Byzantium: A Golden Era of Coinage
11 December 2018 – 21 May 2019
For a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire dominated the eastern Mediterranean. Centred on the capital of Constantinople, it was a beacon of Roman power, Greek influence and Christian worship, which spanned the ancient and medieval worlds. A succession of emperors and empresses directed civil, military and religious affairs within ever shifting borders. Coins bearing their images were struck at mints across the Empire, reflecting dramatic periods of history and a golden era of coinage from an extraordinary civilisation.
Pictured: Nicephorus II, histamenon nomisma, 963 – 969, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:46478, McFarlan.
On 11 May 330, the new Roman capital of Constantinople was officially inaugurated by Constantine the Great. The former Greek colony of Byzantion, renamed in the emperor’s honour, had been transformed to better control vital imperial links between Europe and Asia. Residents of Constantinople called themselves Byzantines in homage to its former name, but their sense of identity remained steadfast - they were Romans.
Pictured: Constantine I, solidus, 312 – 317, gold, Rome, GLAHM:33565, Hunter.
A huge variety of gold and base metal denominations were produced by Byzantine mints. Silver was less common. Gold underpinned the Byzantine economy, trade and taxation, with the solidus and histamenon nomisma maintaining their weight and fineness almost continuously until the early 11th century. These coins became the dominant currency not only within the borders of the empire, but also in neighbouring territories.
Pictured: Maurice Tiberius, solidus, 583 – 601, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:46363, McFarlan.
Christianity was the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. Faith moulded society from top to bottom. Religious imagery flourished on coinage from the 6th century on. However, two disputes threatened ideological stability. One was Iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons. The other was the schism between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, which permanently separated the Roman Catholic Church in the west and Greek Orthodox Church in the east.
Pictured: Justinian II (second reign), solidus, 705, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:46454, McFarlan.
The Byzantine state was deeply militaristic, with its Christian identity fundamental to the maintenance of morale. Existing in a near-perpetual cycle of war across turbulent frontiers, peace was often bought through accords and tribute. From wars against powerful external enemies to civil strife that threatened to tear Byzantium apart, a few emperors emerged to change the course of history.
Pictured: Basil II, histamenon nomisma, 1005 – 1025, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:46486, McFarlan.
Byzantine society was overwhelmingly patriarchal, with women barred from high office in the civil service, military and church. Only those born into the aristocracy were able to exert influence in political, religious, social and economic spheres. Despite these considerable obstacles, a handful of women climbed to the heights of absolute monarchy.
Pictured: Theodora, tetarteron nomisma, 1055 – 1056, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:36488, Hunter.
Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, but also took great pride in their Greek heritage. Emperors sought inspiration from both eras to project power, domination and masculinity. Beards were fundamental to Byzantine male identity as symbols of maturity and adulthood. This was reflected in the coinage, with emperors adorned with facial hair of varying fullness according to age and seniority.
Pictured: Michael VII, histamenon nomisma, 1071 – 1078, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:46517, McFarlan.
In 1204, the Christian army of the Fourth Crusade seized Constantinople. Byzantines scattered and settled in new locations. These empires in exile fought the new Latin rulers of Constantinople, each other, and their neighbours. In 1261, the empire was restored. However, decline set in. Wracked by civil wars and under constant pressure from enemies on their borders, the Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453.
Pictured: John III, Empire of Nicaea, hyperpyron, 1222 – 1254, gold, Magnesia, GLAHM:46621, McFarlan.
The survival of Constantinople, despite the odds, shielded Western Europe from powerful Middle Eastern empires, and allowed the continent to develop. The Orthodox Church remains vibrant around the world. Accepted throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, the solidus, symbol of the Byzantine Empire, set an unparalleled standard in numismatic history, epitomising what was truly a golden era of coinage.
Pictured: Anastasius I, solidus, 491 – 518, gold, Constantinople, GLAHM:36003, Hunter.
Staff of The Hunterian, in particular Dr Donal Bateson, Chris MacLure, Harriet Gaston and Adam Hotson. Grateful thanks also to Emmet Milne.