Reference Works about Byzantine Coins
There are very many reference books, articles, and websites about Byzantine coins, most of which are not listed here. This page is for beginners. It only sites and discusses works useful to beginners or specifically mentioned on my pages. (For a far more extensive list of Byzantine-coin references, see here.)
Skip down to book reviews.
I recommend you buy the second edition of Sear, Byzantine Coins and Their Values, and Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium. I also recommend the inexpensive Byzantium, a Time/Life picture book, which you might even find in a thrift store. More details are below.
Note for collectors. By the standards of Greek or Roman coins, most Byzantine copper coins are poorly made and very worn. One of the pleasures of collecting them is being able to buy good examples (i.e. good "for type") very inexpensively and sometimes finding examples better than those in books and major museums. If you maintain your interest, I recommend buying reference works so you can see what a good collection looks like. Then you might even buy a few sale catalogs from sales emphasizing a good collection. The catalogs will be inexpensive compared to the information about quality that they contain. (Hardly anyone collects catalogs any more, so if you can find them at all they should be cheap.) The only site I know of where sale catalogs with Byzantine coins are separated out is my own: http://augustuscoins.com/numislit.html#Byz .
My educational site, "Introduction to Byzantine Coins (491-1453)."
High-quality examples of each type by Sear number, selected from the best images he could find (but no text or explanation of any kind):
Byzantine coins in the Wildwinds data bank, a reference work: http://wildwinds.com/coins/sb/i.html
A high-quality collection: http://www.forumancientcoins.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=4910
A beautiful site on Byzantium (Chrome translates it into English). http://www.byzantivm.fr/index.html
Doug Smith's page on "Lettered Byzantine Bronzes": https://www.forumancientcoins.com/dougsmith/acmbyz.html
The NGC web site has several good articles for beginners:
An article for beginners: "Collecting Byzantine Coins on a Budget" https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/7470/ancient-byzantine-coins/
An article for beginners: "Byzantine Rulers you can Collect, Part I:" https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/1735/Byzantine-Rulers-You-Can-Collect/
An article for beginners: "Byzantine Rulers you can Collect, Part II:" https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/1770/byzantine-coins/
An article for beginners: "Byzantine Coin Portraits," https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/7020/Ancient-coins/
An article for beginners: "A Guide to Denominated Byzantine Bronzes" https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/6307/ancient-byzantine-coins/
An article for beginners: "Christ portraits on Byzantine Coinage," https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/5792/Christ-portrait-ancient-coins/
An article for beginners: "Post-Reform Bronze Issues of the Byzantine Empire" https://www.ngccoin.com/news/article/2391/Chaos-and-Coinage-Post-Reform-Bronze-Issues-of-the-Byzantine-Empire/
There are many narrowly-focused pages which I am not listing here because I do not think beginners would want to visit them.
See my page for more extensive list.
Sayles, Wayne. Ancient Coin Collecting V: The Romainon/Byzantine Culture. 1998. Hardcover. 197 pages. A very attractive small book. Enlarged photographs on almost every page, and some pages with several or many.
This book is in series of books for beginning ancient-coin collectors. I think it is better and more useful than most of the others in the series. It has a good outline of how to read legends, denominations, dates, iconography, maps, and mints, followed by a one-page biography of each emperor accompanied by a bibliography right on that same page. Each emperor is illustrated by the obverse of an excellent gold coin (I wish the reverses had been included). vcoins has it in paperback for $16 plus shipping.
Fitts, Prue Morgan. The Beginner's Guide to Identifying Byzantine Coins. 2015. Cardcover. Spiral bound. 133 pages. This book has a lot of useful information, but I dislike it for its layout. All the coin photographs on on a page are printed the same size, making it impossible to tell which coins are large and which are tiny. Many photographs are far smaller than life size, which is inexcusable. Mints are listed on page 23 as if they were all equally important, which is very far from the case because it lists a dozen obscure mints beginners don't need to hear about and probably won't see any coins of for years. Monograms are tabled on page 22 long before there is any discussion about (unusual) coins with monograms. There are long useless tables of denominations issued by various rulers. There is a substantial discussion of the clothing depicted on coins before we know anything about the general outline of the coinage. Where was an editor? I don't recommend it.
For a far more extensive list of Byzantine-coin references, see here.
Important books, listed in the order I would obtain them:
Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values, second edition. 1987.
Abbreviated "Sear" on the main page. The primary collectors' handbook, with short histories of the emperors, a very nearly complete listing of Byzantine coin types, and many photographs, especially of the main types, but also even more types are not photographed. This is the book usually cited for identifying Byzantine coins. It is essential for collectors. Do not get the first edition. The second is far more complete, especially for late Byzantine coins.
It has short biographies on each emperor, and occasional one-line comments about types. It has a list of monograms (p. 32) and many of the inscrptions are translated (pp. 33-34). It is not a book to read, rather a book to consult. Many common types can be identified by comparison with Sear's photographs, but very many types are merely well-described. The first edition of Sear had little coverage of very late Byzantine coins. The second edition was greatly expanded and it much superior. As I write, the second edition is on vcoins at $45 and it is well worth it. Buy it!
If you want illustrations of the high percentage of the Byzantine coins you will encounter, Sear's book is not enough. Grierson's Byzantine Coins has 1527 coin illustrated--almost all the types you will encounter (see the second next review). The numerous (nine!) very large Dumbarton Oaks volumes have a nearly complete list and photographic coverage, often of several examples of any given type.
Using Sear. For each type Sear cites other major reference works which have examples and photographs. If a given work does not have it, a dash is used, e.g. D.O.-- means the type is not in the Dumbarton Oaks catalogs. This would be very unusual because D.O. is nearly complete and has good illustrations of almost every type. The citation "B.M.C. 167" means coin 167 in the British Museum Catalogue is that type. (See my other, more detailed, page on Byzantine references.) Major catalogs and their abbreviations are on page 523. Pages 33-34 have many inscriptions translated. Page 31 has how to read explicit dates. Page 32 illustrates monograms. If you have the Sear number it will show you the monogram, but not the other way around. You can go from the monogram to the Sear ID number on a Forum page here. Sear was written before the final volume of Dumbarton Oaks was published, so late Byzantine types do not cite D.O. as a reference. Some cite Hendy ("H.") although I'm sure those citations would be replaced by D.O. citations if a new edition were to appear. (Most collectors do not emphasize coins that late anyway.)
Whitting, P. D. Byzantine Coins. 1973. In the "World of Numismatics" series. Hardcover. 311 pages. Beautifully printed. 457 enlarged photographs of sides of coins within (usually both sides in two photos, but sometimes only one side, and many in color). Much scholarly information, but directed toward people with a deep interest but not a lot of previous knowledge. Very entertaining and informative. You will learn what makes Byzantine coins interesting. A fun read. Highly recommended.
This is an excellent book on Byzantine coins, This would be my top or second-favorite book (Grierson is the other) for general knowledge about Byzantine coins. It is more lively and entertaining than Grierson and the enlarged photos are more fun to look at, but the text is less systematic and thorough. I love this book and would recommend it right after Sear as a book for collectors. I think he wrote this book because he loved how interesting Byzantine coins are and it shows. As I write Amazon has one "like new" for $35 plus shipping and at that price it is an excellent deal. Buy it!
Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Coins. 1982. Hardcover. It has 385 pages of text and 1527 coins well-illustrated in black-and-white on 95 page plates.
This is the best book for understanding Byzantine coinage, but it may be too deep for beginners. A prominent scholar gives the entire history of Byzantine coinage in one volume. It is not a book for beginning collectors, rather the latest scholarly word (as of 1982, but not yet superseded) on Byzantine coins. It is not a colorful and chatty book. Grierson is well-organized chronologically and attempts to be systematic and thorough. I consulted it very many times when writing my web pages on Byzantine coins. It is excellent. Highly recommended if you are serious about Byzantine coins. As I write Amazon has it used for $102 plus shipping.
Dumbarton Oaks. "Dumbarton Oaks" or "D.O." are accepted abbreviations for the five-volume, nine-massive-book, series on Byzantine coins. It has a virtually every known type and pictures of at least one and often several of any given type. The cloth copies are very expensive (well over $100 each), but the institution Dumbarton Oaks (in Washington, D.C.) has released the volumes in pdf. They are huge and my computer does not navigate the pdfs rapidly enough to use them. I bought the books.
Late Roman before Byzantine (Arcadius and Honorius to Anastasius): https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-late-roman-coins-in-the-dumbarton
Volume I: Anastasius to Maurice (491-602) https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-the-byzantine-coins-in-the-dumbarton-oaks-collection-and-in-the-whittemore-collection-1
Volume 2: Phocas to Theodosius III (602-717) https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-the-byzantine-coins-in-the-dumbarton-oaks-collection-and-in-the-whittemore-collection-2
Volume 3: Leo III - Nicephorus III (717-1081) https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-the-byzantine-coins-in-the-dumbarton-oaks-collection-and-in-the-whittemore-collection-3
Volume 4: Alexius I - Michale VIII (1081-1261) https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-the-byzantine-coins-in-the-dumbarton-oaks-collection-and-in-the-whittemore-collection-4
Volume 5: Michael VIII - Constantine XI (1258 - 1453) https://www.doaks.org/research/publications/books/catalogue-of-the-byzantine-coins-in-the-dumbarton
Wroth, Warwick. Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum. 1908. Reprinted by Argonaut in 1966. Not recommended. This book is somewhat outdated. It does have many pictures and it correctly identifies the easy-to-identify named coins of earlier emperors. However, it is mostly wrong about anonymous folles and is has very few of the very late coins that are common on the market since the Iron Curtain came down in the 1990s.
Lhotka, John. Introduction to East Roman (Byzantine) Coinage. 1989 [but written much earlier]. 113 pages plus 60 coins on four page plates plus some coins illustrated within. The photos are poor. They are okay, but much below modern sale-catalog quality. This was written before Byzantine coins were popular in a series of articles in the ANA's journal, The Numismatist. Then they were put together and published as this book. It is definitely aimed at collectors and emphasizes commonly available coins, especially copper coins. It is loaded with charts and notes that a collector might make as he was learning to grasp the subject. There is a lot to like about this book even though the production quality is low. The production quality is well below modern standards, but the text is interesting and I learned from it long ago. It still has material of interest, but I can't recommend it compared to the other books above. It is on vcoins at $15 and Amazon at $35 and I think you will not appreciate it at that cost.
Late Byzantine Coins.
Late Byzantine coins are hard to attribute unless you have a reference works with images of all the types. Dumbarton Oaks volumes (especially IV and V, in pdf above) suffice. Recently, several other well-illustrated volumes have been published. They are listed here.
History Books (not about coins):
Sherrard, Philip, and the editors of Time-Life books. Byzantium, in the "Great Ages of Man" series. 1966. HC. 192 pages. A very colorful book with more pictures than text. It was issued in a very popular series so there are far more copies out there than people who want it. Very enjoyable, but not a chronological history of the emperors. There are over 100 for sale on Amazon starting at $2. You might find one in a local thrift shop.
Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. HC. 1997. 431 pages. Few photos. A highly entertaining chronological history of the deeds of the emperors, condensing his excellent three-volume work. Many scholarly works on Byzantium are good, but spend a much greater fraction of the book on religion and goverment administration than Norwich does. This book is just plain fun to read, especially if you have, or desire, a coin of the emperor. If you continue your interest, the fill three-volume series is excellent. I have both the short and long versions!
Article cited on my page for beginners:
Jonathan Jarrett, "Why did the Byzantine coinage turn concave?" Here is a link to it on his page at Academia.edu
Markowitz, Mike. Powerpoint at Academia.edu "Why did Byzantine Coins Become Cup-Shaped in the 11th century?" https://www.academia.edu/3455689/Why_Did_Byzantine_Coinage_Become_Cup-Shaped_in_the_11th_Century [This one is very well-illustraed and easy to read.]
Markowitz, Mike. The same ideas in a CoinWeek article: https://coinweek.com/education/byzantine-coins-become-cup-shaped/
Return to the main page on Byzantine coins.
If you get interested in Byzantine coins, here is
a more extensive list of references: http://augustuscoins.com/ed/catalogs/Byzantine.html