The Coin Reform of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, 1081-1118.
Alexius I is most famous for being the Byzantine emperor during the First Crusade which began in 1096. Also, he was the first emperor of the long and largely successful Comnenid dynasty. Numismatically, he is important for reforming the Byzantine coinage in 1092. All the old denominations in gold, silver, and copper were no longer issued and new denominations were created.
Upper right: The new "hyperpyron" gold denomination issued by Alexius I. This example is 31 mm, 4.34 grams, slightly cup-shaped, and, like most examples, is somewhat wrinkly. The denomination is too thin and easily bent.
The obverse has Christ seated facing and the reverse has Alexius standing facing, crowned by the hand of God, with exaggerated jewels on his elaborate robe. Sear 1913. (The essential reference is David Sear's Byzantine Coins and their Values, second edition.) For more details, including the legends, see below.
This page is part of a larger site, "Introduction to Byzantine Coins." You may wish to begin there.
Contents of this page:
• Post- and pre-reform gold coins
• Table outlining the coin reform
• Pre- and post-reform copper coins of Alexius
• Table of emperors before the reform--Constantine X (1057-1067) to Alexius I (1081-1118).
• Copper coins of emperors before the reform
• More about gold coins
All images are to scale.
Byzantine copper coins are very collectable and inexpensive. You may skip down to the copper coins of Alexius I and earlier emperors.
|The previous histamenon||The new hyperpyron|
|less gold, 7-10 carats||more gold, 20 1/2 carats|
|smaller diameter, c. 28 mm||broader "spread fabric" c. 31 mm|
|thicker and stronger||thinner|
|less likely to be bent||easily bent or wrinkled|
|a cup-shaped "trachy"||still cup-shaped, but less so|
Pre-reform gold: To the right is a pre-reform lower-quality gold "histamenon" of Emperor Romanus IV, Diogenes (1068-1071. Sear 1861). Romanus IV is most famous for losing the disastrous Battle of Manzikert in 1071. It greatly weakened the empire by ceding to the Seljuq Turks the east and the central plateau of modern Turkey.
This example is 28-24 mm and 4.28 grams. Its paler color shows its lower gold content--maybe 10 carats. The older cup-shaped type shown here is not so thin and rarely wrinkled, but it is often clipped to harvest gold from the rim. Collectors should pay attention to the diameter and weight. Coins lighter than this one are probably clipped.
Although issued by Romanus IV, the obverse shows figures of the three young sons of the previous emperor Constantine X (1059-1067) and his wife Eudocia. It confirms their sons were still the designated heirs. The obverse legend abbreviates their names left-to-right, Constantius, Michael (the oldest, who became Michael VII) and Androncius. After the death of her husband and a short sole reign as regent, Eudocia married Romanus IV, a prominent general. The reverse has Christ in the middle crowning Romanus on the left and Eudocia on the right.
|Before the reform||After the reform|
"Histamenon" of 28 mm and 7 carat gold (cup-shaped) [example above]
"Electrum tetarternon nomisma" (small, thick, and flat) [no example]
"Hyperpyron" of 31 mm and 20 1/2 carat gold (cup-shaped) [example above] The word means "highly refined" (literally, "above fire") which refers to the quality of gold.
"Electrum aspron trachy" c. 6 carats fine (cup-shaped) = 1/3 hyperpyron. [no example]
|Silver: (all rare) [no examples]
2/3 miliaresion (flat)
1/3 miliaresion (flat)
|No denomination is close to pure silver.
The cup-shaped "billon aspron trachy" is of very base silver and sometimes shows some silver [example below], but usually looks like copper
|Copper (all flat)
Anonymous folles of Classes J and K [examples below]
Named folles [examples below]
"Tetarteron" of 18-22 mm.* [examples below]
"Half-tetarteron" of c. 16 mm.
*DOC distinguished the Constantinople issues and the Thessalonica issues of tetartera because of the small silver content in the Constantinople issues. Papadopoulou notes they had different circulation patterns. It is rare to find a tetarteron with any evidence of silver remaining, but some show some silver on the surface. The hyperpyron and the electrum aspron trachy also had different circulation patterns. The electrum aspron trachy was called a "trikephalon" (three-header) at the time because its initial type had one figure on one side and two on the other for a total of three, as opposed to the hyperpyron which had only two.
Unfortunately, the term "tetarteron" refers to very different Byzantine denominations. The word itself means "a fourth part." Earlier the term "tetarteron" was used for a gold piece (initiated under Nicephorus II, 963-969) which was very much like a solidus, but reduced in weight by one-quarter of a tremissis. So, it had 11/12 the gold of a solidus. (Yes, that seems odd.) With debasement it morphed into a silver coin. With the reform the term "tetarteron" switched meaning to apply to the new small base-metal coin (perhaps one quarter of a follis?) We use it for both the no-silver and low-silver issues, which are difficult to distinguish. The one thing that remains constant about coins called tetartera is their flat shape. To avoid the inevitable confusion, the gold coin should be called a "tetrarteron nomisma" leaving the term "tetarteron" to the small post-reform copper denomination.
Coins with the "cup shape" are now called "trachy." Some authors call them "concave." They used to be called "scyphate" but that has been shown to be a misunderstanding of the term.
Pre-reform copper of Alexius. Alexius issued both "anonymous" and "named" pre-reform copper types. All are flat. Two types of anonymous folles, Classes J and K, are attributed to Alexius.
Class J is distinguished by the large crescent below the cross on the reverse.
This piece: 24-22 mm. 7.09 grams.
Bust of Christ facing.
Cross with large pellets at ends, crescent below.
Sear 1900, overstruck on Sear 1888 of Nicephorus III (1078-1081).
Class K is distinguished by the borders of large pellets.
This piece: 25-22 mm. 6.92 grams.
Bust of Christ facing, IC XC either side, inside a rim of large pellets.
3/4-length figure of Mary standing, orans, facing, inside rim of large pellets.
Alexius named pre-reform folles.
This piece: 25-23 mm. 5.82 grams.
NI KA in the arms of a square cross with bars above indicating abbreviations
CЄP CVN Savior, assist
ЄPΓЄI BA em/peror
CILЄI AΛ Al/exius
These are usually close to illegible. The letters are not well-formed.
The next pre-reform follis type of Alexius is much scarcer.
This piece: 25-23 mm. 3.68 grams.
Facing bust of the Virgin Mary, MP ΘV either side
holding medallion of Christ
Alexius standing holding labarum and globus cruciger
AΛЄ ... for Alexius, beginning at 7:30.
The new post-reform low-denomination coins. Prior to the reform the low-denomination coins were flat and only the electrum coins and the miliaresion were cup-shaped. Alexius added in a cup-shaped "billon aspron trachy" with a small amount of silver in its alloy, valued at 1/48 of a hyperpyron.
This example: 26-24 mm and 4.28 grams. Unusually silvery.
Christ enthroned facing. Half-length figure of Alexius facing. Sear 1918.
Most coins of this denomination look like copper. Alexius, and only Alexius, has some that still look silvery.
A new copper "tetarteron". The previous follis was a larger coin of c. 24 mm and c. 6 grams. It was replaced by the smaller tetarteron.
Alexius I, 1081-1118. Tetrarteron.
This piece: 18 mm. 3.93 grams.
Half-length bust of Christ facing, IC XC on either side. The reverse has a half-length bust of Alexius facing. AΛЄ beginning "Alexius" to his left.
Prior to the reform each emperor issued only one or two types of copper coins, In contrast, the new tetarteron denomination comes with numerous types and the new half-terarteron is distinguishable from them only by being smaller.
|Dates||Relationship to the previous emperor||Gold coins||Silver||Copper coins
|Constantine X and
his wife Eudocia
|1059-1067||None. He was a relative of the patriarch who was
selected when the populace overthrew Isaac I
because of his ill-treatment of the patriarch.
|Common||Rare||Classes E & F
Sear 1853 & 1854
|Eudocia||May-Dec 1067||Wife. When Constantine X died she became
regent for their son Michael [later Michael VII].
|Rare (They do not have her portrait)||none||none (Her standing figure is on the common Sear 1853)|
|Romanus IV||1068-1071||General. He married Eudocia because foreign attacks required a general.||Common||Rare||Class G
|Michael VII||1071-1078||Eldest son of Constantine X and Eudocia.
Still too young and under the influence of his advior Psellus.
|Nicephorus III||1078-1081||General who successfully rebelled and became emperor.||Common||Rare||Class I
Nicephorus Bryennius &
Oct. 1077 - May 1078
|Generals who rebelled with only regional success.||None||
|Bryennius: Rare, but some on the market recently. Sear 1980.
Basilacius: Very rare, but some on the market recently.
|Alexius I||1081-1118||General of Nicephorus III. Alexius put down the two revolts mentioned above, but joined a third and became emperor.||Common||Rare||Classes J and K
Pre-reform: Sear 1909, 1911
Post reform: several types
About copper. The classes of anonymous folles mentioned in the rightmost column are discussed on their own page. In this time period each emperor before Alexius had only one or two copper types with his name. They are illustrated next.
Constantine X, Ducas (1059-1067) came to the throne when Isaac I was deposed by the populace angry at his religious policies. His wife was Eudocia and his copper coins depicting him and his wife are common (although rarely in excellent condition).
Constantine X, Ducas (1059-1067). One of only two copper types. Sear 1853.
This piece: 29-28 mm. 10.58 grams.
Christ standing, +ЄMMA-NOVHA around "God is with us"
Constantine X and Eudocia standing
Unusually, the reverse legend begins at 2:00:
+KωN T AK - EVΔK AVT
KωN[Σ]Τ[ΑΝΤΙΝΟΣ O] Δ[ΟY]Κ[ΑΣ] [ЄΥΔ[Ο]Κ[ΙΑ] ΑYΓ[ΟΥΣΤΟΙ] Constantine (the) Doukas, Eudocia, Augusti [or, emperors]
Constantine X, Ducas (1059-1067). His other named copper type. Sear 1854.
This example: 27-25 mm. 8.82 grams.
Bust of Christ facing.
Half-length figure of Constantine facing, holding labarum
KωN RACIΛVCOΔOK ("R" is "B" beginning "Basileus" for "emperor," "O" is for "the", and "ΔOK" is for Ducas, his family name.
When Constantine died in 1067 the empire was under attack from all sides. He and Eudocia had three sons, but even the oldest was not old enough to be emperor alone. Eudocia became both sole empress and regent for seven months. She was pressed into marrying the general Romanus IV who acknowledged her sons as heirs. The three sons are on the obverse of the gold histamenon of Romanus IV above.
Romanus IV (1068-1071). His only named follis type.
This example, 31-29 mm (larger than usual). 5.32 grams.
Bust of Christ facing
NI KA in small letters either side of the head
The reverse has a square cross with
P Δ (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma)). ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ "O Cross, Protect
Romanus Despot/emperor" RΩMANΩ ΔЄCΠOTH
Anonymous folles of Class G are attributed to Romanus IV.
When Romanus IV lost the Battle of Manzikert he was captured by the Seljuq sultan Arp Arslan, who, after obtaining significant concessions, released Romanus to go home. It was a master stroke, splitting the Byzantines into opposing camps. The remains of the army had promoted Michael VII, Ducas--the proper heir, the son of Constantine X we saw on the obverse of the coin of Romanus IV--to emperor not long after the battle. When Romanus was unexpectedly released and returned to Constantinople he found it already had a new emperor. Constantinople was in possession of the Ducas family of Constantine X and his young son Michael VII (who was really under the control of his advisor Psellus who wrote the extant book Fourteen Byzantine Rulers). Romanus lost his bid to reclaim the throne, was blinded, and sent to a monastary in 1078.
Michael VII, Ducas (1071-1078). His only named follis type. Sear 1878.
This example. 25 mm. 9.63 grams (thicker and heavier than typical)
Bust of Christ facing, IC XC either side
Large stars in each field
Facing bust of Michael VII, holding labarum and globus cruciger.
Anonymous folles of Class H are attributed to Michael VII.
Nicephorus III (1078-1081) successfully rebelled against Michael VII who retired to a monastary. Two revolts against Nicephorus were put down by his general Alexius Comnenus, but when Alexius' brother in law revolted Alexius marched with him to Constantinople and Nicephorus wisely retired to a monastary and Alexius took the throne as the first of the long and successful Comnenid dynasty.
Nicephrous III, Botaniates (1078-1081). His only named follis type.
This example: 23-22 mm. 5.55 grams.
3/4 length figure of Christ, IC XC either side, stars in fields
C Φ (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma).) ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ "O Cross, Protect"
N Δ "Nicephorus [III] Despot/emperor" NIKHΦωPON ΔЄCΠOTH
Anonymous folles of Class I are attributed to Nicephorus III.
Nicephorus III was followed by Alexius I whose copper coins were discussed above.
History of Byzantine gold coins. The quality of the gold in Byzantine "gold" coins declined from nearly pure (24 carats) to about 7 carats fine in the 50 years prior the reform of Alexius. Here is a simplified history of the gold coinage up to the reform.
Next are gold coins with more details about their types.
Romanus IV (1068-1071) histamenon. [Also illustrated above]
28-24 mm and 4.28 grams.
The obverse legend abbreviates their names, KωN at 8:00 for Constantius, MX at 1:00 for Michael (later Michael VII) ) and ANΔ at 3:30 for Androncius (not the later emperor of that name).
The reverse shows Christ in the middle crowning Romanus on the left and Eudocia on the right. The legend is
PωMAN ЄVΔKIA for Romanus and Eudocia.
Michael VII (1071-1078) histamenon.
28 mm. 4.24 grams. Slightly clipped as can be seen 11:00-1:30 on the obverse.
Bust of Christ facing. IS XC either side. No legend.
Michael VII facing, holding labarum and globus cruciger.
"Michael, Emperor, Despot"
He was a minor when he became emperor. The coin portrait makes him look older than he was.
Alexius I (1078-1118) hyperpyron. [Also illustrated above]
This example: 31 mm. 4.34 grams.
Christ seated facing, holding gospels in his left and right hand raised in benediction.
Alexius I standing (vertically exaggerated) with elaborate imperial robes with greatly exaggerated jewels. He holds labarum and globus cruciger.
Legend either side:
"Alexius, Despot, Komnenus"
References: (In order of importance to this topic)
Byzantine Coins and their Values, second edition, 1987, by David Sear.
Catalogue of the Byzantine coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, volumes 3 (1973) and 4 (1999). Alexius I is in volume 4, part 1, pages 181-243, with plates I-VII in volume 4, part 2. Constantine X through Nicephorus III are in volume 3, part 2, which includes both text and plates.
Byzantine Coins, by Philip Grierson. 1982. Alexius I is discussed on pages 211-228 with images on plates 59-62.
Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, by Michael Psellus (1018-1096) translated by K.R.A. Sewter, in the Penguin Classics series. 1966. A primary ancient source.
A Short History of Byzantium, by John Julius Norwich. 1997. A very entertaining 431-page condensation of his three-volume series on Byzantium. I recommend this shorter version for beginners and the longer version if you become more interested. Unlike many other history books on the Byzantine empire, this one focuses on stories about the emperors, with less on administration, the Church, organization of the army, and structure of the government. In other words, it is just what coin collectors want!
Hendy, Michael. Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire, 1081-1261. 1969. 453 pages, 51 plates, and two large pull-out maps. Pages 1-101 cover the monetary crisis through the reform coins of Alexius I.
Papadopoulou, Pagona. "The big problem of small change in the Byzantine world (12th-13th centuries)." The First International Byzantine Studies Symposium, Proceedings. 2010.
Parsons, Kevin. 2022. Manuscript under review.
After I posted about Alexius to CoinTalk, there were several interesting replies.
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