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Are Byzantine Coins Crude & Ugly or are they Misunderstood ?


Al Kowsky
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Historians believe the Byzantine Era began when Constantine I declared the new capital of Rome the city of Byzantium, & changed it's name to Constantinople in AD 330, however, numismatists mark the Byzantine Era with the reign of Anastasius I, because of his currency reform. So for this thread we'll use the reign of Anastasius I, AD 491-518, as the beginning of the Byzantine Era. Are Byzantine coins crude & ugly, some are & some are beautifully crafted. Are Byzantine coins misunderstood, yes they are misunderstood by many people. Roman coinage that was representational & veristic made a gradual & dramatic change in style, influenced by styles from the East. The realistic modelling changed to a style that looks "cubist", & is best seen in the portraits of the early 4th century of the CE. There is now an arbitrary geometric construction of the face with straight & curved lines that abolishes a human appearance. The new image is god-like, not human.

1012169204_Diocletiannummi.jpg.b98475030585d28fcb8c1c7bd67f9ed5.jpg'

Two billon nummi of Diocletian showing the beginning of the new style taking root.

130924941_TritonXXIIILot910.jpg.d32070a3fa41a2128fb29d83aa618cdc.jpg

By the reign of Anastasius the new style is in full bloom as can be seen on this 40 nummi coin struck in Constantinople, photo curtesy of CNG.

Realistic portraits of emperors was considered impious & vain. The new style was meant to be spiritual & religious in it's simplicity. Christian images became popular & used exclusively except during the short-lived period of Iconoclasm. Pictured below are two plated galvanic shells of a famous gold medallion of Justinian I, commemorating the victory of Belisarius over the Vandals in AD 534. The original medal, now lost, was struck in pure gold & equal to 36 solidi, weighing 163.4 gm, with a diameter of 85 mm. The artistry & quality of engraving prove the mint of Constantinople was capable of making coins & medals in the old Roman style. Photo courtesy of CNG.

1439462616_ElectotypeshellsofJustinianmedalof36solidi163_44gm.jpg.78bc408a9550c60a91300fd760b4fa9d.jpg

The general population saw coinage of Justinian I that looked like the coins pictured below. These coins had wide diameters in relation to their weight, & were very thin, so in-depth modelling was virtually impossible.

127719806_2491169-005AKCollectionExCNG211lot423June32009218_50.jpg.6e6a6d87955901115b258d67e552fdbb.jpg994373528_2101304-004AKCollection.jpg.2138ee8f57ba7b10f7f34e7f209e90e6.jpg

Anonymous bronze folles were struck in huge quantities during the late 10th & early 11th centuries depicting Christ on the obverse & an inscription on the reverse translating "Jesus Christ King of Kings" or something close to that. Many of these coins were important keepsakes of believers & some were made into pendants & jewelry. Most of these coins were crudely engraved & most survivors show heavy wear. Today examples like the coin pictured below can be bought for $15-20.

1751631042_AbileneChristianUniversityCollectionAEfollis.jpg.2a7eac25220b2d704c19f56b64e00665.jpg

Photo courtesy of Abilene Christian University Collection.

1394432548_AENummusAD967-1065.jpg.5db9dc136a0f018e625709c30a6de50d.jpg

Examples like this coin in mint state are rare & expensive, with sale prices reaching $1,000.00 or more. I looked a long time to find an example like this to add to my collection.

Gold coins maintained their purity & weight of 4.50 gm for a long time, but portrait engraving varied in quality as can be seen in these two solidi of Heraclius & eldest son. The 1st coin was struck by a traveling mint of Heraclius & the 2nd coin was struck by the Constantinople Mint.

1461710449_Heracliuswitheldestson2coins.jpg.ba6fe288917c17f9bcd07653c99d7875.jpg

Gold coins gradually became thinner & cup-shaped (scyphate) & the purity shows debasement like the coin pictured below.

701057471_RomanusIVDiogenesAVscyphatehistamenonnomismaAlKowskyCollection.jpg.f3b2814589bce63a899379c6aea95851.jpg

After the crusades the Byzantine Empire rapidly deteriorated & most of it's territory was lost. The gold coinage became almost unrecognizable & the coin pictured below testifies to that.

649_2.jpg.dc0da65423fd011e41667b226ae429a4.jpg

Andronicus II with Michael IX, AD 1282-1328. AV Hyperpyron Nomisma: 2.85 gm, 21 mm, 6 h. Photo courtesy of CNG.

It took me a long time to warm-up to Byzantine coins, but I highly prize the few examples in my collection. I enjoy studying Byzantine art & history & have added some Byzantine artifacts to my collection too. What do fellow members of NVMIS FORVMS think about Byzantine coins ? If you're a collector feel welcome to post some of your favorites ☺️.

 

 

Edited by Al Kowsky
spelling correction
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This has been somewhat covered before but the answer can be both.  There's a lot of double ugly ones, just like with some of the very late Romans.

That being said, there are some quite attractive and majestic ones.  One must also compare it to the times and coins of other states.  Not many states in 600, 700, 800, etc. were putting out anything better.  I'm certainly no expert on the caliphate but from a personal observation, the caligraphic coins of the caliphate were much more tidily composed and produced.

There's probably also a practical aspect. During the times of troubles, esp. c. 640-750, the state and the people were just trying to stay afloat. I'm sure Basil Q. Public didn't care much about what the coins looked like.  They were something to pay a tax in and scrounge out an existence.

To drag out my mom's pejorative for Byzantine AEs, many AE's of Constans II could be justly called 'slag heaps'.  However, Syracuse seemed to put out much neater coins at the time.

Even though Antioch was going through troubles, some of the pre-reform Justinians of Antioch were very well composed.

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@Al Kowsky Beautiful coins.

I've been fascinated with the Byzantine Empire, ever since I saw a Byzantine exhibit, in a local museum, when I was 11 years old, on a school field trip. It was a wonderful museum. The first room was an exhibit of ancient Egypt. The next room was ancient Greece. The next room was ancient Rome. The next room was medieval. The medieval room was dark. In one corner of that room, was the Byzantine Empire. A wonderful experience, for a little kid.

Ever since then, for me, the Byzantine Empire has always been a dark, mysterious time in the past. In school, the Byzantine Empire was never mentioned, except for that museum exhibit. The Byzantine Empire seems like a dark secret, hidden away by the powers that be, at least in the West. Why? Who knows? Is it because of the schism between the Western Christian Church, and the Eastern Christian Church? Is it because of the Christian nature of the Byzantine Empire? Is it because the Byzantine Empire gradually became more Greek in nature, even though it kept many aspects of ancient Rome?

About the Byzantine coins. To me, the coins are very spiritual. The coins show many aspects of the After Life, which is fascinating to me. Also, it's fascinating, how the Byzantine coins changed, over the centuries. From coins that looked similar to ancient Roman coins, but with an increasingly decadent style. To increasingly strange coins, with an increasingly spiritual nature. 

When it comes to strangeness, perhaps the strangest Byzantine coins, are the trachy (cup shaped) coins.  When I first started collecting Byzantines, I disliked the trachy coins. But then, all of a sudden, a light bulb turned on in my head, and I started liking them, and I've been a "trachy enjoyer" ever since.

Here are 3 of my favorite Byzantine coins, in my collection.

image.jpeg.a42bc3050c54f601d16a88c4b32f2ee0.jpeg

Justinian I The Great : AE 40 Nummi Follis. Regnal Year 12. 538 AD To 539 AD. Nicomedia Mint. Sear 201. DO 116b.1. 44 mm. 21.73 grams. Obverse Justinian I Bust Facing Front. Reverse Large M Mint "NIK" Officina B.

image.jpeg.c7fe67d6992ad417b7bd7f1b030fd250.jpeg

Basil II or Constantine VIII AE 40 Nummi Follis. 1023 AD to 1028 AD. Constantinople Mint. Class A3. Sear 1818. 28 mm. 9.27 grams. Obverse Jesus Christ With "EMMANOVHL" On Left Edge Greek For "Emmanuel" Meaning "God With Us" And "IC XC" On Left And Right Abbreviation For "IHSUS XRISTUS" Greek For "Jesus Christ". Reverse "IHSUS XRISTUS BASILEU BASILE" Greek For "Jesus Christ King Of Kings". 

image.jpeg.95811802a2503476e0046bcf410df030.jpeg

Andronicus I Billon Aspron Trachy. 1183 AD To 1185 AD. Constantinople Mint. Sear 1985. DO 3. 28 mm. 3.40 grams. Obverse Mary Full Length Facing Front With Halo Standing On Dais Holding On Breast Head Of Infant Jesus Christ With Halo Facing Front M-Rho On Left Theta-V On Right. M-Rho Theta-V Is Abbreviation For "Meter Tou Theou" Greek For "Mother Of God". Reverse On Left Emperor Full Length Facing Front Holding Labarum In Right Hand Holding Globus Cruciger In Left Hand On Right Jesus Christ With Halo Full Length Facing Three Quarters Crowning Emperor. 

Edited by sand
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It really just depends. “Byzantine coins are all ugly” sounds a lot like someone who looks at roman imperial bronze quadrans and ignore the silver and gold coinage from rome. Sure, if you take the most common and most mass produced coinage of any era, they look poor. Byzantine coins have plenty of beautiful art, you just have to look at areas other than $5 follises

 

88DFF405-304D-4A14-B8BA-E471544487E4.jpeg.d302f5edfa991fd294be718bf0e5f1ce.jpeg

Here is one example of a nice Byzantine solidus currently for auction at Leu

Ive pulled some random lots:

22AD1355-6AA0-4909-BB3C-18862E548BA2.jpeg.0de8e5b078810ed8936bee734079099c.jpeg2E4EAA9F-0AEA-480A-950A-5DEBE3462C61.jpeg.80438ed1e5f8398d02ef978a7d5b2923.jpeg72649E80-EE0C-42AA-85D6-2DA6A83FEB31.jpeg.8f3aa8f410e090c51872be9d20bedc29.jpegBAD651CE-1ECB-4A41-81E4-84755DE40DED.jpeg.64ff96a5d57d7c54e212c43cdffea2bb.jpeg

2A27A847-9675-45FC-BD79-501C81FB4209.jpeg.9e336afbdb070cc4d57be5d11a7c5b35.jpeg9256C80B-60E0-4A91-AD9D-113337067756.jpeg.e029ed624db9da6af2ec1e62c2a27a7b.jpegF0B72B3E-64AF-4EE2-8A4D-DA2411CEF83E.jpeg.0c1bdc7a31c277f717e0a32f8a77363f.jpegC5F7B1B7-C36D-4E32-AA6B-FA2BDF47335C.jpeg.79b03314f799dc32c2649834a6f977e6.jpeg06EC1760-AD47-4FFF-81F0-06BDF2EC3EF0.jpeg.f6040d1aefeaecd95b90f0002513a80f.jpeg

And of course, the endless world of seals

9DE79619-46F3-4A8C-8E54-31CA36617E60.jpeg.b757627d7f341afdcbfeb972fe299711.jpeg
(None of the above of mine)

The “problem” with byzantine coins is the abundance of cheap bronzes. Once you look beyond those, you will find some of the most splendid iconography of the middle ages. Anyone who claims Byzantine coins are ugly tend to either

A) Have a lack of experience with this numismatic field

B) Anti Christian biases which lead them to dislike the Christian iconography 


All of that said, I do own some ugly coins I intentionally collect 😂.

76B311AF-C59C-4DBC-9884-2EF47C941779.jpeg.9acf508bc917d0db49814920f7670e70.jpeg

Now, that is only one era in Byzantine numismatics. Even then, fully stuck and well preserved late Byzantine issues are nice
B7A2E547-ADC2-40BE-9D35-9EBC857F58D3.png.0c546cb76877335621fad9c887cdd1b1.png

16354B91-A09D-4A82-BF66-DA51DAB5CB6C.jpeg

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" Are Byzantine Coins Crude & Ugly"? Yes!

"Are they Misunderstood"? Yes!

Roman coinage realy starts diving off a cliff around AD400 due to the lack of capital to invest in highly skilled engravers. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, the Justinian I medallion that was mentioned is a good example, however by and large after AD 400 the Western Roman Empire's coinage deteriorates considerably, and after AD610ish the Eastern Roman Empire's coinage designs become increasingly cartoonish.

I don't fault the Roman state for the decrease in quality of their coins however, especially after AD640 where there was a serious question if there was even going to be a Roman state. The ERE after the Islamic conquests of the 7th century had only a fraction of the taxation revenues and human capital when compared to a generation earlier. So they couldnt have feasbly raised the quality drastically even if they wanted to. You do see a renaissance with ERE coins after the initial crisis of the 600's and 700's, and the coins do reflect a better funded and flourishing economy. That said, I am also not going to lie and say that coins of the ERE are the pinnacle of artistic achievment and are visually pleasing; they are not for the most part. 

Some examples showing a general simplication and decline in quality:

[IMG]

Magnus Maximus AR Siliqua 

Trier mint 

AD 383-388 

vs

 

IMG_1354.JPG

Honorius AR Siliqua 1.28 Grams Minted in 407/08 by the mint at Rome.

vs 

IMG_1770.JPG

Justinian I siliqua

Carthage mint 

I do not own the next three coins regrettably. 

See the source image

Justin I

See the source image

vs 

See the source image

Constans II and Constantine IV solidus 

 

 

 

Edited by Magnus Maximus
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More on lead seals0F232139-63CF-41FF-A0AF-28747ABA37A5.jpeg.793762cc69480a992b031c8605cee997.jpeg

If you took that bust of Christ, stripped away the Gospels and labeled it as Syracusean, ancient coin pundits would be labeling this as one of the greatest coins of all times.

Byzantine iconography is beautiful and relatively common. 

Edited by TheTrachyEnjoyer
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@Al Kowsky, @sand and @TheTrachyEnjoyer have made a good case with their lovely examples, to which I can't add a lot.  I'll try anyway, though, 'cause I wanna post some coins. 🙂

First, the idealism/abstractness of Byzantine art that Al draws our attention to is pretty important.  You have to understand Byzantine art on its own terms, just like any art.  Byzantine artists were a major influence on western art in the middle ages, through the medium of mosaic for example.  I don't think one can deny the beauty of this mosaic work:

image.png.b1f471a9e2fa305f0479dfed4892f44c.png

image.jpeg.fc7b448e35506d706fa2d967365255b4.jpeg

Of course the coins lack the advantages of colour, but when you come to them from the background of other Byzantine art, I think it's a lot easier to appreciate them. 

Second, Byzantine artists were also a huge influence on the Italian Renaissance.  One of these influences came through El Greco, who was a Byzantine artist displaced by the fall of Constantinople in 1453!  He brought an abstract Byzantine style to Spain which helped transform artistic styles throughout Europe.  Sometimes great artistic expression isn't achieved through complex realism but rather simple abstraction.  Some of his work anticipates impressionism and was an influence on Picasso.  El Greco:

image.jpeg.f055bff8a7ce40aa20d7d61056367638.jpeg

I think it's also important to separate coin production quality from the artistic quality of the dies.  So for example this assarion from around 1300 (Andronicus II and Michael IX, 1282-1328)  is poorly produced by the mint, but the obverse design (an abstract depiction of angelic seraphim) has some serious artistic merit, I'd say:

image.jpeg.ff16994b8dac9d9c79475477cf750323.jpeg

And on this basilikon of the same emperors I just won, imagine that Christ's face is fully complete and I think we get ourselves a pretty elegant design:

image.jpeg.3f805343a0039de5a390d4e092ef6795.jpeg

Even the highly abstract, very late coins like this stavraton of John VIII (1423-1448) are amazingly elegant in their simplicity and what they manage to depict in just a few lines, including the text:

image.jpeg.0fb8cd41d16cf047d46f161c745d9dba.jpeg

That's an aspect of what El Greco was bringing!

But maybe that's going too far too fast.  I admit the very late silver can be an acquired taste. 🙂 

Going way back to the sixth and seventh centuries, then, the Antioch mint produced some beautiful coins, I'd say.  I don't have one of the amazing folles of Phocas, but here's a Maurice Tiberius (582-602), easily obtainable, in a style I've always admired:

image.jpeg.19574a3f8107e7fb8190f9aed969414e.jpeg 

Note the simplicity of design on the reverse as well.  This is best expressed in the iconoclastic period, for example on this half miliaresion of Leo III at the beginning of the eighth century:

image.thumb.jpeg.134a26f626e2f76e674e6a1a2d43a2cf.jpeg

(Incidentally I've just made a discovery about this coin, which is the fourth known, and one of the most impressive coins in my collection.  It may well be the only one of the four that can be securely attributed to Leo III, and thus the only known coin attributable to the first, ceremonial issue of the miliaresion!  It was produced in 720 for the coronation of Leo's son Constantine V, and thus is very special in any case.  It links the earlier ceremonial silver of the Heraclian emperors to the middle Byzantine period.)

I like the more complex miliaresia from a bit later too.  Here's Basil II (976-1025), just to include something between the earlier stuff I just showed and the later stuff at the beginning:

image.jpeg.180e01017812537f30e8eadb117607fb.jpeg

Again, when you look at these coins within the context of Byzantine art at the time, and ignore the production values, I think it's much easier to appreciate their beauty.  Remember that art is always seen within a cultural context!  Our cultural context is perhaps not best suited to appreciating Byzantine coinage, but it's not too hard to compensate for that.

That said, I'm the first to admit there's some butt ugly Byzantine engraving.  In fact I collect it on purpose sometimes. 😄 

Edited by Severus Alexander
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As I said in other threads ugliness or beauty is a matter of perspective.  Compare Byzantine coinage with that of Syracuse?  No contest.  But if one looks just at Byzantine coinage on its own, and studies the history of the Byzantine Empire and surrounding empires and kingdoms, then the issue of "ugliness" is not relevant, really.  It's the history of the coins and the prevailing styles that become of much greater importance, in my view.  Byzantine coins, just like coins from other periods of human history reflect the times in which they were produced.  I wouldn't condemn an overstruck follis of Heraclius as ugly; in fact that wouldn't even cross my mind.  Instead I focus on the the overstrike and appreciate the often political and economic motives to create such coins. 

1274876874_D-CameraHeracliusfollisConstantinopleofficinaAoverstruckPhocas11.7grams2-28-21.jpg.cfcf98412e351d3eec6d82d0838db69b.jpg

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4 hours ago, sand said:

@Al Kowsky Beautiful coins.

I've been fascinated with the Byzantine Empire, ever since I saw a Byzantine exhibit, in a local museum, when I was 11 years old, on a school field trip. It was a wonderful museum. The first room was an exhibit of ancient Egypt. The next room was ancient Greece. The next room was ancient Rome. The next room was medieval. The medieval room was dark. In one corner of that room, was the Byzantine Empire. A wonderful experience, for a little kid.

Ever since then, for me, the Byzantine Empire has always been a dark, mysterious time in the past. In school, the Byzantine Empire was never mentioned, except for that museum exhibit. The Byzantine Empire seems like a dark secret, hidden away by the powers that be, at least in the West. Why? Who knows? Is it because of the schism between the Western Christian Church, and the Eastern Christian Church? Is it because of the Christian nature of the Byzantine Empire? Is it because the Byzantine Empire gradually became more Greek in nature, even though it kept many aspects of ancient Rome?

About the Byzantine coins. To me, the coins are very spiritual. The coins show many aspects of the After Life, which is fascinating to me. Also, it's fascinating, how the Byzantine coins changed, over the centuries. From coins that looked similar to ancient Roman coins, but with an increasingly decadent style. To increasingly strange coins, with an increasingly spiritual nature. 

When it comes to strangeness, perhaps the strangest Byzantine coins, are the trachy (cup shaped) coins.  When I first started collecting Byzantines, I disliked the trachy coins. But then, all of a sudden, a light bulb turned on in my head, and I started liking them, and I've been a "trachy enjoyer" ever since.

Here are 3 of my favorite Byzantine coins, in my collection.

image.jpeg.a42bc3050c54f601d16a88c4b32f2ee0.jpeg

Justinian I The Great : AE 40 Nummi Follis. Regnal Year 12. 538 AD To 539 AD. Nicomedia Mint. Sear 201. DO 116b.1. 44 mm. 21.73 grams. Obverse Justinian I Bust Facing Front. Reverse Large M Mint "NIK" Officina B.

image.jpeg.c7fe67d6992ad417b7bd7f1b030fd250.jpeg

Basil II or Constantine VIII AE 40 Nummi Follis. 1023 AD to 1028 AD. Constantinople Mint. Class A3. Sear 1818. 28 mm. 9.27 grams. Obverse Jesus Christ With "EMMANOVHL" On Left Edge Greek For "Emmanuel" Meaning "God With Us" And "IC XC" On Left And Right Abbreviation For "IHSUS XRISTUS" Greek For "Jesus Christ". Reverse "IHSUS XRISTUS BASILEU BASILE" Greek For "Jesus Christ King Of Kings". 

image.jpeg.95811802a2503476e0046bcf410df030.jpeg

Andronicus I Billon Aspron Trachy. 1183 AD To 1185 AD. Constantinople Mint. Sear 1985. DO 3. 28 mm. 3.40 grams. Obverse Mary Full Length Facing Front With Halo Standing On Dais Holding On Breast Head Of Infant Jesus Christ With Halo Facing Front M-Rho On Left Theta-V On Right. M-Rho Theta-V Is Abbreviation For "Meter Tou Theou" Greek For "Mother Of God". Reverse On Left Emperor Full Length Facing Front Holding Labarum In Right Hand Holding Globus Cruciger In Left Hand On Right Jesus Christ With Halo Full Length Facing Three Quarters Crowning Emperor. 

sand, those are lovely coins ☺️. I love the hefty 40 nummi coin of Justinian I 😍. Every ancient coin collector should own one 😎.

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3 hours ago, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

It really just depends. “Byzantine coins are all ugly” sounds a lot like someone who looks at roman imperial bronze quadrans and ignore the silver and gold coinage from rome. Sure, if you take the most common and most mass produced coinage of any era, they look poor. Byzantine coins have plenty of beautiful art, you just have to look at areas other than $5 follises

 

88DFF405-304D-4A14-B8BA-E471544487E4.jpeg.d302f5edfa991fd294be718bf0e5f1ce.jpeg

Here is one example of a nice Byzantine solidus currently for auction at Leu

Ive pulled some random lots:

22AD1355-6AA0-4909-BB3C-18862E548BA2.jpeg.0de8e5b078810ed8936bee734079099c.jpeg2E4EAA9F-0AEA-480A-950A-5DEBE3462C61.jpeg.80438ed1e5f8398d02ef978a7d5b2923.jpeg72649E80-EE0C-42AA-85D6-2DA6A83FEB31.jpeg.8f3aa8f410e090c51872be9d20bedc29.jpegBAD651CE-1ECB-4A41-81E4-84755DE40DED.jpeg.64ff96a5d57d7c54e212c43cdffea2bb.jpeg

2A27A847-9675-45FC-BD79-501C81FB4209.jpeg.9e336afbdb070cc4d57be5d11a7c5b35.jpeg9256C80B-60E0-4A91-AD9D-113337067756.jpeg.e029ed624db9da6af2ec1e62c2a27a7b.jpegF0B72B3E-64AF-4EE2-8A4D-DA2411CEF83E.jpeg.0c1bdc7a31c277f717e0a32f8a77363f.jpegC5F7B1B7-C36D-4E32-AA6B-FA2BDF47335C.jpeg.79b03314f799dc32c2649834a6f977e6.jpeg06EC1760-AD47-4FFF-81F0-06BDF2EC3EF0.jpeg.f6040d1aefeaecd95b90f0002513a80f.jpeg

And of course, the endless world of seals

9DE79619-46F3-4A8C-8E54-31CA36617E60.jpeg.b757627d7f341afdcbfeb972fe299711.jpeg
(None of the above of mine)

The “problem” with byzantine coins is the abundance of cheap bronzes. Once you look beyond those, you will find some of the most splendid iconography of the middle ages. Anyone who claims Byzantine coins are ugly tend to either

A) Have a lack of experience with this numismatic field

B) Anti Christian biases which lead them to dislike the Christian iconography 


All of that said, I do own some ugly coins I intentionally collect 😂.

76B311AF-C59C-4DBC-9884-2EF47C941779.jpeg.9acf508bc917d0db49814920f7670e70.jpeg

Now, that is only one era in Byzantine numismatics. Even then, fully stuck and well preserved late Byzantine issues are nice
B7A2E547-ADC2-40BE-9D35-9EBC857F58D3.png.0c546cb76877335621fad9c887cdd1b1.png

16354B91-A09D-4A82-BF66-DA51DAB5CB6C.jpeg

T.Enjoyer, that's a wonderful selection of stunning coins 😲!

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2 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

@Al Kowsky, @sand and @TheTrachyEnjoyer have made a good case with their lovely examples, to which I can't add a lot.  I'll try anyway, though, 'cause I wanna post some coins. 🙂

First, the idealism/abstractness of Byzantine art that Al draws our attention to is pretty important.  You have to understand Byzantine art on its own terms, just like any art.  Byzantine artists were a major influence on western art in the middle ages, through the medium of mosaic for example.  I don't think one can deny the beauty of this mosaic work:

image.png.b1f471a9e2fa305f0479dfed4892f44c.png

image.jpeg.fc7b448e35506d706fa2d967365255b4.jpeg

Of course the coins lack the advantages of colour, but when you come to them from the background of other Byzantine art, I think it's a lot easier to appreciate them. 

Second, Byzantine artists were also a huge influence on the Italian Renaissance.  One of these influences came through El Greco, who was a Byzantine artist displaced by the fall of Constantinople in 1453!  He brought an abstract Byzantine style to Spain which helped transform artistic styles throughout Europe.  Sometimes great artistic expression isn't achieved through complex realism but rather simple abstraction.  Some of his work anticipates impressionism and was an influence on Picasso.  El Greco:

image.jpeg.f055bff8a7ce40aa20d7d61056367638.jpeg

I think it's also important to separate coin production quality from the artistic quality of the dies.  So for example this assarion from around 1300 (Andronicus II and Michael IX, 1282-1328)  is poorly produced by the mint, but the obverse design (an abstract depiction of angelic seraphim) has some serious artistic merit, I'd say:

image.jpeg.ff16994b8dac9d9c79475477cf750323.jpeg

And on this basilikon of the same emperors I just won, imagine that Christ's face is fully complete and I think we get ourselves a pretty elegant design:

image.jpeg.3f805343a0039de5a390d4e092ef6795.jpeg

Even the highly abstract, very late coins like this stavraton of John VIII (1423-1448) are amazingly elegant in their simplicity and what they manage to depict in just a few lines, including the text:

image.jpeg.0fb8cd41d16cf047d46f161c745d9dba.jpeg

That's an aspect of what El Greco was bringing!

But maybe that's going too far too fast.  I admit the very late silver can be an acquired taste. 🙂 

Going way back to the sixth and seventh centuries, then, the Antioch mint produced some beautiful coins, I'd say.  I don't have one of the amazing folles of Phocas, but here's a Maurice Tiberius (582-602), easily obtainable, in a style I've always admired:

image.jpeg.19574a3f8107e7fb8190f9aed969414e.jpeg 

Note the simplicity of design on the reverse as well.  This is best expressed in the iconoclastic period, for example on this half miliaresion of Leo III at the beginning of the eighth century:

image.thumb.jpeg.134a26f626e2f76e674e6a1a2d43a2cf.jpeg

(Incidentally I've just made a discovery about this coin, which is the fourth known, and one of the most impressive coins in my collection.  It may well be the only one of the four that can be securely attributed to Leo III, and thus the only known coin attributable to the first, ceremonial issue of the miliaresion!  It was produced in 720 for the coronation of Leo's son Constantine V, and thus is very special in any case.  It links the earlier ceremonial silver of the Heraclian emperors to the middle Byzantine period.)

I like the more complex miliaresia from a bit later too.  Here's Basil II (976-1025), just to include something between the earlier stuff I just showed and the later stuff at the beginning:

image.jpeg.180e01017812537f30e8eadb117607fb.jpeg

Again, when you look at these coins within the context of Byzantine art at the time, and ignore the production values, I think it's much easier to appreciate their beauty.  Remember that art is always seen within a cultural context!  Our cultural context is perhaps not best suited to appreciating Byzantine coinage, but it's not too hard to compensate for that.

That said, I'm the first to admit there's some butt ugly Byzantine engraving.  In fact I collect it on purpose sometimes. 😄 

S.A., Thanks for the beautiful illustrations & handsome coins ☺️!

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2 hours ago, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

More on lead seals0F232139-63CF-41FF-A0AF-28747ABA37A5.jpeg.793762cc69480a992b031c8605cee997.jpeg

If you took that bust of Christ, stripped away the Gospels and labeled it as Syracusean, ancient coin pundits would be labeling this as one of the greatest coins of all times.

Byzantine iconography is beautiful and relatively common. 

That is unusually fine art work for a lead seal 🤩!

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2 hours ago, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, Romanus I and Christopher, 929-931. 

I'm assuming that Romanus is the figure in the foreground?  They kind of phoned in the background figures, but everything else is top-notch!  It's by far the neatest Byzantine seal I've ever seen.

8Yz8WT9nBmB43HMof2CiMp656JjqDy.jpg.f7464ecebe202762c31a4a1edad37ebf.jpg

I've dragged this example of Tiberius Apsimar out ad nauseum, but other than the sloppy strike (which made it affordable in my case), this coin, produced during the high point of the crisis period, is of fairly high workmanship.

And let us not forget Constantine IV, who tried to revive the Justinianic folles, a remarkable feat during a great crisis. While the artistic execution generally isnt' great (although I'd really like to own one), the large folles were a brave attempt to revive a more glorious time.

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52 minutes ago, robinjojo said:

As I said in other threads ugliness or beauty is a matter of perspective.  Compare Byzantine coinage with that of Syracuse?  No contest.  But if one looks just at Byzantine coinage on its own, and studies the history of the Byzantine Empire and surrounding empires and kingdoms, then the issue of "ugliness" is not relevant, really.  It's the history of the coins and the prevailing styles that become of much greater importance, in my view.  Byzantine coins, just like coins from other periods of human history reflect the times in which they were produced.  I wouldn't condemn an overstruck follis of Heraclius as ugly; in fact that wouldn't even cross my mind.  Instead I focus on the the overstrike and appreciate the often political and economic motives to create such coins. 

1274876874_D-CameraHeracliusfollisConstantinopleofficinaAoverstruckPhocas11.7grams2-28-21.jpg.cfcf98412e351d3eec6d82d0838db69b.jpg

Well said, I totally agree 😉! As you & sand point out, the history behind these coins reveals fascinating stories of intrigue, triumph,  disaster, & the growth of Christianity.

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After seeing so many beautiful Byzantine coins I feel the urge to post a few more favorites from my collection 🤨.

811862709_NicomediaYear13AWK.jpg.d92701195db95cede90adb8aed04c6f0.jpg

Justinian I, AD 527-565 (dated year 13, 539/540). AE 40 Nummi: 22.47 gm, 41 mm, 12 h. Nicomedia Mint, Officina #2. Sear 201.

1017356255_4790075-008AKCollection.jpg.cd2121991cea35b92876efbd125162d9.jpg

1423742146_NGC4280854-003.jpg.a81c5aec334a3122800d1f9d8c80a047.jpg

Phocas is one of the few emperors whose coin portrait is recognizable because of his long hair & long pointed beard.

emperor_phocas.jpg.2f0359a838f8d76c0825b2756bd359f7.jpg

 

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3 hours ago, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

More on lead seals0F232139-63CF-41FF-A0AF-28747ABA37A5.jpeg.793762cc69480a992b031c8605cee997.jpeg

If you took that bust of Christ, stripped away the Gospels and labeled it as Syracusean, ancient coin pundits would be labeling this as one of the greatest coins of all times.

Byzantine iconography is beautiful and relatively common. 

@TheTrachyEnjoyer, the reverse of that lead seal is amazing! Those figures have incredible detail, and stylization in the case of the two smaller figures.  But what astounds me most of all is the--for lack of a better word--asiatic feel of the central figure.  To me, as someone who's never got around to learning very much about Byzantine art, he looks like a depiction of a king on the far western regions of China, or maybe Mongolia or the vast regions of central Asia.  Can you comment on his appearance?  Is this what a Byzantine emperor looked like?  And if so, when did they start to look like that?

Edited by NathanB
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@sand, I enjoyed reading your description of your experience in the museum! I've had a few similar experiences.  One was in a museum that had a traveling exhibit relating to the Mongols of the time of Ghengis Khan.  I bought a book ("Storm from the East") that I read voraciously, and which I still own.  Reading it was a fascinating experience!

Another moment, but this one out of a museum, is one I remember: when I first saw references to the Khwarazmian Empire--in the book above, if I remember correctly. It's a part of history I still know very little about, but I would love to learn more.

Edited by NathanB
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4 hours ago, Magnus Maximus said:

" Are Byzantine Coins Crude & Ugly"? Yes!

"Are they Misunderstood"? Yes!

Roman coinage realy starts diving off a cliff around AD400 due to the lack of capital to invest in highly skilled engravers. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, the Justinian I medallion that was mentioned is a good example, however by and large after AD 400 the Western Roman Empire's coinage deteriorates considerably, and after AD610ish the Eastern Roman Empire's coinage designs become increasingly cartoonish.

I don't fault the Roman state for the decrease in quality of their coins however, especially after AD640 where there was a serious question if there was even going to be a Roman state. The ERE after the Islamic conquests of the 7th century had only a fraction of the taxation revenues and human capital when compared to a generation earlier. So they couldnt have feasbly raised the quality drastically even if they wanted to. You do see a renaissance with ERE coins after the initial crisis of the 600's and 700's, and the coins do reflect a better funded and flourishing economy. That said, I am also not going to lie and say that coins of the ERE are the pinnacle of artistic achievment and are visually pleasing; they are not for the most part. 

Some examples showing a general simplication and decline in quality:

[IMG]

Magnus Maximus AR Siliqua 

Trier mint 

AD 383-388 

vs

 

IMG_1354.JPG

Honorius AR Siliqua 1.28 Grams Minted in 407/08 by the mint at Rome.

vs 

IMG_1770.JPG

Justinian I siliqua

Carthage mint 

I do not own the next three coins regrettably. 

See the source image

Justin I

See the source image

vs 

See the source image

Constans II and Constantine IV solidus 

 

 

 

M.Maximus, Thanks for posting these handsome coins. The Justin solidus has an amusing engraver error on the reverse, with "P cross" turned the wrong way 😜.

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I must say I agree completely with @Severus Alexander. Both classical and Byzantine art where products of Greek culture at different times but in roughly the same region. Classical art is more accessible to us but Byzantine art has a unique power of its own. I have visited several Byzantine churches and monasteries and have always found the overall effect impressive.  

A2BCFB71-6C0B-4375-85E2-70AD2F15FECF.jpeg.0a280c7ddd6e280f4bea00f35e8d8a86.jpeg

I don’t have any top shelf Byzantine coins but even on the humble ones I do have it is easy to appreciate the coin in context with the Byzantine art and architecture I’ve been able to visit.

D9542795-BAB5-4C50-855A-9E041AD694FA.jpeg.d67c499e1eb2651b70fbb1c172c4b687.jpeg

C73AA15E-069C-4D4B-8F76-64370C474E9E.jpeg.fca1abe6d37ac8386000adc5129c6b89.jpeg

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4 hours ago, Curtisimo said:

I must say I agree completely with @Severus Alexander. Both classical and Byzantine art where products of Greek culture at different times but in roughly the same region. Classical art is more accessible to us but Byzantine art has a unique power of its own. I have visited several Byzantine churches and monasteries and have always found the overall effect impressive.  

A2BCFB71-6C0B-4375-85E2-70AD2F15FECF.jpeg.0a280c7ddd6e280f4bea00f35e8d8a86.jpeg

I don’t have any top shelf Byzantine coins but even on the humble ones I do have it is easy to appreciate the coin in context with the Byzantine art and architecture I’ve been able to visit.

D9542795-BAB5-4C50-855A-9E041AD694FA.jpeg.d67c499e1eb2651b70fbb1c172c4b687.jpeg

C73AA15E-069C-4D4B-8F76-64370C474E9E.jpeg.fca1abe6d37ac8386000adc5129c6b89.jpeg

The Basilica of San Marco must be a sight to behold & ranks high on my "bucket list" ☺️!

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45D97DCD-FA47-4A65-9C83-FC9553C05BB3.jpeg.78f57410246c7f7b92ecbcf8a9f37ed1.jpeg
I dont have too many beautiful Byzantines but I like this coin a lot. Theodore and Saint Theodore are present in great detail
69DD4365-CDE7-4047-A69B-569066E6123D.jpeg.075fa7eed2d87667683b7d88c41d400b.jpeg
This coin has one of my favorite depictions of Christ ever. Its a ragged flan and double struck with some damage, but I think the beauty of Christ Emmanuel still comes through. Unusual attention was given to this die, whether its the braided hair or elaborate halo. Many Byzantine coins suffer from issues post die carving. This would be a breathtaking coin if in MS (but still is IMO!)

C7D64B68-D80C-4022-AB94-97C8B3548A43.jpeg.7ed819b89948f5f1adc7754935687543.jpeg

Here is another damaged coin with great details. Zoom in and you can see the intricacy of each figures robes. Clearly, such coins in original shape would have been magnificent. Sadly, many of these types only survive in one or two examples.

 

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Great thread. I am always glad to see threads like this because I don't know as much about the coins or the history of an empire that tends to get short shrift from both numismatists and historians. As for the question of the OP I think that for much of the history of the Empire, the Byzantines could produce high quality craftmanship in both designing and minting coinage. But for most of their coin producing history it was not essential or even desirable to do so. The emperors were not trying to terrorize their populace into complying with their policies, so no scowling Caracallas or Diocletians were required. Byzantine emperors were, or wished to be seen, as ethereal, above the more mundane matters of day to day administration, more in harmony with the Divinity than a Divinity himself. No, not a divinity but very close to the one God who rules the universe, who ought to be the one most noticed. I have here four coins that illustrate what I am driving at, good fabric, good design, good imagery and a pleasing, respectful appearance, one to inspire confidence but not hubris. From the top, a tremissis of Justinian. Though a small coin, only 1.4. grams, the Celator here has done an excellent job of making the emperor look like he knows what he is doing. It is Sear 149. The second coin is a silver hexagram of Constans II illustrating an irenic and calm confidence in an orderly transition of power (hopefully). It weighs 6.49 grams and on the reverse (still in Latin) is "God, help the Romans" and this solid chunk of silver and fatherly visage makes it seem He will. The third coin is a somewhat unusual semis of Syracuse, still in Byzantibe hands in 835 when this coin was issued showing Theofilus on both sides. It weighs in at 1.7 grams but it is somewhat debased and is probably about 18 k gold, not the 24 K gold Byzantine coins were usually still minted at. The Byzantines were under great pressure in Southern Italy at the time. It is Sear 1672. Last is an electrum nomisma of Michael VII issued just after the heavy loss to the Turks at Manzigert, with Christ, the ruler of all, reminding the faithful that all power is in His hands. Even if the gold content is debased, all's right in this world yet. It is Sear 1868 and weighs 4.4 grams.

IMG_2347Byz obv.jpg

Byz rev.jpg

Edited by kevikens
misspelled a word
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