In the late fifth century A.D., the Roman world was in transition.
The European territories that were still in Roman hands — including
Italy — were impoverished and on the verge of collapse, whereas the
eastern territories were faring comparatively well and could resist
The inevitable happened in A.D. 476, when the Roman government based
in Italy was overthrown by German soldiers led by Flavius Odovacar.
The emperor of the time, Romulus Augustus, was himself a puppet ruler,
hailed emperor by his father, Orestes, who was then the
highest-ranking soldier in the West. Though Roman culture remained in
the West, Roman rule ceased.
With the Roman world now reduced to territories in the East, most
would agree that by A.D. 476 the era known as “Byzantine” had begun.
Some historians place the transition earlier, as far back as the late
third century A.D., or at various points in the fourth century. We
should note that the term “Byzantine” only came into regular use in
the 18th century, and that the Byzantines referred to themselves as
Romaioi — Romans.
The numismatic transition from the Roman to the Byzantine empires is
relatively clear, even if it does not coincide with the fall of the
West in A.D. 476. The reason for the inconsistency is that the system
for gold coinage remained intact, yet base metal coinage was reformed
radically in about A.D. 498 by the Byzantine emperor Anastasius (A.D.
491 to 518).
Since the reform of base metal coinage took place only a short period
of time after the fall of the West, that event is the assured starting
point for Byzantine coinage. Understandably, though, even the
pre-reform coins of Anastasius are categorized as Byzantine since his
entire reign is considered to be part of the new era.
In Late Roman times, gold coinage was issued consistently at a
network of mints throughout the empire. The chief denomination was the
solidus, a coin with a target weight of about 4.4 to 4.5 grams, struck
at 72 to the Roman pound. It was renowned for the consistency of its
weight and purity, and was the standard trade coin of the Roman and
Byzantine world for centuries.
Except for ceremonial issues, the other gold coins of the era were
the semissis (half-solidus) and tremissis (third-solidus), both of
which were struck in reasonable quantities. The tremissis was
especially popular in the West, and after the fall of Roman rule it
soon became the gold coin of choice in Western Europe.
Gold coins were unchanged in the transition from Rome to Byzantium.
Their weights and purities remained consistent, and even the basic
designs were the same as those used by the previous emperors in the
East, Leo I (A.D. 457 to 474) and Zeno (A.D. 474 to 475 and 476 to 491).
In earlier times the Romans had a relatively balanced system in which
an abundant silver coinage filled the gap between the valuable gold
coinage and the “token” issues of copper, bronze or brass. Over time,
silver was struck less frequently, and by the later fifth century it
was no longer a significant part of the coinage system.
This meant a great disparity in value existed between gold and base
metal coins, especially since the copper pieces had degenerated
greatly in size. The base metal coin of the era, a nummus, was only
about 7 to 12 millimeters in diameter and typically weighed 0.5 gram
to 1.5 grams. They were very common, and were held in low regard. The
value of the little coppers varied depending on location and economic
conditions, but normally one gold solidus was equal to about 7,000 to
To Anastasius and John the Paphlagonian, who was Anastasius’ count of
the sacred largess (the equivalent of a public treasurer), the
situation was untenable: virtually no coins existed to fill the chasm
between the lowly nummus and the gold coinage. Silver was then too
scarce for large-scale coin production, so more valuable copper
denominations were introduced.
The largest of these new coppers, known as a follis, was valued at 40
nummi. Though it still required 420 of these coins to equal a gold
solidus, it was a great advancement in closing the monetary gap,
especially since 140 of them were the equivalent of a gold tremissis.
The earliest of the folles were struck on relatively compact
planchets about 22 millimeters in diameter, gradually increasing to
planchets as large as 27 millimeters.
Starting in about A.D. 512 the planchet size was increased to about
30 to 35 millimeters, with some examples being as large as about 38 millimeters.
This flagship denomination was supplemented with three others: a
20-nummus (half-follis), 10-nummus (quarter-follis) and 5-nummus
(eighth-follis). It was easy to distinguish these new coppers by their
relative size, and also by their designs, making it a highly
The reverse of the 40-nummus bore a large M, which was the equivalent
of 40 in the Greek numbering system. Likewise, the 20-nummus bore a
large K, the 10-nummus an I and the 5-nummus an E. It may be
surprising that in an empire of self-proclaimed Romans a Greek
numbering system was used for coin denominations, but the East was
still culturally Greek, and Greek was still commonly spoken.
Anastasius’ coinage reform was effective, for it was continued by his
immediate successors, Justin I (518 to 527), Justinian I (527 to 565),
Justin II (565 to 578), and others beyond, each of whom adjusted the
formula slightly to suit his needs.
The follis achieved its greatest size in the 12th year of Justinian I
(A.D. 538 to 539), when his own monetary reform caused an increase in
the weight and size of the follis, which in that year normally ranged
from 40 to 45 millimeters in diameter and weighed between 20 and 24 grams.
The appearance of the follis also changed, with the imperial portrait
evolving from a profile view to a full-facing bust in military attire,
and the inclusion of a date, reckoned according to the emperor’s
regnal year. The increased size of the follis, however, was too
ambitious, and by Justinian’s 16th year the increase had been