Byzantine-coin legends. How to read Byzantine coins.
This page is intended to help readers understand Byzantine coin legends. The essential reference is, Byzantine Coins and Their Values, second edition, by David Sear (Cited as "Sear" below). It has many legends translated on pages 33 and 34. Nevertheless, there are other legends that collectors would like to have expanded and translated and this page can help.
Contents: A sampler of legends. Numbers. Individual letters. Abbreviations and words. Emperor's names. Mints. Monograms. Examples in order of Sear number. References and acknowledgements.
(For an introduction to Byzantine coins, see: http://augustuscoins.com/ed/Byz/ )
Comments. English uses spaces to separate words--Byzantine-coin legends do not. Wordsruntogether. The spaces used below to separate words are not on the coins.
Byzantines identified themselves as Romans and, although legends use Greek, many Latin words and letters continue to be used, even on coins with Greek letters.
Obverse legends usually begin at 7:30 (the lower left) and read clockwise.
This page has many links to coins that illustrate the legends. If you click on a link, use "back" to return to where you were.
Almost all legends on copper coins are addressed. Silver and gold coins may have unusual legends not addressed here.
A Sampler. Next are four examples from different time periods: Early (AD 491-7th C.), Middle (8th-10th C.), Anonymous (AD 970-1090), and Late (AD 1059-1453).
A Sampler: The early period with denominations M, K, I, Є, etc. in Greek on the reverse.
Sear 372: Emperor Justin II with his wife Sophia (565-578). 30 mm. 12.35 grams. Common.
The obverse legend gives the emperor's name and titles, clockwise from 7:30:
DN IVSTIN-VS PP AV
DN = Dominus Noster ("Our Lord" in Latin.
IVSTINVS = Justin.
Greek and Roman have no "J". They used "I". Also, names of emperors in Latin usually end in "VS" which is commonly omitted in English. So, emperor Justin II (565-578) has the name "IVSTINVS" on coins. If an emperor has a numeral after his modern name, such as "II", the numeral is never on Byzantine coins. You have to figure out which "Justin" it is some other way.
PP = Perpetuus = perpetual, forever
AV = Augustus = emperor
Reverse: The large M gives the denomination M = 40 (nummi), in Greek. To the left is ANNO (as in "annual") for "year" and to the right is the year of his reign. 6+1 = 7, the 7th year of Justin II. (That G-like symbol is for "6"). In the exergue (at the bottom, below the horizontal line, is "KYZ" for Kyzikos = Cyzicus, the mint (not far from Constantinople, but on the Asian side).
Below the middle of the M is a Greek "A" (Alpha, for "1", identifying the coin as from the first officina [first workshop of the mint]). Note how the crossbar is not a horizontal dash, rather more v-like: . Similar coins may have officina number "B" (Beta) for "2", "Γ" (Gamma) for "3", "Δ" (Delta) for "4" or "Є" (Epsilon) for "5".
Sampler, continued: The middle period. Obverse legends begin with the emperor's name without "DN" and many reverses consist entirely of legends.
Sear 1729. Leo VI, "The Wise" 886-912. 27 mm. 7.96 grams. Very common.
Obverse, clockwise from 8:00:
+LЄOҺ bAS-ILЄVS ROM'
Leo, emperor of the Romans [Byzantines]
Reverse in four lines:
ЄҺ ΘЄO BA "by the grace of God" ["in God']
SILЄVS R emperor of the Romans [Byzantines]
OMЄOҺ (the "Һ" is an "N")
Numbers and Numerals. Byzantine coins have letters and numerals in both Latin and Greek. Often on a single coin the denomination is given by a Greek numeral and the date is given in Roman numerals (above, Sear 372). Latin letters and Roman numerals cause few problems. Here we discuss the English equivalents of numerals and letters.
Roman numerals: XXXX = 40, XX = 20, X = 10, V = 5, I = 1. Also, in dates, ɥ = (with a tail on the lower right, Sear 428 and Sear 430) is also V = 5. S = ς (which looks more like a G) = = 6. So 7 can be "GI" (Sear 372) or "VII"written as "ɥII". The numerals for dates are also discussed on page 31 of Sear.
Greek numerals: M = 40, K = 20, I = 10, Є = 5, and Δ = 4, Γ = 3, B = 2, and A = 1. Numbers 4 through 1 are rare as denominations but common as officina (mint workshop) numbers. Rarely we see Λ = 30, H = 8, and S = 6.
Greek Letters. Many letters (e.g. A, B, E, I, K, etc.) have different names in Greek but function phoenitically just like they do in English. Generally Greek letters on ancient coins are upper-case letters, so the upper-case versions are given here.
A Alpha = 1 as a numeral
B Beta = 2 as a numeral (common as an officina number, rare as a denomination. Sear 270)
Γ Gamma G (As a numeral, it is 3. Sear 430.)
Δ Delta D also, occasionally ∂ (of various shapes, sometimes almost backwards as "G") = D as in Dominus Noster
(As a numeral, Δ is 4. Sear 194 and Sear 610 as a denomination. Sear 812 as an officina number)
Є Epsilon E (As a numeral, Є is 5. Sear 170)
Z Zeta Z (As in "ZOH" for our "Zoe". Sear 1758)
H Eta E (not H) (As in "ZOH" for our "Zoe". Sear 1758). As a numeral, it is 8. Sear 192, Sear 605)
Θ theta Th (On Roman coins, but not Byzantine coins, it can be "9". It can be a meaningless symbol. Sear 1642)
I Iota I (As a numeral, it is 10 in Greek (Sear 236). Do not confuse it with the Roman numeral I = 1.)
K Kappa K (As a numeral, K is 20. Sear 231) The shape “C”, often used for "S", is sometimes used in place of "K". Sear 1758)
Λ Lambda L (Rarely it is a numeral, 30. Sear 812)
M, m Mu M (Very common as the numeral 40. Sear 372 . For the m shape, Sear 430)
Һ = N (Һ is shaped like our lower-case N, n, with a taller left stroke)
Ξ Xi X
Π Pi P
P Rho R (not the English P)
S, C, Σ Sigma S (The Greek-shaped "Σ" does not appear on Byzantine coins. It is appears as "S" or a lunate "C".)
Φ Phi F (We spell "Phocas" and "Theophilus" (Sear 1642) with "Ph", but they used "F")
T Tau T Sometimes shaped .
ɣ A ligate form of OY.
X Chi Ch (not X) As in "Christus" = "Christ" (Sear 605, Sear 1825)
Ψ Phi Ps (Rarely seen)
Ω Omega O (The upper-case version. This is a letter which is used in both upper-case and lower-case shapes)
ω omega O (Now ω is used for lower case. Nevertheless, it is often seen on coins. Sear 1853)
Comments: The Greek epsilon, our E, is shaped Є.
J Greek and Latin have no "J". They used "I". For example, "Justin" is "IVSTINVS" on coins.
"A" often has its crossbar which is not horizontal, rather like a "v": . (Sear 372, with it both as a letter and as a numeral)
"K" is often rendered "C" in English, so "KωҺ" abbreviates "CONstantine." (Sear 1853)
Words and Abbreviations:
AISP The "IS" is "10+6" = "16", a denomination used only at Thesssalonica (Sear 176) (the mint also used denominations Δ = 4, Sear 194, and H = 8, Sear 192).
A P on either side of the denomination on coins of Thessalonica (Sear 176) . The meaning is uncertain. "Most probable [is], Arca Praefecturia, denoting the office responsible for coin production or provision of the metal" according to Hahn in MIBE, p. 64.
AVGOUST = Augustus = emperor (Sear 1668)
AV = AVC = AVG = Augustus (emperor)
ANNO = year (as in "annual") of the emperor's reign, the "regnal" year (Sear 372). It begins with "1" when he begins his reign. It was used beginning with year 12 of Justinian, 538/9, and ending in the eighth century. Sear lists the AD years that correspond to each regnal year.
bASILEVS "emperor" (or "king" in "king of kings")
bASILEVS ROMЄOҺ "Emperor of the Romans." "Romans" means "Byzantines." (Sear 1729) Very common in the middle period and later.
BITA, see "VITA" ("B" and "V" are phonetically similar.) (Sear 400) [B in modern Greek is pronounced like V, so this is evidence of the change having occurred by the 6th century.]
CЄ "and" Here the "C" is not an "S", rather a "K", for "KAI" ("and") as in "Constantine and Zoe" on Sear 1758.
DN or ∂N Dominus Noster ("Our lord" in Latin. On early Byzantine coins it begins many legends, starting at 7:00, immediately before the name of the emperor.) Sear 372, above.
∂ЄЧS A∂IЧTA ROMANIS "May God help the Romans" (Sear 996)
ЄҺ ΘЄO "by the grace of God" (Sear 1729). Greek for this is "ЄN ΘЄΩ", literally "in God." Common on reverses in the middle period, as in "Leo, by the grace of God, king of the Romans".
ЄC ΘЄɥ also "by the grace of God" (Sear 1595). Here the "C" is not an "S", rather a "K". ЄC ΘЄɥ = EK ΘЄOY = "from God" = "Dei Gratia" (in Latin) = "by grace of God".
ΘЄTOC bOHΘ' = ΘΕΟΤΟΣ ΒΟΗΘΕΙ, the plea, “Mother of God, give aid…”
IMPERAT "Imperator" another title meaning "Augustus" = "emperor." Sear 1693.
N M "nummi" (Sear 400)
PP = Perpetuus = perpetual, forever (Sear 372)
PERP is it, expanded (Sear 839)
X N on either side of a large "M". An "immobilized" type which blunders the previous "ANNO/year" format. (Sear 1642)
REX "king" (A title anathema to Romans and only used once on Byzantine coins. Sear 1693)
ROMЄOҺ "of the Romans [Byzantines]" (Sear 1729)
S "with" between names when there are two (Sear 1730 on a reverse, Sear 1642 on an obverse). Common in the middle period. S is sigma, the first letter of the word ΣΥΝ, which means “with”.
SV ҺICAS "may you conquer" (Sear 1668)
VITA = "life" (on coins of Justin II, only at Carthage, Sear 400) as part of an acclamation.
XЄPCONOC Cherson. (Sear 605). Here is a page on coins of Byzantine Cherson. [Remember, the "X" is our "Ch" and the "P" is our "R"]
Anonymous folles and later (970-end)
AΓIOC "Saint" [the name of the saint follows]
bASILEVS "emperor" for emperors, "king" if in "King of kings," for Christ (Very common)
B and a backwards B (Sear 2141). A symbol of the Byzantine empire and its authority, bASILEVS, under late emperors after the fall of Constantinople in 1204.
ΔЄCΠOTHC = ΔЄC "despot" = emperor (Sear 1966, Sear 1987)
+ЄMMA-NOVHA "God is with us" (Very common)
IhSUS XPISTUS Jesus Christ (Sear 1595)
IC XC "Jesus Christus" (Sear 1867) with lunate "C" for "S". On late Byzantine coins a bust or figure of Christ is very common and this abbreviation is usually across the fields on either side of Christ.
MP ΘV "ΜΗΤHΡ ΘΕΟY" "Mother of God" (Genitive) (Sear 1867). On late Byzantine coins this abbreviation is common across the fields on either side of a bust of the Virgin Mary.
Comment: A bar above letters denotes it is an abbreviation. So, the "MP" has a short bar above it as an abbreviation for "MHTHP", "Mother" in Greek.
bASILЄU (King of
bASILЄ (kings) (Sear 1813) (Very common)
Perhaps more precisely, “ruler of those who rule,” but "king of kings" is commonly used.
NIKA "conquers" (Sear 1825) or (less common) NICA (Sear 1595)
C R (Sear 1866) (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma), "R" is an epigraphical form of "B") ΣΤAYΡЄ BOHΘЄI "O Cross, help"
P Δ "Romanus Despot/emperor" RΩMANΩ ΔЄCΠOTH
C Φ (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma)) ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ "O Cross, Protect" [the emperor whose name follows]
AΛ Δ (Sear 1931) "Alexius Despot/emperor" AΛЄΞION ΔЄCΠOTH. The "AΛ" looks like "M" because the crossbar of the "A" is missing]
C Φ (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma)) ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ "O Cross, Protect" [the emperor whose name follows]
N Δ (Sear 1888) "Nicephorus [III] Despot/emperor" NIKHΦωPON ΔЄCΠOTH
CЄP CΥΝЄΡΓΕΙ = CΩΤЄΡ CΥΝЄΡΓЄΙ = ΣΩΤЄΡ ΣΥΝЄΡΓΕΙ "Savior, assist" [the emperor whose name follows] (Sear 1911)
O ΔɣKAC O ΔOYKAS (the Ducas = Ducas) (Sear 2116) Unlike English, Greek puts the definite article “the” (O) before a proper name.
O AΓIOC = "[the] Saint" [named next] (Sear 2167)
TOY "of the" (before a proper name) = of [the following emperor]
Tω is the dative case of the definite article, "the". "O" is the nominative.
X KI Chalkites (a particular icon of Christ over the great gate of the Sacred Palace in Constantinople, Sear 2096).
Whole legends with uncommon parts.
+KWN T ΔK ЄVΔK AVΓ (on the reverse with two figures, Sear 1853 of Constantine X and Eudocia. Common.)
KωN[Σ]Τ[ΑΝΤΙΝΟΣ O] Δ[ΟY]Κ[ΑΣ] [ЄΥΔ[Ο]Κ[ΙΑ] ΑYΓ[ΟΥΣΤΟΙ]
Constantine (the) Doukas, Eudocia, Augusti [or, emperors]
Names. The obverse legend is clockwise. It usually begins at 7:30 (the lower left). On early types it usually begins with "DN" (Dominus Noster) and then the name of the emperor. (Sear 372).
Names of emperors usually end in "VS" which is commonly omitted in English. So, emperor Justin II (565-578) has the name "IVSTINVS" on coins (Sear 372). If an emperor has a numeral after his modern name, such as "II", the numeral is never on Byzantine coins. You have to figure out which "Justin" it is some other way. (There are eleven emperors named "Constantine" with modern numbers I through XI and quite a few other Constantines on coins that did not rise to the throne and therefore got no numbers. You need a reference work to tell them apart.)
In the middle period the "DN" is dropped and legends often begin with a cross,"+", before the emperor's name (Sear 1729). Reverses may name the emperor and his heirs, connecting their names with "S" for "with" (Sear 1730).
In the late period the obverse often depicts Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, in which case the name of the emperor moves to the reverse (and the leading cross may be omitted, Sear 1966).
Unfortunately, names are often abbreviated or misspelled (Sear 839) or off the flan. Getting the legend correct was not always a goal of Byzantine mints. For example, it can be difficult to decide if a coin is of Justin or Justinian when the name is blundered or ill-struck (Sear 167).
Emperor's names. This is a list of emperor's names as seen on coins. However, names are often abbreviated or misspelled, so what you see on a coin may be somewhat different. The list is in approximate chronological order of their first appearance.
JVSTINVS Justin (Sear 372)
JVSTINIANVS Justinian (Sear 231)
TIb, TIbЄRIЧS Tiberius (Sear 430)
LЄOҺ Leo (rarely Leontius) (Sear 1729)
FILЄPICЧS Philipicus, very rare
IRINI , EIRINH Irene (Sear 1595)
NICFOROS, NICЄFOROS Nicephorus
ZωH, ZOH Zoe
ЄVΔOKIA Eudocia (Sear 1853)
BOTANIAT Botaniates (Family name of Nicephorus III)
KOM Comnenus (Family name of Alexius I and following emperors)
Iω, IωAnn John (Sear 2116)
ΔHMHTPIOC Demetrius (a Saint, not an emperor, found on coins of the Empire of Nicaea, Sear 2167.)
ΛACKAPHC Lascaris (Family name of Theodore of Nicaea and following emperors, Sear 2141)
ΔɣKAC = ΔOYKAC Ducas (Family name of John III and others, Sear 2116)
Mint abbreviations. Mintmarks are common in the exergue (at the bottom of the reverse) on early Byzantine coins. The most common mints are first. (There are many variant spellings not listed here.)
CON Constantinople (modern Istanbul)
KAR = CAR Carthage, in North Africa
KYZ Kyzikos = Cyzicus
NIK Nikomedia = Nicomedia
THЄUP Theopolis = "City of God," which was the new name for Antioch after the earthquake disaster of AD 528 in the time of Justinian. Here is a page discussing the many mintmarks of Antioch.
Less common mints:
AΛЄΞ Alexandria, Egypt
CAT Catania, Sicily
RAV Ravenna, Italy
SCL Sicily, the city of Syracuse
SЄLISU = Seleucia in Isauria (615-617, only under Heraclius)
XЄPCONOC Cherson. Here is a page on coins of Byzantine Cherson. [Remember, the "X" is our "Ch" and the "P" is our "R"]
(There are a few other very rare mints. Collectors with a coin from any of them are too advanced to need this page!)
Monograms. Sear lists monograms on page 32, but does not expand them. The web page
is more useful because it has those monograms (and more) and also identifies the Sear numbers of the relevant coins. If you have a Sear ID number, you can find the monogram in Sear, page 32. However, if you find the monogram on page 32, Sear, unfortunately, does not tell you which Sear number it is. That website does.
Sear 170. A pentanummia piece of Justinian, 527-565. 19 mm. 4.42 grams.
Reverse Є for 5 (nummi), the pentanummia denomination
with officina number Δ for 4.
DN IVSTINIANVS PP AVC
Dominus Noster Justinianus Perpetuus Augustus
For another use of "H" see Sear 605.
Sear 372: [Repeated from the first four] Emperor Justin II with his wife Sophia (565-578). 30 mm. 12.35 grams. Common.
M ANNO A KYZ
The obverse legend gives the emperors name and titles, clockwise from 7:30:
DN IVSTIN-VS PP AV
DN = Dominus Noster ("Our lord" in Latin.
IVSTINVS = Justin.
Greek and Latin have no "J". They used "I". Also, names of emperors usually end in "VS" which is commonly omitted in English. So, emperor Justin II (565-578) has the name "IVSTINVS" on coins. If an emperor has a numeral after his modern name, such as "II", the numeral is never on Byzantine coins. You have to figure out which "Justin" it is some other way.
PP = Perpetuus = perpetual, forever
AV = Augustus = emperor
Reverse: The large M gives the denomination M = 40 (nummi), in Greek. To the left is ANNO (as in "annual") for "year" and to the right is the year of his reign. 6+1 = 7, the 7th year of Justian II. (That G-like symbol is for "6"). In the exergue (at the bottom, below the horizontal line, is "KYZ" for Kyzikos = Cycicus, the mint (not far from Constantinople, but on the Asian side).
Below the middle of the M is a Greek "A" (Alpha, for "1", identifying the coin as from the first officina [first workshop of the mint]). Note how the crossbar is not a horizontal dash, rather more "v" like: . Similar coins may have officina number "B" (Beta) for "2", "Γ" (Gamma) for "3", "Δ" (Delta) for "4" or "Є" (Epsilon) for "5".
Sear 400. A quarter-follis of Justin II and Sophia, 565-578. Carthage mint. 20-19 mm. 4.61 grams.
NM I VITA
Justin I (left) and Sophia (right).
VITA = "life" below. The word is part of an acclamation.
It is sometimes written with "B" for "V", which is phonetically similar.
I for "10" nummi.
N M either side for "nummi," a reversion at Carthage to Vandal usage.
Sear 430. A follis (40-nummi piece) of Tiberius II, 578-582. 37 mm. 16.30 grams.
ɥ Γ m
Dated year ("ANNO") 5 with a "ɥ" (= 5) to the right of the m (= 40) with Γ for 3, the third workshop, at the end of CON for Constantinople.
Tiberius II had been effective, if not titular, ruler for 4 years under the previous emperor, Justin II, who was insane, so he began his regnal years with 5 (and a few very rare coins from year 4).
M usually has straight strokes but is occasionally "uncial" like this rounded "m", which is most common under this emperor, Tiberius II.
Obverse legend: ∂m TIb CONSTANT ... for Tiberius Constantine who we often call "Tiberius II".
Sear 1642: A follis of Michael II and Theophilus, 820-829. 31-30 mm. 7.96 grams.
Reverse "immobilized" type used by several emperors
either side of a large M and Θ
between its legs. The "M" still means "40" for the follis, but the other symbols are meaningless. They may mindlessly copy, with left and right sides switched, some of the reverse of the next coin.
Obverse legend: MIXAHL = Michael (II) "S" = "and"
ΘЄOFILOS = Theophilus (They used "F" for some names we spell with "Ph", like "FOCAS" for "Phocas.")
The reverse legend:
IC XC in the upper arms of the cross.
NI KA in the lower arms of the cross.
IC XC either side of Christ on the obverse
+ЄMMA-NOVHA "God is with us" around.
Sear 1853. Constantine X and Eudocia, 1059-1067. 29-28 mm. 10.58 grams.
+KωN T ΔK ЄVΔK AVΓ (unusually, beginning at 1:30 on the reverse)
KωN[Σ]Τ[ΑΝΤΙΝΟΣ O] Δ[ΟY]Κ[ΑΣ] [ЄΥΔ[Ο]Κ[ΙΑ] ΑYΓ[ΟΥΣΤΟΙ] Constantine (the) Doukas, Eudocia, Augusti [or, emperors]
On the obverse "+ЄMMA-NOVHA" is "God is with us"
around Christ standing. IC XC either side.
Sear 1866. Romanus IV, 1068-1071. 25 mm. 5.51 grams.
The coin has the same facing bust of Christ found on anonymous folles, but the reverse has
C R ["C" is a lunate "S". "R" is an epigraphical form of "B"] ΣΤAYΡЄ BOHΘЄI "O Cross, help"
P Δ in the quadrants of a cross (with an X at the center) for
"Romanus Despot/emperor" RΩMANΩ ΔЄCΠOTH
"O cross help Romanus emperor" or
"May the cross help Romanus, emperor"
Sear 1867. An anonymous follis of Class K, attributed to Romanus IV, 1068-1071. 29-26 mm. 9.40 grams
IC XC MP ΘV
Obverse bust of Christ
IC XC (with bars above, indicating an abbreviation)
Reverse bust of the Virgin Mary, "orans" (with arms spread)
MP ΘV (with bars above, indicating an abbreviation)
"Mother of God"
Sear 1888. Nicephorus III, 1078-1081. 23-22 mm. 5.55 grams.
Christ standing facing, IC XC either side, eight-pointed stars below, either side.
in quadrants of cross with big dot at each end. Eight-pointed star in circle.
According to Whitting, Byzantine Coins, the letters abbreviate
May the cross (C) protect (Φ)
Nicephorus (N) emperor (Δ) [Despot]
Expanded: CΦNΔ = ΣTAYPЄ ΦYLATTЄ ΝIKΗΦOPON ΔЄΣΠOTH
"O Cross, protect Nikephoros Emperor/Despot"
Sear 1911. Alexius I, 1081-1118. 26 mm. 6.34 grams.
CЄP CVN Savior, assist
ЄPΓЄI BA em/peror
CILЄI AΛ Al/exius
Obverse: IC XC
NI KA in the arms of a cross
These coins are usually close to illegible.
Bust of the emperor facing. Reverse with, in the quadrants of a jeweled cross:
C Φ (The "C" is a lunate "S" (sigma))
ΣΤAYΡЄ ΦΥΛATTЄ "O Cross, Protect"
AΛ Δ [The "AΛ" for "Alexius" looks like an "M"--the crossbar of the A is missing]
AΛЄΞION ΔЄCΠOTH. "May the cross protect (or, O Cross, protect) Alexius Despot"
Problem coins. Sometimes an important part of the legend is off the flan.
Sear 167. 13-12 mm. 2.04 grams.
This small coin, a decanummium, with "I" for ten, has obverse legend
which could belong to either Justin or Justinian. In the case, we can use the year which is on coins of Justinian, but not on coins of Justin, to confirm its attribution to Justinian.
Go to the page "Introduction to Byzantine coins (491-1453)"
Go the the main Table of Contents of this educational site.
Here is an (off-site) article on reading Greek coins: