Byzantine coins (AD 491-1453): An Introduction for Beginners 

In the fourth century the Roman empire encompassed the entire region around the Mediterranean Sea. When the western half fell in the fifth century, the eastern half lived on as the "Byzantine Empire," with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Coins of the early Byzantine empire were gold, silver, or copper. Gold coins are common. Silver coins are scarce or rare. Copper coins are common, inexpensive, and discussed extensively below.

 
Contents.
   This page: 
 An outline of Byzantine coins with examples.
       Two gold coins. Two silver coinsCommon copper coins, their dates, and their denominations.
       Coins under the later empire and cup-shaped coins.  After 1204 when Constantinople was conquered by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.

       Common mints.  Overstrikes and dating. Some terminology (a glossary) used to describe Byzantine coins.    
   Page 2:  Byzantine-Coin Letters, Numerals, Denominations, and Dates
   Page 3:  Byzantine Emperors on Copper Coins . The story of Basil I, Constantine VII
   Page 4:  Late Byzantine Coins (after cup-shaped coins were introduced c. 1092) [not yet written] 
   Page 5:  Uncommon mints [not yet written]

   Page 6:  Reference works, annotated.
   


Gold Coins.  Gold coins are plentiful and often available in excellent condition.  

A gold solidus of Justin I (518-527), the second Byzantine emperor.

Nearly pure gold. 20 mm. (The diameter of a US cent.) 4.47 grams.
The obverse gives his name: DN IVSTINVS PP AVG
VICTORIA AVGGGI, an angel holding a long cross and cross on globe (globus cruciger)


This denomination was maintained at this size and weight for hundreds of years. 

Sear 56  [The primary identification reference for Byzantine coins is Byzantine Coins and Their Values by David Sear. Each coin on this site is identified by its Sear number. Reference works are discussed on this page.]

 

Some collectors concentrate on gold coins which are often in high grade and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most auctions of major firms have Byzantine gold coins. 

Sizes. Ancient coin sizes are given in milimeters (mm) and weights in grams. For reference, a new nickel weighs 5.00 grams. A US dime is 18 mm, a cent is 19 mm, a nickle 21 mm, a quarter 24 mm, a half-dollar 30.4 mm, and a silver dollar 38 mm. This is important to know because images do not tell you the sizes of the coins. It is easy to mistake a small coin for a large one. When buying an ancient coin, be sure to check the size which will be given in milimeters. 

Gold coins under the early empire come in three denominations--the solidus (above) and its half, the semisis, and its third, the tremisis.

A tremisis of Anastasius (491-518).
15-14 mm. 1.36 grams (a little lighter than the desired 4.45/3 = 1.48 grams because a bit of gold has been shaved off from 8:00 to 10:00). Tremisses are thin, easy to clip, and often somewhat wrinkled or bent
VICTORIA AVSVSTORVM (with two letters not well-formed)
Victory standing left holding wreath and globe with cross (called a "globus cruciger")
CONOB in exergue

Sear 10 

 

Gold coins are available for each of the emperors. Of course, some are much rarer than others.  Hundreds of years later different gold denominations were introduced after an amazingly long run of issuing pure gold coins of consistent weight. The quality of Byzantine gold began to decline. This web site will say little about gold and little about silver.

Caveats for this PageThe Byzantine empire lasted almost a thousand years and covered a vast territory. Coinage changed over time and was different in different parts of the empire. It is not possible to make blanket statements about "Byzantine coins" that are true for all times and places. The assertions on this page are subject to revision in detail after the reader learns the basics here. For example, under the later empire "gold" coins are no longer pure gold, rather an alloy called electrum which is gold with added silver.
 



Silver Coins. Under the Roman empire silver coins are common and commonly collected. Not so for Byzantine silver.  Byzantine silver is not common except for the 8th-10th centuries and a few other emperors. Many collectors focus on gold and many on copper, but not many focus on silver (although some do).

The first Byzantine silver coins are small, thin, and rare. They were issued as fractions of the late Roman silver "siliqua" denomination. Heraclius (610-641) introduced a new silver denomination, the hexagram, thicker and heavier with a substantial amount of silver.

Heraclius (610-641) and his son Heraclius Constantine.
Hexagram. 23 mm. 6.71 grams.
Emperors seated on a double throne, each holding a globus cruciger in his right hand
Cross on globe on three steps.

Hexagrams were introduced in 615 and continued to be issued in significant numbers until c. 680 under Constantine IV (668-685). They had good silver, but dies are usually poorly engraved and the strikes are usually bad. For example, this coin shows irregular lettering, a big die-break at 7:00 on the reverse, and a weak strike in several places. Nevertheless, it is better than average.

Sear 798.

After a period without silver, the miliaresion, broader, thinner, and lighter, was introduced by Leo III in 720 to compete with the Arab dirhem. 


John I, Tzimses, 969-976.
23-22 mm. Thin. 2.92 grams
His name is in the inner circle with the small facing bust
I    A
ω   N 

The reverse says, in Greek, "John [IωAҺ], by the grace of Christ, autocrater and King of the Romans"
A silver "miliaresion". This denomination was introduced to compete with the Arab dirhem.

Sear 1792.


Hundreds of years later, near the very end of the empire when times were desperate, silver was confiscated from churches and anywhere else it could be found and chunky silver coins were issued to pay debts. For the last few emperors before the fall of the empire in 1453 silver was the usual metal for coins (but they are not common).

   


Copper Coins. Byzantine copper is common, inexpensive, and easy to collect. However, they are usually poorly produced and very worn. Ancient-coin collectors who love the artistry of Greek coins or the expressive portraits on Roman coins will find nothing comparable on Byzantine coins. It is difficult to find Byzantine copper with a clear bust of the emperor and a full legible legend. But, if you like history, Byzantine copper has great stories to tell. (Here is one about Constantine VII, 919-957. Here is another about the mint of Antioch after massive earthquakes. You can read those later; there will be links to them again later.)

When Did The Byzantine Empire Begin? The date when the Byzantine empire began is debated by historians, but from the point-of-view of numismatists it begins with the reign of Anastasius (491-518). There is no time after Constantine (307-337) for the next 600 years when the gold coinage changes markedly so there is no gold-coin dividing line between "Roman" and "Byzantine." There was very little silver produced. Therefore, numismatists use the reforms of the copper coinage under Anastasius to distinguish between "Roman" and "Byzantine" coins. 

Byzantine coins begin under Anastasius, 491-518, who reformed the copper coinage by adding in a range of higher denominations. The copper coinage he inherited consisted of only tiny and poorly made pieces of the "1-nummis" denomination. (The illustrations on this page are all to scale.)

The pre-reform nummis of Anastasius, emperor 491-518 with its reverse monogram enlarged. The obverse has a profile bust right, but the coins are too small to have any distinguishing obverse legend. The reverse is a monogram for Anastasius. The coins of this era are so terrible that this one is much better than average.

8 mm. Tiny! 0.98 grams.  Sear 13. 

There was no larger copper denomination until the reform of Anastasius.

 

Prior to 498 the coinage of the Roman empire consisted of extremely valuable gold coins of high purity and wretched tiny copper coins like the one above, weighing about a gram, about 6000 to the solidus, with no moderate-value coins. The coinage system was not working. Anastasius (491-518), who was known for his frugality and concern for coins, reformed the coinage. In 498 Anastasius introduced a larger copper coin with a large "M" which is "40" in Greek, prominently advertising the denomination. They called the 40-numia piece a "follis."

A follis of the first reform of Anastasius. 25 mm. 3.58 grams. 
This 25 mm coin is slightly larger than a US quarter (which is 24 mm). This is a much improved coin. Some weigh as much as 8 grams.
Large M. Stars to the left and right of the M and a cross above. The delta (Δ) below is 4 in Greek and indicates the fourth workshop (officina) of the mint. 
CON below is the mintmark of Constantinople. 

Obverse legend: DN ANASTASIVS PP AVG  (Dominus Nostrum [Our Lord] Anastasius PerPetuas [forever] AVGustus [emperor]).

Sear 16.

 

At the beginning of the empire legends were in Latin and over hundreds of years parts became Greek. This turns out not to be a problem for collectors because there are only a few Greek letters to learn (e.g. delta, Δ, is a D and it is also the numeral "4". Greek letters on coins are discussed here.) 

The follis denomination lasted 500 years. It had its ups and downs, getting larger and nicer with reforms and and then smaller and worse and then larger and then smaller again, but it remains the primary copper-coin denomination. 

You might notice that the improved coin supposedly worth 40 nummia is not nearly 40 times as heavy as the previous 1-gram 1-nummis coin. The Byzantine populace noted that too and were unhappy about it. Discontent led to a second reform c. 512 which increased the size and weight of the follis.

[To scale with the other coins. This one is large!]
Anastasius, 40-nummia. 35 mm.18.20 grams.
Note that a US 50-cent piece is only 30.6 mm and 11.34 grams. This follis is huge. 

The second reform increased the weight of all the copper denominations. The follis is still not 40 times the weight of the nummis, but the large, impressive, new coins were accepted and became standard. 

Sear 19. 

 

 

To distinguish the two types of Anastasius with the same design the first-reform (25 mm) pieces are called "small module" and the second-reform (35 mm) pieces "large module." 

In many ways the change from "Roman" to "Byzantine" was on a continuum. The fact that the dividing line is worth debating proves there is no obvious dividing line suitable for all purposes. However, for our purposes as numismatists, the emperor, Anastasius, who introduced the 40-nummia follis, a most common denomination of Byzantine coins for 500 years, is the first Byzantine emperor.

Of course, when coins have metal value, the government can make more coins from the same amount of metal by making the coins smaller. This is an ancient equivalent of inflation. It is truly remarkable that the amount of gold in the gold coins did not decrease at all for centuries. However, the copper coins did, gradually, numerous times. Then reforms became necessary to restore a functioning coinage system. 

Over the following decades the sizes of the denominations decreased gradually until the famous coin reform of Justinian in 538/9 again increased the sizes and introduced the facing-bust (instead of profile-bust) types (next). 
 

Dating.  Many Byzantine coins are dated only by the dates of the reign of the emperor. However, for many types scholars are able to give narrower date ranges. The greatest precision is found after the coin reform when Justinian added regnal-year dates to the copper coins which can then be dated to a single year. This followed an edict of his year 12 (538/9) which required official documents to be dated using regnal years. The occasion was used to reform the copper coinage by increasing its size and weight and changing the bust from profile to facing.

Justinian, 527-565,
40 mm. 20.04 grams. A massive reformed follis. (A US half dollar is only 30.4 mm. This coin is so large the image here is made smaller in proportion to the others.) 
The first year of issue, marked 
ANNO for "year" and XII for "12" to the right of the M. Year 12 of Justinian was 538/9. 
CON below is the mintmark for Constantinople.

This is perhaps the most desired Byzantine copper coin type because of its remarkable size. It is often well made and in good condition. Fortunately, it is quite common

 

Years XIII and XIIII maintain the large size, after which the type continues but on smaller and smaller flans until it is only 30 mm (instead of 40 mm) at the end of his reign (year 39).

Byzantine coins continue to be dated by regnal years for about a hundred years. Also, they have officina numbers (Greek letters; the above coin has B for "2"). Collectors can, if they want, collect many varieties of what would be considered the same type (with only one Sear ID number) by collecting all its years and officina numbers. Sear's book lists them all. 

     (See a second page for more about dating and numerals.)

 


Denominations of Early Byzantine Copper.  The 40-nummia piece, the follis, is by far the most common and commonly-collected denomination. For more than 300 years it is distinguished by its reverse with a large "M" for 40 in Greek (There are some, less common, that use Roman numerals instead). The early Byzantine copper denominations are the
follis (40-nummia) with M or XXXX 
three-quarter follis (30-nummia) with Λ or XXX (these are uncommon)
half-follis (20-nummia) with K or XX  
quarter-follis (10-nummia) with I or X
5-nummia (pentanummia) with Є or V.
Rare 1-numis pieces continued to be issued through Maurice (582-602). Usually they are just tiny and without a denomination numeral.
There are other unusual denominations at some mints, but they are a much smaller part of the coinage and are discussed on page 2


The Follis. The follis is the most common denomination, and most early folles have the large M (for 40) seen above. A few have "40" in Roman numerals: "XXXX" (never "XL" like modern Roman numerals). Most of them were for Phocas (602-610).


Phocas, 602-610. (Coins spell his name "FOCAS".)
33-30 mm. 13.18 grams.
DN FOCAS PERP AVG
Facing bust holding mappa in right and globus cruciger in left
ANNO  (year)
XXXX with G for 6 to right
CONB for Constantinople, officina B (= 2 in Greek) below.

Sear 640.

 

 

The 30-nummia denomination. 30-nummia pieces are not common. The Λ (30 in Greek) pieces are only of Heraclius's years 20 and 21 and in terrible condition (see the next page).  The XXX (30 in Roman numerals) pieces are uncommon and almost all of Tiberius II (578-582) or Phocas (602-610). 

XXX for 30-nummia.
33 mm. 11.73 grams.
Tiberius II Constantine, 578-582.
m TIB CONSTANT PP AVG (much is unclear, including the ∂m)
Mintmark CONΓ  (for Constantinople, officina 3. No date.)

Sear 432

Byzantine-coin legends are often blundered and misspelled (not only in this era). Some coins of other emperors begin properly with "DN," but legends of Tiberius II begin with "∂m" where the ∂ is a D.

 

 

These XXX pieces are struck on large flans, almost as if they used 40-nummia flans anyway and just struck them with dies marked 30-nummia. 
 

 

The Half-Follis. The half-follis is distinguished by a large K, which is 20 in Greek. They are common.
 

Justin II and Sophia, 565-578
29-25 mm. 8.01 grams.
Blundered obverse legend (errors are common in Byzantine legends)
dN IVTINV-S PP S AVG  ["S" missing]
Large K for 20, ANNO down left, GII for 8 to right
KYZ for Cyzicus mint in exergue.

Sear 373. Cyzicus.

This coin is remarkably well-struck and well-preserved.

 

 

A few half-folles have "XX" for "20" in Roman numerals.

Tiberius II, 578-582.
24-21 mm. 7.01 grams.
Half-follis. 20-nummia.
Bust facing, holding globus cruciger.
Large XX
NIKOB in exergue, for Nicomedia mint, officina B.

Sear 443. Nicomedia.

 

 

The quarter-follis.  The quarter-follis is distinguished by a large I, which is 10 in Greek, or X, the Roman numeral. They are common.

Justinian, 527-565.
20-18 mm. 3.70 grams. 
Quarter-follis. 10 nummia.
Bust right.
Large I surmounted by a cross. ANNO (for "year") down the left
XXG (for "26") down the right
A (for the first officina) below the I
CON in exergue, the mintmark of Constantinople. 

Sear 168.

 

Some quarter-folles have "X" for "10" in Roman numerals. 

Maurice, 582-602
18-16 mm. 2.63 grams.
Quarter follis. 10-nummia.
Bust facing.
Large X, cross above, ANNO down left, U/III or year 8 down right
R below, a mintmark from Antioch.

Sear 536. Antioch.

 

 

The 5-nummia piece is usually distinguished by a large Є (epsilon), which is 5 in Greek. 


Justinian, 527-565.
5-nummia. 19 mm. 4.42 grams.
Obverse: DN IVSTINI-ANVS PP AVG
Large Є.  Δ to right (for the 4th officina).

This one is unusually nice--larger than most and with a legible legend and lovely patina.

Sear 170

 

 

Not many 5-nummia pieces use Roman numerals, but some do.

Tiberius II, 578-582
15 mm. 1.87 grams.
5-nummia.
Profile bust right
A u-like "V" for "5".

Sear 438. Constantinople.

 

The 1-nummis piece was very small and seldom issued after Anastasius (491-518). Most are from Carthage after it was recovered from the Vandals by Justinian (527-568).

Justinian, 527-565, struck c. 547-552.
1-nummis. 9 mm. 1.23 grams.
Chi-Rho (abbreviating CHRistus)
Minted at Carthage after Justinian recovered North Africa from the Vandals. Other mints did not issue this  denomination. Sear 283.


 


Folles Continue but Omit the "M": In the ninth century folles begin to omit the M and have four lines of lettering instead. The last "K" and "I" pieces were struck under Constantine V (741-775) and the last coins with "M" under Michael II (820-829). 

Theophilus, 829-842.
28 mm. 8.19 grams. Follis. 
Emperor standing facing in elaborate robes
holding standard in his right hand and a globus cruciger with his left hand
The reverse spells out "Theophilus, emperor, may you conquer"
+ΘЄΟ
FILЄ AVS
OVSTЄ SV
ҺICAS

Sear 1667.

 

 

    (For many more copper coins of this and other time periods, see the page on Emperors on copper coins.) 

At the end of the 10th century (in 970, under John I) folles became "anonymous" because they omitted the name of the emperor and replaced his portrait with a facing bust of Christ or Mary. 

An anonymous follis, minted during the reign of Basil II & Constantine VIII, 976-1028, and likely later as well. This type is known as "Class A2."  The design lasted for over 50 years with the early ones being larger and the later ones smaller.
   Examples range from 35 mm down to 25 mm.
This one is larger than most at 32-30 mm and 12.75 grams.
Sear 1813, called "Class A2."

Obverse: Facing bust of Christ holding the gospels. 
EMMA-NOVAHΛ around (Emmanuel), crosses on the gospels and the in the quadrants of the nimbus (halo).
Reverse:  A four-line legend:
+IhSUS       (Jesus)
XRISTUS   (Christ)
bASILЄU    (King of
bASILЄ       (kings) 

 

A note for collectors:  Anonymous folles are fun to collect. Reasons for collecting them include
   They have a picture of Christ or Mary.
   Most are common and easily available.
   Class A2 (like the one above) comes with over 60 varieties of ornamention. 
   Most types can be found with interesting overstrikes. 
   Examples almost as nice as they come can be found inexpensively on eBay.  

For many more details about anonymous folles, see my page "Byzantine "anonymous folles" of the 10th-11th centuries."

Other Denominations. Many of the other denominations are illustrated on page 2 of this introduction. Most odd denominations are issued only at one mint and only for a short period of time. Alexandria (in Egypt) has 6-nummia, 12-nummia and even 33-nummia coins. Thessalonica has 2, 3, 4, 8, and 16-nummia coins. Cherson minted a few coins in multiples of 5-nummia, so their "8" ("H" in Greek) piece is the usual 40-nummia denomination (8x5 = 40) and their "4" (Δ in Greek) is the usual 20-nummia denomination. All of these are unusual, interesting, and desirable. They are discussed further on page 2.
 


The Later Empire.  Alexius I (1081-1118) reformed the coins in 1092, introducing new denominations including concave "cup-shaped" coins in gold, silver, and billon. The reason for the cup shape has eluded scholars for centuries. (There are many scholarly articles on it. Here is a link to a recent one by Jonathan Jarrett.) Also, the proper name for this denomination has only recently been determined. Now they are called "trachy." "Trachy" refers to the cup-shape and originally meant "rough" or "uneven." The base-metal coins are "billon aspron trachy." "Billon" is a modern term for the alloy which is mostly copper and has a small, but significant, amount of silver. "Aspron" is the Byzantine term for low-silver coins. There are also trachy coins minted in gold, electrum (a gold and silver alloy), and silver. The shape used to be called "scyphate," a word which is still used but now known to be not the right one. 

Here are four trachy coins pictured at an angle to show their curvature.


The flans are not round.  Most are very poorly struck. Most have double strike slurring the design or even showing it twice with a die shift. Most have enough wear on the obverse (the convex part) to obscure its details, while the reverse is protected from wear by being inside the cup and maintains its original clarity, which is nevertheless usually far from clear. 

The coins in the photo are thin, 25-29 mm, and 4-5 mm deep.

The next example is exceptional for quality.
 

 

 


Manuel I, Comnenus, 1143-1180
29 mm. 5.34 grams.
Virgin enthroned, facing, MP ΘV (which abbreviates "Mother of God")
Manuel standing, holding labarum and globus cruciger.

Sear 1965.

Scholars have shown that these were struck at least twice, rocking the die to impress the left half and right half in two blows. Usually the two strikes do not line up correctly and the middle figure will show up twice, slightly alongside itself. Therefore, a coin of this clarity of design, especially on the obverse, is rare and worth a substantial premium.
 

Most coins of this shape show Christ or the Virgin on the obverse and the emperor or two emperors on the reverse. The name of the emperor is in tiny letters on the reverse which are almost never well struck. On the above coin you can make out some lettering on the left and "ΔЄ" at 1:00, but the full "MANϒHΛ  ΔЄCΠOTHC" (Manuel, Despot), which should be there, is far from clear, and this is a high-quality example.  On many example no letters at all will be legible. Then the design and reference works are used to identify the type. 

Note for Collectors. Coins of this odd shape are common. Typical examples are inexpensive because the supply is large and the demand small. Because of their shape they are awkward for collectors to store. They are rarely attractive. And those which are regarded as "attractive" are really just attractive "for type." However, at least they do connect to interesting history. Any example with full details on the obverse head and a good strike without slurred details is highly unusual and will command a large premium. 

By the way, at the same time gold trachy were issued. The fineness is reduced from the pure gold of the early empire.

Michael VII, 1071-1078.
"Electrum histamenon nomisma." 28 mm. 4.24 grams.
(Electrum is the name for a gold and silver alloy.)
Bust of Christ facing.
Bust of Michael facing holding labarum and globus cruciger.

Sear 1868.


These coins, like the billon trachy, were usually struck twice. Often, the dies shifted a bit between strikes, On this example there is doubling on the right side (as we view it) of Christ's head. A piece without such blurring is worth a premium. 

 

 

Also, these are fairly thin and were easy to "clip" or "shave" in antiquity to remove valuable gold and hope to pass the coin as full value anyway. This example looks clipped from 11:00 to 1:30 on the obverse (4:30 to 6:00 on the reverse). The fact the weight is slightly light weight confirms it has been clipped. 

These cup-shaped gold coins are among the least expensive gold coins of the ancient world. They still cost hundreds of dollars, but not many hundreds.
 

Late Copper Coins.  When Alexius I reformed the coinage and introduced cup-shaped denominations, he also introduced a small flat copper "tetarteron" and its half.


Alexius I, 1092-1118.
20-18 mm. 3.71 grams. Tetarteron.
Bust of the emperor facing, holding long cross in left and globus cruciger in right.
Jeweled square cross on steps, with C Φ ΑΛ Δ in its quadrants. The "A" in "ΑΛ" (For "Alexius") omits its crossbar so the pair look like an "M". The "Δ" is for "Despot" which means emperor.  The C (a lunate S) and Φ abbreviate "Stavre phylatte", "Cross, protect".

Sear 1931


 

The Fourth Crusade in 1204. The story of the Fourth Crusade is fascinating and sad. It was called in order to reconquer Jerusalem from the Moslems for Christians, but the Latin crusaders ran out of funds and detoured to conquer the rich Orthodox Christian Constantinople instead. They failed to get anywhere near Jerusalem. The crusaders and their descendants held Constantinople (and Thessalonica for a while), but not the rest of the Byzantine empire, from 1204 to 1261. They issued coins so much like the contemporary Byzantine coins that they are hard to distinguish. They are called "Latin imitative" coins. Meanwhile, Byzantine rulers set themselves up in nearby regions and created what we call "The Empire of Nicaea," "The Empire of Thessalonica," and "The Despotate of Epirus," and each issued its own similar coins. It took scholars decades of study to sort out which coins are which.


Latin rulers of Constantinople, 1204-1261
24-17 mm. 2.10 grams. 
Bust of Christ
Archangel Michael, winged, with X to right.

Sear 2036


 

  

 

 


The Restored Empire.  When Constantinople was retaken and the Byzantine empire restored under Michael VIII in 1261, the denominations were retained but the flans and strikes were, if possible, even worse. It takes a hardy soul to want to collect these wretched examples of currency.


Michael VIII, 1261-1282.
25-21 mm. 2.60 grams. Slightly cup-shaped.
St. Demetrius standing.
Michael standing left being crowed by the Virgin.

Sear 2265.

The example, terrible as it is, is better than average. 

 

 

Coins of the restored empire are far more common than they used to be 30 years ago when Sear wrote his book. Many late Byzantine coins that were rare or very rare in the west circulated in regions that were behind the Iron Curtain until it fell in the 1990s. Then many late Byzantine coins were released to the market and some types have even become common. Therefore the valuations in Sear (published in 1987) of late Byzantine coins are sometimes much too high. On the other hand, there are very many types, unlike earlier centuries when an emperor would have only a few copper types for his whole reign. So, if you want a particular type it might take a very long time to find one. But, when you do, you will be competing with few other collectors. 
 

The Last Emperors Minted Silver. Coins of the very last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, 1448-1453, were long expected from ancient written sources but the first did not appear on the market until 1974. Now only about 100 are known, all very expensive. However, silver coins of the immediately previous emperors are not so rare.

John VIII, 1423-1448. The second-last emperor.
24-22 mm. 6.73 grams. A "stavraton" = 1/2 hyperpyron.
Bust of Christ facing
Bust of emperor facing (His name would be in the flat region at 2:00).

Sear 2564.

This coin is quite crude with large areas of weakness in the strike. But, in the empire's final desperate straights the point was not to be artistic; it was to turn precious silver into coin.

This flatness is typical for these coins. One with John's name legible would command a premium.

 


Mints.  Constantinople was the main Byzantine mint from the beginning all the way to the end of the empire. There were many other mints that issued coins for limited time periods. For example, coins of Nicomedia and Cyzicus are common from the sixth to eighth centuries even though both cities are close to Constantinople. (Nicomedia is 60 miles east and Cyzicus 80 miles southwest of Constantinope, both on the Asian side.) Most maps of Byzantine mints, including the wikipedia map under "Byzantine mints" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_mints
are correct but misleading, because many mints existed only for short periods of time and contributed almost nothing to Byzantine coinage.

The mints illustrated on this page include Constantinople, Nicomedia, Cyzicus, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Carthage in North Africa, Syracuse in Sicily, and Cherson in Crimea. Other mints are less likely to be encountered [and to be mentioned on a page not yet writen].  

 


Justinian, 527-565
29 mm. 16.20 grams. Follis.

NIKM for Nicomedia in exergue. Struck 527-538. 

Sear 198.

 

 


Phocas, 602-610.
29-28 mm. 11.88 grams. Follis
Phocas and empress Leontia. 
KYZ, the mintmark of Cyzicus, in exergue.
Unusually, the m is cursive, with ANNO (for "year") down the left and "I" for year 1 on the right.

Sear 664. 




  

 

Antioch. Antioch, in Syria near the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, was one of the largest cities of the empire and a major mint until 637 when it was conquered by the Arabs. 
 

Justin I, 518-527.
32-29 mm. 16.23 grams. Follis.
ANTX for Antioch, in exergue.

Sear 103. 

At the end of the reign of Justin Antioch experienced a massive earthquake which destroyed most of the city and reportedly killed 250,000 people. The tragic story of subsequent events and their impact on the coinage of Antioch is told on my page here

 

 

Above the obverse head on this particular coin is a cross, which is unusual. A friend of mine spent many years trying to discover the reason some coins had it but most don't. He never did find the reason. However, along the way he made the world's finest collection of cross-above-head Byzantine coins. Some were previously unknown varieties which have been passed along to major numismatic museums. You can see his collection here. (Most people would not have the idea that this could be a collecting theme, but it proves that you don't have to follow the crowd. Collect whatever you like.)
 

Other Significant Mints.  Alexandria in Egypt was a Byzantine mint until it was conquered by the Arabs. For some unknown reason it employed denominations not used elsewhere, including "6", "12", and even "33." The "6"is scarce and the "33" rare, but the "12" denomination is common.


Heraclius, 610-641.
17 mm. 5.61 grams. This type is slightly thicker than other Byzantine coins.
Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine.


I is 10 and B is 2 in Greek, for a total of 12. There is a cross between them. 
The exergue has AΛЄΞ for Alexandria.

Sear 853.


There are, of course, scholarly theories about why Alexandria used such odd denominations, but a clear and convincing reason has not emerged.

Carthage. North Africa, including Carthage, was lost to the Byzantine empire when it was conquered by the Vandals in 439. Justinian made a point of recovering  it and from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths. Carthage was returned to the empire in 533/4 and its coins are scarce. It was lost for good to the Arabs in 698. Rome was returned to the empire c. 535 but lost again to the Lombards is 568 and its coins are rare.


Justinian, 527-565.
41-38 mm. 20.17 grams. Follis.
Very large.
Large M (for 40). ANNO XIII (year 13).
SO below the M (Sole Officina?)
KAR (the K is weak) in exergue.

Sear 260.

The coin reform which began in year 12 at Constantinople reached Carthage in year 13.

 

 

 Unlike other mints at this time, Carthage struck a 1-nummis piece.

Justinian, 527-565.
9 mm. 0.55 grams. 1-nummis.
facing bust
Reverse enlarged: Cross-rho with alpha (A) and omega (ω) hanging from the ends. 
Sear 342


 

 

 

Syracuse. When Italy was reconquered for the empire, Syracuse, on the southeast coast of Sicily, became a Roman mint. Under Heraclius it overstruck many earlier coins with small dies depicting Heraclius on the obverse and SCL for Sicily on the reverse.

Heraclius, 610-641, overstruck at Syracuse on a follis of Justinian from before the reform of Justinian in 538. (So, the coin was at least 72 years old when it was restruck.)
His bust with a monogram for Heraclius to the right.
SCL with a bar above, abbreviating Sicily.
34-31 mm. 15.70 grams (which is the size of the undertype)

Sear 882 over Sear 161.

Syracuse also struck coins with full-flan dies, but almost all are overstruck on previous coins, as opposed to struck on newly-prepared blank flans. 

 

 

Cherson. Cherson is a city in Crimea, a peninsula into the north of the Black Sea.  It was a distant outpost in a region that provided wheat to Constantinople. Its coinage was often quite different from elsewhere. At about the time of Maurice (582-602) it issued the follis that usually had an M for 40 with an H for 8, reckoning in units of 5. (8x5 = 40.)


An anonymous follis of Cherson, with legend
XEP - CONOC   ("of Cherson")
33 mm. 14.69 grams. Follis.
Two standing figures
One standing figure and a large H to the right.

All coins from Cherson used to be rare in the west, but are more common now that Ukraine and Russia have opened up. This type used to be attributed to Maurice because there is a nearly-identical type with his name, but many dealers have adopted the attribution of Anokhin, a Russian scholar who attributed this type to Justin II (565-578).  I have read Anokin's arguments (in translation) and find them far from convincing. I prefer to retain its attribution to the time of Maurice.

 

Although coins of Cherson are scarce or rare, they are available and could form a collection. See my website on coins of Byzantine Cherson here. Once again, you can decide to collect anything you like, even if no one else would think of it.

There are other mints discussed on page 2 and a page on rarer mints.

 


Overstrikes.  Many Byzantine copper coins are not struck on newly prepared blank flans, rather they are stuck on older coins. Mint work was often so sloppy that the undertype is often not fully erased and still has enough visible to be identified. Then we can infer that the undertype was issued before the overtype. If the relative chronology of types is uncertain, overstrikes can sometimes be used to put them in order. This is how the "anonymous folles" were put in order.

The obverse of this type of Constantine X (1059-1067) has a standing figure of Christ. The poor strike did not obliterate the 3-line legend of the undertype (see lettering across the field slanted from 8:30 to 2:00), which can be identified as a Class D anonymous follis. The date of the Class D follis is not determined by the reign of an emperor because no emperor is named on "anonymous folles." But we can use this overstrike to determine that Class D was struck at the latest at the time of Constantine X. 


31-26 mm. 8.80 grams.
Sear 1853 over Sear 1836.

 

 

 

Most collectors want well-struck examples of the types. But Byzantine collectors can enjoy and learn from overstrikes (which otherwise look pretty bad) if they undertype is identifiable. Overstruck coins are common and interesting.   

 


Terms. Glossary. Here are a few terms used in the descriptions of Byzantine coins.
 

Billon, a term for an alloy which is primarily base metal (copper, maybe with some lead) and which has a small, but significant, amount of silver, usually not enough silver to make it look silvery, but enough to affect the metal value becaue silver worth 100 times as much as copper by weight.

Chlamys, full-length purple imperial cloak that was the most important indication of the right to rule, as on Michael II (820-829) on the left on this coin (Sear 1642, 31-28 mm. 7.96 grams) with Theophilus (from 821) wearing loros on the right.

Electrum, the term for a mixture of gold and silver where there is enough silver that it is evident it is not pure gold. Byzantine gold coins were nearly pure gold for hundreds of years, but late in the 11th century the gold becomes "pale" from the large amount of silver in the alloy. 

 

 



Exergue = the part of the reverse at the bottom below the horizontal line. It is often the location of a mintmark. This coin of Maurice (582-602) at Cyzicus has "KYZ" in exergue. (30 mm. 12.68 grams. Sear 518. Year GII = 8, 589/590. Cyzicus had some remarkably poor portraits.)

 

 

Loros (a type of clothing. See the image above under Chlamys.)



Nimbus, nimbate  = halo, with halo. The circle around the head of Christ is sometimes divided by three bands with some small decoration in each. On this "Class B" anonymous follis of c.1028-1042 the decoration is a single dot. (30-27 mm. 11.03 grams. Sear 1813.)

 

 



Globus cruciger = a globe with a cross on it. It fits in the hand. This half-follis of Theophius (829-842) has a globus cruciger in his left hand (on our right) and a labarum in his right hand. (23-22 mm. 3.89 grams. Sear 1668.)

Labarum = a long staff with a banner at the top, often with a Christian symbol. 

 

 

 



Mappa = a roll of cloth thrown down to begin the games. This example shows a mappa in the emperor's right hand and an eagle-tipped scepter in his left. (Tiberius II, 578-582. Year 5. 36-34 mm. 17.43 grams. A big coin. Sear 430.)

 

 



Patriarchal cross = a cross with two crossbars.
The reverse of this anonymous follis of "Class H" (1071-1078) has a patriarchal cross. (23 mm. 4.45 grams. Sear 1880)

 

 

 

 


 

Trachy = a (slightly) cup-shaped coin (see above).
 
 

Continue with page 2 on "Byzantine-Coin Letters, Numerals, Denominations, and Dates"

If you want to read more, there are many sites on the web. There are two good stories about Byzantine coinage that are linked to above. If you didn't skip to them then you might read them now.

Here is the story of an overstrike of Constantine VII on Romanus I

Here is the story of the earthquakes at Antioch and its coins of Justinian

Here is a page on "Byzantine 'anonymous folles' of the 10th and 11th centuries."  

Go to the page on reference works on Byzantine coins


Return to the top of this page
 

Go to the Table of Contents of this whole educational site.