Byzantine and Aksumite numismatics

Solidus of Constantine I, minted at Siscia. Image used from constantinethegreatcoins.com.

The Byzantine Empire is the term which scholars have used since the sixteenth century to refer to the eastern Roman Empire from around the fourth century AD. Following the transfer of the Roman capital from Rome to Constantinople (on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium) by Constantine I (r. 306-337) in 330, the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire gradually developed administrative, cultural and political qualities which distinguished it from the classical Roman Empire of the early centuries AD. As the western Roman Empire disintegrated from the fifth century onwards Byzantium became the state which preserved continuity with the imperial legacy, including legal and governmental norms and literary traditions. The official conversion of the Roman world to Christianity in the fourth century, the encounter of Byzantium with Islam, beginning in the seventh century and continuing thereafter, the temporary conquest of the Empire by Latin crusaders between 1204 and 1261, and its increasing shift towards a Greek-speaking, Anatolian society all made this a very different sort of Roman Empire to that of Augustus, or even Domitian. Nevertheless, it remained in its own self-conception the Roman Empire until its final fall to the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II (r. 1451-1481) in 1453, when a state which had dominated the entire eastern Mediterranean consisted of little more than its capital and a few strongholds around the Aegean.

 

Animation of the territories of the Byzantine Empire between c. 476 and 1400, showing fluctuations in imperial territory, but also a general downward trend from c. 1100. Animation from Wikimedia commons.

The coinage of the Byzantine Empire reflects these dramatic changes of culture and fortune. Constantine I stabilised the Roman precious-metal coinage, which had suffered in the third century, by creating the solidus – a high-purity, 4.5g. gold coin described by R. S. Lopez in 1951 as the ‘dollar of the Middle Ages’. This was accompanied in 498 by a  series of copper denominations, clearly marked with their values, created by the coinage reform of Anastasius I (r. 491-518). Silver came to be used only sporadically in this system, which, with an increasingly reduced range of copper denominations, served the empire until the eleventh century. Debasement of the gold coinage, however, had begun in the ninth century and become noticeable from the tenth, weakening the Byzantine monetary economy considerably. A series of reforms by Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) again stabilised the system, though around a gold denomination of lower purity than the solidus had been – the new hyperperon. From the eleventh century, though, reduced imperial territory and the growing involvement of various western powers in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Italian city states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa, put the Byzantine currency in the position of international competitor, rather than superior arbitrator of value.

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Silver stavraton of Constantine XI, 1448-1453, minted in Constantinople. Image via Wildwinds.com.

Following Latin rule of the empire from 1204-1261, the Greek emperors who recovered Constantinople continued to mint in the tradition established by Alexios I, but from an ever-weaker economic position, ultimately resulting in the abandonment of gold minting completely, increased use of foreign currency in state dealings and reduced output of copper coinage. From changing religious imagery, to debasement and reform, to concave coins and the reasons for their existence, Byzantine monetary history is visually compelling and intimately linked to the successes and difficulties of its issuing state. With continuous state minting over a period of over 1000 years, extensive scholarly research and some very well-published collections, coinage has been crucial to the telling of the stories of the Byzantine Empire and remains at the heart of current scholarship.

 

The Aksumite Empire was, for a while, a contemporary of Byzantium, and owing to the close diplomatic ties between the two states and the visual similarity of their coins, as well as arguments by some scholars for a close economic relationship, Aksumite and Byzantine numismatics have often been considered in parallel. The Aksumite Empire dominated the regions of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea from roughly the late third century AD to the seventh century AD, though cultural and political continuities tie it to earlier developments and the later society of medieval Ethiopia.

Map of the Aksumite Empire (in orange), marked at its largest extent, probably in the mid sixth century, with trade routes and neighbouring political groups. Image used from AtlantaBlackStar.com.

Aksum was a wealthy inland city, which dominated a territory stretching at times across the Red Sea to dominate southern Arabia, and which frequently launched military raids to the south and west of its core territories. Known primarily from foreign (Roman/Byzantine) accounts and archaeological excavation, the Aksumite Empire seems to have been wealthy, militarily successful and, in places, quite urbanised. Burials in Aksum testify to the wealth it enjoyed as a result of its access to western Indian Ocean trade routes, as do finds of Aksumite coins in south India. Aksum was also an officially Christian state from the early decades of the fourth century – a fact proclaimed on its coinage as well as by the cessation of commemorating kings with the erection of huge monolithic stele. Its Christianity was one of the factors which linked it to Byzantium, though the two states adhered to different views of the relationship between Christ and the other members of the holy Trinity.

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Silver coin of the emperor Aphilas, 4th century AD, with signs of gilding still visible on reverse. Image by James J. Sims and made available by Wikimedia Commons.

With relatively little narrative source material, in comparison to the Byzantine Empire, and archaeological excavation coming to the fore only in recent decades, coinage has been crucial to exploring and publicising the history of this remarkable Late Antique empire. Many Aksumite rulers, and their sequence, are only known numismatically and changes in state religion and military activity can be discerned from, respectively, coin iconography and coin distribution. The obvious complexity of the Aksumite monetary system, involving regular minting in gold, silver and copper-alloy, as well as the unique practice of gilding specific areas of both silver and copper-alloy denominations, and  a growing capacity to connect archaeological and coin evidence ensures that many more questions will continue to be asked, and answers proposed, in the research of Aksumite numismatics.

by Rebecca Darley

 

Introductory Bibliography

Byzantine Numismatics:

Grierson, P. (1982) Byzantine coinage, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2nd ed., 1999. Available online here.

M. Hendy (1985) Studies in the Byzantine monetary economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A. Laiou (2001) The Economic History of Byzantium: from the seventh through the fifteenth century, 3 vols, Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Available online here.

A. Laiou and C. Morrisson (2007) The Byzantine economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Major Catalogues:

Bellinger, A. R. (1966) Catalogue of the Byzantine coins in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and in the Whittemore collectionAnastasius I to Maurice, 491-602, volume 1, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 

Grierson, P. (1968) Catalogue of the coins in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and in the Whittemore collection, Phocas to Theodosius III, 602-717, volumes 2.1, 2.2 

Grierson, P. (1973) Catalogue of the coins in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and in the Whittemore collectionLeo III to Nicephorus III, 717-1081, volumes 3.1, 3.2 

Hendy, M. (1999) Catalogue of the coins in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and in the Whittemore collectionAlexius I to Michael VIII, volumes 4.1, 4.2 

Grierson, P. (1999) Catalogue of the coins in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and in the Whittemore collectionMichael VIII to Constantine XI, volumes 5.1, 5.2 

Hahn, W. and Metlich, A. (2000) Money of the incipient Byzantine Empire (Anastasius I – Justinian I, 491-565), Wien: Institut für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte. 

Hahn, W. (1973) Moneta Imperii Byzantini, 3 vols, Vienna: Veröffentlichungen der Österriechische Akademie der Wissenschaften. 

 

Aksumite Numismatics:

Hahn, W. (2000) ‘Aksumite Numismatics – a Critical Survey of Recent Research’ Revue Numismatique 2000, 281-311. Available online via Persée

Metlich, M. A. (2006) ‘Aksumite gold coins and their relation to the Roman-Indian trade’ in De Romanis, F. and Sorda, S. (eds) Dal Denarius al Dinar: l’oriente e la moneta Romana: atti dell’incontro di studio, Roma 16-18 settembre 2004, Rome: Istituto Italiano di Numismatica, 99-103.

Major Catalogues

Hahn, W. and West, V. (2017) Sylloge of Aksumite Coins in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum Publications.

Munro-Hay, S. (1999) Catalogue of the Aksumite coins in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press.

Munro-Hay, S. (1984b) The coinage of Aksum, London: Manohar and R. C. Senior Ltd.

Munro-Hay, S. and Juel-Jensen, B. E. (1995) Aksumite coinage, London: Spink and Son Ltd.

 

Useful Links and Resources

Articles concerning both of these coin series can be found in the proceedings of the Oriental Numismatic Society. Talks on Byzantine and Aksumite numismatics are also regularly presented at meetings of the ONS.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, houses a substantial collection of Aksumite coins, published in 2017 in sylloge form by Vincent West and Wolfgang Hahn.

Many other major museum collections listed on our Useful Links page, including the British Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Numismatic Athens have substantial collections of, especially, Byzantine coins. The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington DC houses the largest published collection of Byzantine coins in the world and runs regular physical and online exhibitions of this material.

Useful online bibliographies include Byzantine Numismatics, compiled and maintained by Forum Ancient Coins, which includes links to Byzantine coin collections, images of coin types from sales and published catalogues. Also, the Aksumite Bibliography, arranged alphabetically by author, is compiled and updated by Vincent West. It includes sale catalogues.

 

Sample articles from the Numismatic Chronicle

Please feel free to share, link to and download these articles, which have kindly been made available as a free sample of Numismatic Chronicle content on this subject by Jstor. If you intend to use them in teaching, make them available through a personal website or similar, we would request that you include a link to the RNS website. (All of these articles are also listed in the index of articles below).

Atkins, B. and B. Juel-Jensen, ‘The gold coinage of Aksum. Further analyses of specific gravity. A contribution to chronology‘, Volume: 148 (1988) 175 ff

Bendall, S. and D. Sellwood, ‘The method of striking scyphate coins using two obverse dies in the light of an early-thirteenth century hoard‘, 7th series Volume: 18 (1978) 93 ff

Bridge, R.N., ‘The coinage of Chersonesus‘, Volume: 141 (1981) 183 ff

Munro-Hay, S.C., ‘The al-Madhariba hoard of gold Aksumite and late Roman coins‘, Volume: 149 (1989) 83 ff

 

Index of Numismatic Chronicle Articles by alphabetised by surname of first author (currently up to 2016)

N.B. All titles up to 2013 are hyperlinked to Jstor, which is free to access for members. If you are a member of the RNS and have any difficulty accessing Jstor, please contact Rebecca Darley (r.darley@bbk.ac.uk).

Abou Diwan, G., ‘Un Trésor Monétaire de Beyrouth: À propos de la Circulation des Monnaies d’Anastase au VI e Siècle‘, Volume: 168 (2008) 303 ff

Athanasoulis, D. and Baker, J., ‘Medieval Clarentza The coins 1999-2004: with additional medieval coin finds from the nomos of Elis‘, Volume: 168 (2008) 241 ff

Atkins, B. and B. Juel-Jensen, ‘The gold coinage of Aksum. Further analyses of specific gravity. A contribution to chronology‘, Volume: 148 (1988) 175 ff. Also available as sample above.

Baker, J., ‘Coin circulation in late medieval Thrace according to the evidence rom Edirne Archaeological Museum’, Volume: 174 (2014) 245 ff

Baker, J., ‘Coins of the Late Medieval Period from Excavations at Ainos (Enez) in Thrace‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 215 ff

Baker, J. and Ponting, M., ‘The Early Period of Minting of “Deniers Tournois” in the Principality of Achaïa (to 1289), and their Relation to the Issues of the Duchy of Athens‘, Volume: 161 (2001) 207 ff

Barclay, C.P., ‘A parcel of hyperpyra of the Comneni‘, Volume: 151 (1991) 217 ff

Bates, L. and F.L. Kovacs, ‘A hoard of large Byzantine and Arab-Byzantine coppers‘, Volume: 156 (1996) 165 ff

Beliën, P., ‘A previously unknown gold medallion of Constantius II Caesar from Ticinum‘, Volume: 166 (2006) 233 ff

Beliën, P., ‘A hoard of Byzantine folles from Beirut‘, Volume: 165 (2005) 314 ff

Bendall, S., ‘Notes on the Coinage in the name of John Comnenus-Ducas of Thessalonica (AD 1237-44)‘, Volume: 162 (2002) 253 ff

Bendall, S., ‘An Early Fourteenth-Century Hoard of Thessalonican Trachea‘, Volume: 161 (2001) 255 ff. Errata published in volume 162 (2002)

Bendall, S., ‘Trebizond under Gabrades again‘, Volume: 149 (1989) 197

Bendall, S., ‘A hoard of early fourteenth century aspers of Trebizond‘, Volume: 145 (1985) 102 ff

Bendall, S., ‘An early Palaeologan gold hoard‘, Volume: 142 (1982) 66 ff

Bendall, S., ‘A new twelfth-century Byzantine coin from the mint of Trebizond‘, Volume: 142 (1982) 163

Bendall, S., ‘Some further notes on the mint of Trebizond under Alexius‘, 7th series Volume: 19 (1979) 211

Bendall, S., ‘Thessalonican coinage of the mid-thirteenth century in the light of a new hoard‘, 7th series Volume: 18 (1978) 105 ff

Bendall, S. and D. Sellwood, ‘The method of striking scyphate coins using two obverse dies in the light of an early-thirteenth century hoard‘, 7th series Volume: 18 (1978) 93 ff. Also available as sample above.

Bendall, S., ‘The mint of Trebizond under Alexius I and the Gabrades‘, 7th series Volume: 17 (1977) 126 ff

Bendall, S., ‘An “Eagle” countermark on sixth-century Byzantine coins‘, 7th series Volume: 16 (1976) 230 ff

Bendall, S., ‘A numismatic representation of Hetoimasia‘, 7th series Volume: 16 (1976) 231 ff

Bland, R., ‘Anonymous Half-Siliquae of the Late 4th Century AD‘, Volume: 170 (2010) 205 ff

Bowen, G. E., ‘The Coins from the 4 th Century Churches and Christian Cemetery at Ismant el-Kharab, ancient Kellis, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt‘, Volume: 170 (2010) 457 ff

Bridge, R.N., ‘The coinage of Chersonesus‘, Volume: 141 (1981) 183 ff. Also available as sample above.

Cook, B. J., ‘The Bezant in Angevin England‘, Volume: 159 (1999) 255ff

Coupland, S., ‘Recent finds of imitation gold solidi in the Netherlands’, Volume: 176 (2016) 261 ff

Dahmen, K. and Ilisch, P., ‘Securitas Saeculi – a New Revival of a Probus reverse-type in the Gold Coinage of Constantine I‘, Volume: 166 (2006) 229 ff

Dearn, A., ‘The Coinage of Vetranio: Imperial Representation and the Memory of Constantine the Great‘, Volume: 163 (2003) 169 ff

Economides, K. N. ‘Byzantine Folles Countermarked with Heraclian Monograms found in Cyprus‘, Volume: 163 (2003) 193 ff

Gambacorta, F., ‘The Silver Coinage of Aelia Eudoxia (400-404) in the Light of Two New Light Miliarenses‘, Volume: 171 (2011) 197 ff

Gandila, A. and Gökalp, Z. D., ‘A hoard of early Byzantine coins from Bithynia’, Volume: 174 (2014) 193 ff

Goehring, J.E., ‘Two new examples of the Byzantine eagle countermark‘, Volume: 143 (1983) 218 ff

Goodwin, T., ‘A hoard of Byzantine tetartera and clipped folles‘, Volume: 166 (2006) 393 ff

Goodwin, T., ‘A hoard of tenth and eleventh century Byzantine folles with Arabic countermarks‘, VolumeL 165 (2005) 323 ff

Goodwin, T., ‘A Hoard of Seventh Century Byzantine Dodecanummia‘, Volume: 163 (2003) 355 ff

Goodwin, T., ‘Arab-Byzantine coins – the significance of overstrikes‘, Volume: 161 (2001) 91 ff

Grandmezon, N.N., ‘The use of leaded copper alloys in the Greek and Byzantine periods in the Tauric Chersonese‘, 7th series Volume: 15 (1977) 155 ff

Grierson, P., ‘A new follis type of Leo III‘, 7th series Volume: 14 (1974) 75 ff

Grierson, P., ‘Nummi scyphati, the story of a misunderstanding‘, 7th series Volume: 11 (1971) 253 ff

Guest, P., ‘Review of: Bland, R. and Loriot, X. Roman and Early Byzantine Gold Coins found in Britain and Ireland. (Special Publication No. 46)‘, Volume: 172 (2012) 369 ff

Guest, P., ‘The Production, Supply and Use of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Copper Coinage in the Eastern Empire’, Volume: 172 (2012) 105 ff

Guest, P., ‘The Roman and Byzantine Coins Excavated at Nicopolis ad Istrum and Gradishte, Bulgaria‘, Volume: 159 (1999) 314 ff

Hahn, W.R.O., ‘A sixth-century hoard of Byzantine small change from Egypt and its contribution to the classification of African minimi‘, 7th series Volume: 20 (1980) 64 ff

Hahn, W.R.O., ‘Alexandrian 3-nummi and 1-nummus types under Heraclius‘, 7th series Volume: 18 (1978) 181 ff

Holmes, N. M. M., ‘A Uniface Gold Medallion of Constantine II‘, Volume: 164 (2004) 233 ff

Hoover, O. D., ‘Reviewed Work: Sinope. A Catalogue of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine Coins in Sinop Museum (Turkey) and Related Historical and Numismatic Studies by John Casey, Melih Arslan, Richard Brickstock, Julia Agnew‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 546 ff

Humphreys, M., ‘The ‘War of Images’ Revisited. Justinian II’s Coinage Reform and the Caliphate‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 229 ff

Iordanov, I., ‘Billon trachea from the first half of the thirteenth century with the name and image of St. John the Baptist‘, 7th series Volume: 19 (1979) 212

Kovalenko, S. A. ‘Struck Lead Pieces from Tauric Chersonesos: Coins or Tesserae?‘, Volume: 162 (2002) 33 ff

Lenger, D. S. and Yaras, A., ‘Coins from the Excavations at Güre, 2006-2007‘, Volume: 170 (2010) 453 ff

Lianta, E., ‘John II Comnenus (1118-43) or John III Vatatzes (1222-54)? (Distinguishing the Hyperpyra of John II from those of John III)‘, Volume: 166 (2006) 269 ff

Lichtenberger, C. and Raja, R., ‘Jordan – a hoard of Byzantine and Arab-Byzantine coins from the excavations at Jerash’, Volume: 175 (2015) 299 ff

Mansfield, S. J., ‘Tunisia – the Sbeitla hoard and the fractional coinage of North Africa under Justinian I (AD 527-65), Volume: 175 (2015) 291 ff

Mansfield, S. J., ‘A Byzantine temporary mint and Justin II’s Lombard campaign’, Volume: 174 (2014) 205 ff

Mansfield, S. J., ‘Byzantine hoards: Lebanon or Syria‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 391 ff

Mansfield, S. J. ‘A hoard of twenty Byzantine copper coins‘, Volume: 163 (2003) 354 ff

McIntosh, F., ‘Byzantine coin from Birdoswald’, Volume: 174 (2014) 367 ff

Metcalf, D. M., ‘Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader Coins from Saranda Kolones, Paphos‘, Volume: 163 (2003) 205 ff

Metcalf, D. M., ‘Monetary recession in the Middle Byzantine period: the numismatic evidence‘, Volume: 161 (2001) 111 ff

Metcalf, D. M., ‘Crusader Gold Bezants of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: Two Additional Sources of Information‘, Volume: 160 (2000) 203 ff

Metcalf, D. M., ‘The Agrinion hoard. Gold hyperpyra of John III Vatatzes‘, 7th series Volume: 20 (1980) 113 ff

Metcalf, D. M., ‘Review of: T.Bertelè, Numismatique Byzantine. Suivie de deux études inédites sur les monnaies des Paléologues‘, 7th series Volume: 16 (1978) 269

Metcalf, D.M., ‘The Antalya hoard of miliaresia of Basil I‘, 7th series Volume: 17 (1977) 113 ff

Moorhead, S., ‘Review of: Bijovsky, G. Gold coin and small change: monetary circulation in fifth-seventh-century Byzantine Palestine’, Volume: 174 (2014) 398 ff

Mora, B., ‘The Circulation of Bronze Currency in Málaga during the Sixth Century AD: new findings‘, Volume: 169 (2009) 424 ff

Munro-Hay, S.C., ‘A new gold coin of King MHDYS of Aksum‘, Volume: 155 (1995) 275 ff

Munro-Hay, S.C., ‘A new silver coin of King Aphilas of Aksum‘, Volume: 150 (1990) 238

Munro-Hay, S.C., ‘The al-Madhariba hoard of gold Aksumite and late Roman coins‘, Volume: 149 (1989) 83 ff. Also available as sample above.

Munro-Hay, S.C., ‘Aksumite silver coinage: some variant types in the Brereton collection‘, Volume: 147 (1987) 174 ff

O’Hara, M.D., ‘A hoard of electrum trachea of Alexius III‘, 7th series Volume: 17 (1977) 186 ff

Phillips, M. and T. Goodwin, ‘A seventh-century Syrian hoard of Byzantine and imitative copper coins‘, Volume: 157 (1997) 61 ff

Pliego, R., ‘Spain – a hoard of late Roman and Visigothic gold’, Volume: 176 (2016) 377 ff

Schindel, N. and Hahn, W., ‘Notes on Two Arab-Byzantine Coin Types from Seventh Century Syria‘, Volume: 170 (2010) 321 ff

Schindel, N. and Ladstätter, S., ‘Turkey – an early Byzantine hoard from Ephesus’, Volume: 176 (2016) 390 ff

Schulze, W., ‘The Byzantine-Arab Transitional Coinage of Ṭarṭūs‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 245 ff

Schulze, W., ‘An anonymous copper coin re-attributed from Trebizond to Syria‘, Volume: 168 (2008) 321 ff

Schulze, W., ‘A hoard of seventh-century Byzantine folles found near Aleppo‘, Volume: 167 (2007) 272 ff

Schulze, W. and Moesgaard, J. C., ‘A further hoard of tenth and eleventh century Byzantine folles with Arabic countermarks‘, Volume: 165 (2005) 339 ff

Simmons, F., ‘Review of: M. Campagnolo and K. Weber Poids Romano-Byzantins et Byzantins en alliage cuivreux‘, Volume: 175 (2015) 376 ff

Spaer, A., ‘The Rafah hoard: Byzantine sixth-century folles‘, 7th series Volume: 18 (1978) 66 ff

Travaini, L., ‘Coins as Bread. Bread as Coins‘, Volume: 173 (2013) 187 ff

Ünal, E., ‘Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval and Islamic Coins from the Excavations at Kyme, Aiolis, 1951-1954‘, Volume: 169 (2009) 407 ff

Vrij, M., ‘Review of: T. Goodwin and R. Gyselen Arab Byzantine coins from the Irbid hoard, including a new introduction to the series and a study of the Pseudo-Damascus mint‘, Volume: 176 (2016) 487 ff

Weller, H.L., ‘A coin of Constantine IV re-attributed from Constantinople to Carthage‘, Volume: 143 (1953) 220 ff

Woods, D., ‘Constantine’s tetradrachms’, Volume: 176 (2016) 207 ff

Woods, D., ‘Numismatic Evidence and the Succession to Constantine I‘, Volume: 171 (2011) 187 ff