Byzantine Rulers You Can Collect: Part II

Posted by David Vagi, Director of NGC Ancients on 10/15/2010

David Vagi continues his discussion of some of the most important issuers of Byzantine coins in the second of a two-part series.

1. Leo III & Constantine V, emperors A.D. 720-740/1 Having risen from humble origins to positions of great power in the Byzantine state, Leo III "the Isaurian" was hailed emperor in 717. An Arab siege of Constantinople began within months of his being crowned, and was defeated through much warfare. The Byzantine-Arab conflict lingered throughout Leo’s reign, which culminated in a great Byzantine victory in Asia Minor in 740. Leo’s relative success in military affairs was countered by his support (or at least tolerance) of iconoclasm, a divisive movement that prohibited the adoration of religious images. The Iconoclastic Controversy raged destructively for more than a century, with the practice being considered heretical by the Papacy. Leo associated his son Constantine V with his reign, and coin portraits reflect his maturation. Father and son are depicted on this gold solidus; some dual-portrait solidi were struck by Constantine V after Leo III died, marking the first time in Byzantine history that a deceased father was so honored on coinage.

2. Leo VI “the Wise,” emperor A.D. 886-912 One of the more interesting Byzantine emperors, Leo VI was dubbed "the Wise" or "the Philosopher" for his unusual attention to scholarly matters. Though he was rumored to have been an illegitimate child, since 870 he served as co-emperor with his father, Basil I (867-886). Leo overhauled the legal system by publishing the Basilica, a legal code he named in honor of his father, who had initiated the great work. Unfortunately, vital military and political issues escaped the attention of this scholarly emperor, causing the Byzantine state to suffer at the hands of Arabs and Bulgarians. Leo earned scorn from the Church for marrying four times, but his final wife, Zoe Carbonopsina (‘eyes of coal’), produced a son and eventual heir, Constantine VII. Gold coinage of Leo is relatively rare, but he issued silver and copper on a large scale. This copper follis, which portrays Leo seated, is among the most available in the Byzantine series.

3. John I, emperor A.D. 969-976 John became emperor in a truly ‘Byzantine’ fashion: he had an adulterous affair with the Empress Theophano, with whom he conspired to murder her husband, the emperor Nicephorus II (963-969). After becoming emperor himself, John succumbed to pressure by Church leaders and banished his co-conspirator Theophano, instead taking as his wife Theodora, the sister of the former emperor Romanus II (959-963), who happened to have been one of Theophano’s husbands. Despite the intrigues by which he earned the crown, John was well qualified to rule. After he defeated Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev in 971, John built upon the recent Byzantine victories in Cyprus and Syria by triumphing over the Fatimids in Syria and advancing into Palestine. His death while on campaign in 976 is variously reported as being from typhoid or poison. On this coin John’s bust appears on a medallion set upon a cross. Like most thin Byzantine silver coins, this silver miliaresion of John I has been clipped.

4. Basil II & Constantine VIII, emperors A.D. 976-1025 These brothers were crowned when their father Nicephorus II (963-969) died, but they had no real authority until the death of their father’s immediate successor, John I (969-976). Once in power, Basil ruled as Constantine remained in the background, happily occupied with a life of pleasure. In addition to leading military campaigns, Basil forged an alliance with Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, who married Basil's sister and converted to Orthodoxy, thus making his new church subordinate to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Basil earned his surname Bulgaroktonos (‘Bulgar-slayer’) in 1014 when he defeated an army of the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel: Basil captured and blinded about 15,000 of Samuel's men, and sent them back on a march led by a one-eyed man. We are told that the tsar’s spirit was broken and he died in a matter of days, after which his empire was absorbed into Byzantine territory. When Basil died in 1025, his brother reigned for three more years. This "anonymous" follis, attributed to c.1020-1028, depicts Christ instead of the emperor.

5. Constantine IX, emperor A.D. 1042-1055 This senator-turned-emperor seems to have been more devoted to palace mistresses than to affairs of state. Only a year after being crowned, a fleet of 400 ships was sent against Constantinople by Jaroslav, prince of Kiev; it was defeated by the Byzantine commander Theophanes, but Constantine had to make important concessions to the Russian prince. Though it could not have been recognized at the time, the most important event of his reign was the schism that erupted in the summer of 1054 between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope in Rome, who excommunicated each other. It was a fatal escalation in a long series of conflicts between the Eastern and Western Churches, with devastating, long term effects. When Constantine died, he was succeeded briefly by the aged matriarch Theodora, the last descendant of the Macedonian Dynasty, which had been founded in 867. The facing portraits of Christ and Constantine appear on this gold tetarteron nomisma from Constantinople.

6. Alexius I, emperor A.D. 1081-1118 One of the most successful Byzantine emperors, Alexius I took the throne by force and spent nearly forty years fighting enemies on all fronts. He inherited a tragic state of affairs and quickly forged an alliance with the Venetians to oppose the Normans, who had designs on the Byzantine state. Alexius foiled a siege of Constantinople in 1090 by the Pechenegs, after which his men, joined by Cuman mercenaries, retaliated and virtually destroyed that barbarian nation in a single battle in 1091. Later, Alexius was aided by Western mercenaries of the First Crusade against the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor, after which independent Crusader states were established in Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa. When Alexius died, the crown passed to his eldest son, John II, who inherited much of his father’s skills in statecraft and warfare. This silver histamenon nomisma, struck before Alexius’ great coinage reform of 1092, shows the bust of Christ and the standing figures of St. Demetrius and Alexius.

7. Manuel I, emperor A.D. 1143-1180 Representing the third generation of the Comnenus Dynasty founded in 1081, Manuel had a pro-Western approach to his regime that made him unpopular with the Greek majority in Constantinople. He came into conflict with leaders of the Second Crusade, but succeeded in forcing the Crusaders in Antioch and Jerusalem to recognize Byzantine sovereignty. He struggled with Turks, Venetians, Hungarians and Serbians, and invaded Italy to address a looming threat by the Normans in Sicily, but the campaign had no lasting effect. Manuel’s main detractor late in his reign was the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, who encouraged the Turkish sultan of Iconium to break his treaty with the Byzantine State. When Manuel led an army against the Turks, he was defeated at the Battle of Myriocephalon, a loss that broke his spirit. This gold hyperpyron from the middle of Manuel’s reign shows the young "Emmanuel-type" Christ and the emperor in full court regalia.

8. Alexius III, emperor A.D. 1195-1203 This ineffective emperor came to power by betraying and blinding his brother Isaac II (1185-1195). As Byzantine fortunes sank desperately low with the loss of Serbia and the looming threats of strong Bulgarian and German kings, the Venetians – longtime Byzantine allies – betrayed Alexius III. They supported the emperor’s spurned nephew, Alexius IV, who convinced leaders of the Fourth Crusade to attack Constantinople. The city was taken after a short siege in 1203 and young Alexius IV and his blinded father Isaac II were installed as emperors. However, after six months the new rulers were killed by a mob, and the city was violently re-taken by the Crusaders, who ruled it as the capital of the Latin Empire until 1261. Alexius III had escaped just before Constantinople fell in 1203, only to endure a desperate and duplicitous life as a hostage in various courts until he died in a monastery in 1211. The ill-fated Alexius is shown standing beside St. Constantine on the reverse of this gold hyperpyron.

9. Michael VIII, emperor A.D. 1261-1282 Originally the emperor of Nicaea, an offshoot of the former Byzantine Empire, Michael recovered Constantinople from the Latin Emperor Baldwin II in 1261, and thus restored the lost Byzantine Empire. He had assumed power in Nicaea in 1258 by displacing John IV Lascaris, a boy-emperor whom Michael blinded on his 11th birthday. This callous act resulted in Michael’s excommunication by Patriarch Arsenius and gave rise to the "Arsenite schism" that raged between the Church and Michael’s successors until it was resolved in 1310. Michael preserved his empire mainly through statecraft, by which he managed the Venetians and Charles of Anjou, king of Naples and Sicily. To gain support against Charles of Anjou, Michael made concessions to Pope Gregory X that were predictably unpopular in Constantinople, and which were quickly revoked by his son and successor, Andronicus II. This exceptional gold hyperpyron shows the Virgin Mary within the towered walls of Constantinople and the archangel Michael presenting Michael VIII to Christ.

10. John VIII, emperor A.D. 1421/5-1448 When John VIII succeeded his father Manuel II (1391-1423) as emperor, the Byzantine state had been reduced to the city of Constantinople and a province in the Greek Peloponnesus (Morea). Considering his vulnerability, John sought support in the West by trying to unify the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, but his efforts met with great resistance. On a journey to Florence for this very purpose, John’s portrait was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Pisanello (Antonio Pisano), who also created a famous medallion that portrays this emperor. Upon John’s death late in 1448, authority passed to his younger brother, Constantine XI, who was destined to be the last Byzantine emperor. Constantine XI died defending the walls of Constantinople against a fatal siege by the Ottoman Turks in the spring of 1453. This silver stavraton of John VIII, with its crude portraits of Christ and the emperor, reflects the degraded state of affairs in the final years of the Byzantine Empire.

Photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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