The coinage of the Byzantine Empire received a major face-lift early in the reign of the Emperor John I (A.D. 969 to 976): The image of the emperor, which had long appeared on the standard copper coin (the “follis”), was replaced with that of Jesus Christ.
More so, even the name of the issuing emperor disappeared, being replaced by inscriptions dedicated to Christ.
The fact that the emperor’s image and name were excluded from these coins has given rise to their familiar classification as “anonymous” folles. They were struck for nearly 125 years, until the Emperor Alexius I (1081 to 1118) reformed Byzantine coinage in 1092.
When the first of these anonymous folles was struck — perhaps in the year 970 — an image of Christ was nothing new to Byzantine coinage. It had appeared frequently on gold coins of the previous 275 years. However, when John I chose to portray Christ rather than himself on the widely distributed copper coinage, it was truly an innovation.
This large and diverse series of anonymous folles consists of 16 distinct issues, the chronology of which has been difficult to establish. Generations of scholars struggled to attribute these coins to specific emperors.
The arrangement by Margaret Thompson in the mid-20th century, which assigns a letter to each successive issue, was based upon her work with excavations at the Athenian agora in the 1930s. Her approach has stood the test of time, though it was expanded and fine-tuned by Philip Grierson in 1973, based upon the massive Byzantine coin collection at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C.
The most helpful feature in developing this chronology was the fact that so many anonymous folles are overstruck on older coins that were withdrawn from circulation to be used as planchets for new issues. In these cases, the undertypes provide the earliest possible date — a terminus post quem — at which a coin could have been struck. Collectively, they help to establish firm dates for some issues and to outline a relative chronology for the series as a whole.
From the reign of John I until Constantine X (1059 to 1067), anonymous folles were the only kind issued. Then, starting with the reign of Constantine X, folles bearing the name of the issuing emperor were struck alongside the anonymous types, which makes all subsequent issues somewhat easier to classify.
The obverses of all anonymous folles portray Christ. The issues struck up through about 1050 (categorized as Classes A, B and C in David Sear’s 1987 book Byzantine Coins and Their Values) identify the bust as that of Christ Emmanuel, and those afterward as Jesus Christ. In some cases the images appear to have been inspired by famous icons, and in other cases, perhaps, by the well-known images of Christ Antiphonetes and Christ of Chalke. In every case Christ is shown full-facing with a cross and nimbus clearly visible behind his head, reflecting the standard iconography of the era.
Though the general format of the anonymous folles is repetitive, with the obverse showing an image of Christ and the reverse usually showing an inscription, a cross or both, much variety is within. Also, some issues seldom survive in attractive condition, and certain types are extremely rare in any grade, which make the series interesting and challenging to collect.