth year of his reign, which corresponds to 538-539.

Although Justinian I was the first emperor to be portrayed facing on copper Byzantine coins, some continued to be struck with his profile portrait, as evidenced by this piece. Some of the lowest-denomination Byzantine coins did not feature the facing bust until the seventh century, long after it was introduced.

In addition to his reform of the coinage itself, Anastasius enlarged the mint network. When he assumed the throne in 491, the only two Byzantine mints in operation were Constantinople and Thessalonica. In 498, the Nicomedia mint began to issue copper coinage, and Antioch was also reopened, so that by the emperor’s death in 518 production capacity had essentially been doubled.

Justinian built upon what Anastasius had begun: under his rule, as many as fifteen mints were in operation at certain times – truly the pinnacle of Byzantine coin production. Unfortunately, this golden age did not last long; by the end of the seventh century only two mints (Constantinople and Syracuse) remained in service. This cycle of fleeting prosperity and economic crisis was representative of the history of the Byzantine Empire as a whole.

Byzantine copper coinage is a complex and challenging series. There are still many anomalies, inconsistencies, and outright mysteries to be resolved. Dating, and even basic ruler attribution, is often difficult (or impossible) when these coins are poorly preserved. However, many attractive pieces can be acquired for surprisingly low prices, allowing for a representative set of post-reform Byzantine bronzes to be assembled on a modest budget.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.