NGC Ancients: A New Crusader-Era Coin of Michael I, Despot of Epirus

Posted on 11/10/2020

A discovery coin issued by Michael I, part of the William Oldknow Collection, is being sold in January.

In the catastrophic year A.D. 1204, a Latin army leading the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) besieged and took control of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. This seismic event gave rise to several new ‘sub-empires’ in provincial areas of the Byzantine Empire.

The original mission of the crusaders was to conquer Egypt and liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control, but they were diverted by unexpected financial and political concerns. Even their focus on Constantinople evolved from a temporary interest to a forceful capture of the great city.

Though the crusaders succeeded in taking Constantinople, they did not acquire control over all the provincial territories of the Byzantine Empire. Some of these areas became new Crusader States ruled by Latin crusaders, while others were ruled by Byzantine refugees, adventurers or provincial governors.

The three important, new Byzantine states were Epirus, Trebizond and Nicaea. Indeed, it was from the Nicaea that a successful effort was led in 1261 to recover Constantinople – and thus reconstitute the old Byzantine Empire.

The Despotate of Epirus was located in northwest Greece, to the west of the Latin Empire, seen here in the early 13th Century shaded in purple. Click image to enlarge.

The silver aspron trachy featured here was issued by Michael I (c.1204-1215), presumably at the mint of Arta in a new Byzantine sub-state – the Despotate of Epirus in northwest Greece. Seemingly unique and a discovery coin, it is part of the William Oldknow collection that will be offered in the auction of Ira and Larry Goldberg in their session of The New York Sale in January 2021.

Silver aspron trachy by Michael I (c.1204-1215)
Click images to enlarge.

The obverse shows the facing bust of Christ Emmanuel, who is explicitly named in the inscription. He is shown youthful and beardless, holding a scroll with a decorated nimbus-cross behind his head. The reverse shows the figure of Michael in elaborate Byzantine imperial garb, standing upon a dais, being crowned by the Hand of God (Manus Dei). He cradles in his right arm a palm-scepter and holds in his left hand an akakia (a cylindrical object containing dust to remind emperors of their mortality). The inscription bears Michael’s name and the title ‘dukas’ (dux, or governor).

The only comparative issue is an exceedingly rare silver aspron trachy of Michael of nearly identical type. On the other known examples, Michael cradles in his right arm a scepter cruciger (a form of long cross), whereas on the Oldknow specimen he cradles a scepter with a palm-like head resembling the Dionysian thyrsus that was so familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The significance of this scepter type is not clearly understood, and though its appearance is unexpected, it is recorded elsewhere on at least one other early 13th Century coinage. Previously known silver aspron trachea of Michael have been published by P. Protonotarios in the 1983 Revue Numismatique, p.87, no.2 and in the Dumbarton Oaks catalog, volume 4, part 2, (p. 627, no. 1.2).

The Oldknow specimen weighs 3.54 grams and tests at 90.5% silver, 6.5% copper, 1.86% gold and 0.8% lead (with trace elements comprising the balance). This coinage is often called a silver aspron trachy, though other times a trikephalon. In the Dumbarton Oaks catalog (volume 4, part 2, p.623) it is described as a trachy of electrum (a gold-silver alloy with a meaningful amount of gold).

The coin is in exceptional condition for the issue. The obverse strike is moderately blurred as expected on scyphate or ‘cup-shaped’ issues. The reverse strike is crisp, with clear types and inscriptions. Identified with the certification number 4375561-071, it received from NGC Ancients the grade Mint State★, 4/5 Strike and 4/5 Surface.

Michael’s rule in Epirus soon coalesced into a legitimate government, and he assumed the title despot. He had a natural advantage in his claim to rule because his father, a cousin of two former Byzantine emperors, had once governed Epirus and the neighboring region of Thessaly with the title dux. Furthermore, before he rose to power in Epirus, Michael may have governed the Peloponnesus to the south of Greece.

In 1205 Michael led an army against Crusaders in the Peloponnesus. His campaign failed when his army was repulsed by Frankish knights led by Boniface and Geoffrey of Villehardouin.

With crusader armies having successfully conquered the remainder of Greece, Michael returned his focus to his stronghold in Epirus. Potential threats included armies of Franks (from Thessalonica and Thessaly), Lombards (from Athens and the Peloponnesus) and Venetians, who had traditional claims on much of western Greece.

In the midst of all this, Michael objected to the idea that Theodore I (1208-1222), who ruled in the new Byzantine sub-state of Nicaea in Asia Minor, claimed to be the rightful emperor of the Romans (Byzantines). Much of Theodore’s case rested upon the fact that in 1208 he was crowned emperor by a patriarch.

Needless to say, Michael sought a cooperative arrangement with Venice, which was sealed in the summer of 1210, freeing up Michael to lead an inconclusive campaign against the region of Thessalonica.

Though Michael’s enemies were numerous, including Venetians, Franks, Lombards and the French baron of Salona, his ambitions were not dulled by existential threats and some recent failures. Throughout the later years of his reign he was active, and by 1212 he had extended his rule across much of northern Greece, from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea.

He went further still in 1213 by forcing a Venetian garrison to withdraw from Durazzo, its most valued territory in Epirus, and seemingly in 1214 he took the island of Corfu. Despite his recent successes, Michael’s life and reign ended swiftly, for late in 1215 one of his servants murdered him in his sleep.

NGC would like to thank Cécile Morrison, Director of Research emeritus at the French National Center for Scientific Research, for generously sharing her expertise and for providing research materials used in the preparation of this article.

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