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Longing for Home: Constantinople on the Coinage of the Nicaean Exile!


TheTrachyEnjoyer
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What do Friday afternoons in the office and John III Vatazes have in common? While you may have guessed the subjugation of the Thessalonican empire, I would wager a longing to be somewhere you aren’t is more likely (unless of course, you are military contractor in the balkans stirring up another war in that region)!

 

We all know the feeling to be where we feel comfort. Where its a familiar park, a favorite restaurant, or even the backyard you have spent many a day in, the relief is the same. Whether we seek these places in times of distress or calm, they remain bulwarks nonetheless. We can consider ourselves fortunate to have these places remain. Weather phenomenon only affect a few and war remains (in the west at least) something distant. Yet is hasn’t always been that way, and nor is it in many places of the world today. Cherished places and representative structures esteemed by a community are destroyed, whether intentional or not.

The effect of the Venetian sack of Constantinople can not be overstated in the effect it had on the Byzantines. A literal identity shattering event so momentous thats the state never truly came back. The city of cities, crown jewel of Christendom, favorite and protected by God was shattered by illiterate franks! A city which so bristled with antiquity that those who came had no doubt Byzantium was Rome. How could it not be? The colossal statue of Justinian overshadowed the skyline, a magnificent emperor riding to victory. The best statues from all across the ancient world were “donated” at the behest of Constantine and gathered here. No where, not even Rome, could compete on the scale of artifacts gathered. Ancient emperors filled the streets in gleaming marbles and painted works of the famed greeks filled the homes of the elite. A church so dominant that its glistening dome could be seen from miles away made one wonder who could have a built heaven on earth! A church so beautiful an entire people once converted to Christianity at the very sight of it! Ancient manuscripts were gathered on a scale unknown today. Irreplaceable works were to be found in even the houses of the middle classes. People upon people, from every corner of the world gathered here. It was said that no language existed on earth which was spoken in Constantinople. In fact, it didn’t even need a name. Many simply called it “the city”. That name was sufficient for all to understand which city was being discussed. The peak of human civilization as recognized by every contemporary society from the 5th until 11th century…all of it, wiped out in a single week. An entire culture, almost literally the entirety of antique art and knowledge stripped away in an instant. One wonders what such an event might look like today…if such an event were possible today

How would we even react in the events which follows? The barbarian yoke is thrown upon us, our religion is trampled upon. Our art is destroyed. Our learning is erased and mocked. Our families killed or worse. Our culture nigh erased…

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The year is 1204, and antiquity has fallen to the barbarian. It wasn’t 476 to the goth when Rome fell, but a bit under 1,000 years later to the Italian and frenchman. Endless amounts of priceless greek and roman art are melted for bullion scrap. Manuscripts of lost philosophy and historians fuel the fires built by the squatting crusader, desecrating the imperial palace. Smoke burns the imperial reception hall as a soldier burns a now lost manuscript. Eventually the invaders would be kicked out but the abuse shown to the city of Constantinople would never leave. Char from camp fires still stained the imperial chambers a century after the reconquest. A fitting memorial remained for those who destroyed  Constantinople in the name of Christianity but the reality of greed.

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The Byzantines were not a people to go down easily. The nobleman Theodore Lascaris fled to Anatolia where he established (one) Byzantine empire in exile. He would competently amass powers and lands, eventually receiving an imperial coronation in exile. The dream was to reconquer Constantinople, but a dream that still was. Theodore died and by an earlier seemingly insignificant marriage, dynastic politics played out to give the man called John III Vatazes the throne.

This brilliant man restored the empire in exile to almost pre 1204 prosperity. Sainted after death, his philanthropy and reforms led to his reign being viewed as a golden age of peace and prosperity. This write up looks at a coin type of his, the very first he issued. 
 

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Aspron Trachy (Silvery electrum, 3.53 g), Magnesia, 1221? The Virgin, nimbate, seated facing on throne, holding nimbate head of Christ on her breast. Rev. Facing standing figures of John, on left holding labarum-headed scepter and cross on globe, and Christ Chalcites, on right, nimbate between and crowning emperor with his right hand and holding gospels in his left. DOC 21. S. 2075. Very rare.

The very interesting aspect of this trachy is the legend attributing Christ. He is here not just Jesus, but Christ Chalcites! This highly unusual description attributes the Christ on this coin as “Christ of the Chalke gate”!

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Christ of the Chalke gate was a very famous icon in Byzantine history! Students of Byzantine history will remember the very famous episode when emperor Leo III removed the icon on this gate during the iconclastic era! A woman shook the latter on which a soldier was trying to remove it and killed him, but was in turn burnt at the stake, this earning her martyrdom! This icon sparked the iconoclastic conflict and remained the symbolic heart of the issue until its ultimate restoration under empress Irene. It would then seem odd to see Christ if Chalke gate appear not only on a coin 400 years later but on a coin minted by an emperor who couldn’t reside in the city where this icon lay! Clearly, the icon had a greater significance than just the iconoclastic period! Why?

 

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(Icon showing the restoration of the Christ icon to the Chalke gate, bottom left)

Well, the short answer is we don’t know why John decided to feature a very specific Christ from an icon on his coins. Theories speculate perhaps this was meant to show John had connections to Constantinople before the sack. Alternatively, it could be an early propaganda piece declaring that John would one day be blessed (through recapture) by the icon on the gate. It could also mean this was one of the icons which survived the sack and was smuggled to Nicaea alongside the Byzantine refugees. It could also be that John had no access to the icon whatsoever and that it had been lost for a long time! 8th century sources describe a bust of Christ Pantokrator yet John’s coins show Christ standing on a stool. Why and what Christ of the Chalke is supposed to mean on this extremely rare coin series is highly interesting yet a mystery we will likely never solve. However, the fact remains that John chose a very antiquated and famous icon to appear on his coins. It isn’t often that we get to see reknown artworks on ancient coins! The only comparable I can think of is the Roman republican denarius of over a millennium previously from L Platius Plancius.
 

John came close to retaking Constantinople but failed. Ultimately, it would be the schemer Michael VIII who pulled the task off by pure luck. 

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On 5/25/2022 at 9:04 PM, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

Endless amounts of priceless greek and roman art are melted for bullion scrap. Manuscripts of lost philosophy and historians fuel the fires built by the squatting crusader, desecrating the imperial palace. Smoke burns the imperial reception hall as a soldier burns a now lost manuscript. Eventually the invaders would be kicked out but the abuse shown to the city of Constantinople would never leave. Char from camp fires still stained the imperial chambers a century after the reconquest. A fitting memorial remained for those who destroyed  Constantinople in the name of Christianity but the reality of greed.

This still really makes my blood boil!! 😡 Great writeup!  I had no idea this icon was celebrated on coinage so late.  Surely related to his dreams of reconquest.

Here's a Vatatzes tetarteron:

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And the Michael VIII "holding the city" (of Constantinople? even though the mint is probably Magnesia) that I posted in the "Byzantine faves" thread:

image.thumb.jpeg.b796e5574b5ef6d672d88954e73992d1.jpeg

On 5/25/2022 at 9:04 PM, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

The only comparable I can think of is the Roman republican denarius of over a millennium previously from L Platius Plancius.

Speaking of which...

image.thumb.jpeg.f6b6b24da15122e31a383b410cf2238a.jpeg

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