World Coins

Rare Byzantine silver coins: Ancients Today

In May of 1990, when I was a staff writer  for Coin World, I interviewed the Hunt brothers concerning the ancient coin collections that had been assembled on their behalf.

Though Nelson Bunker Hunt had focused on Greek and Roman coins, his brother, William Herbert, chose Byzantine. When I asked what his favorite Byzantine coins were, he replied that he liked the silver ones best because they were so much rarer than the gold or the copper.

Though William Herbert Hunt was never deeply involved in the details of his acquisitions, he was on the mark with his comment on Byzantine silver since, generally, it is significantly rarer than the gold, electrum, billon or copper coins of that empire.

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Even so, a great many silver coins were issued throughout the nearly thousand years of the Byzantine Empire. Silver coins assumed many different forms in the Byzantine world depending upon when and where they were minted, and assembling even a basic type set of attractive examples is a daunting challenge.

Several silver Byzantine types

Though a variety of “ceremonial” silver Byzantine coins were made, we’ll examine just the principal issues made for regular circulation.

Most Byzantine silver coins were struck at the mint in Constantinople. This rule applies to almost every period of Byzantine history except the earliest, during which the only regular issues appear to have been struck at mints in Italy and North Africa.

These regions formerly were part of the Roman Empire, but long ago had been lost to Germanic invasions. 

The opportunity to strike coins there returned during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527 to 565), when an effort was made to reclaim these lands.

All of the early Byzantine silver coins from western mints were small and thin, and were denominated as siliquae (and fractional siliquae) or were valued in terms of copper nummi (typically ranging from 250 to 30 nummi). After Justinian I, such coins also were struck for about two centuries longer, from Tiberius II Constantine (578 to 582) through Constantine V (740 or 741 to 775).

Many of the small silver pieces from western mints that bear the names and caricature-like images of Byzantine emperors actually were produced by “barbarian” nations such as the Vandals and the Ostrogoths. There is tremendous variety in both the Byzantine and the imitative issues, and sometimes it is hard to differentiate them. 

By contrast, Byzantine silver coins of the Constantinople Mint from Anastasius I (491 to 518) through the early years of Heraclius (610 to 641) are very rare, and are considered ceremonial pieces. 

However, this all changed in about 615, when Heraclius produced a large silver coin, perhaps using metal from church plate that had been “secularized” during his war with the Sasanid Persians, called a hexagram.

Heraclius’ new silver coins typically weighed about 6.70 to 6.85 grams. These were heavy coins — far heavier, in fact, than any regular silver coin that had been issued by the Romans. They were poorly struck on thick, irregularly shaped planchets with cliff-like edges, which makes it difficult to find an example that is fully and evenly struck.

Leo launches a lighter coin

The hexagram was relatively short-lived, being struck in large quantities for only about 70 years, after which silver coinage seems to have disappeared from the Byzantine economy. However, the hiatus after the demise of the hexagram was relatively brief, for in about 720 the Emperor Leo III (717 to 740 or 741) introduced the miliaresion, a lighter silver coin that weighed about 2.25 to 3.0 grams.

Miliaresia were struck on round planchets that were thin, broad and flat. This was in keeping with the contemporary silver dirham of the Muslim world, and hardly could have been coincidental, for it likely was intended to facilitate trade.

The miliaresion endured far longer than its predecessor, the hexagram. During the first century of its minting it may have been issued only when new co-emperors were crowned. However, starting with Theophilus (829 to 841) the miliaresion appears to have been struck with some regularity. In the final decades of its production — the mid-to-late 11th century — fractional miliaresia were also issued.

In 1092 Byzantine coinage underwent a massive reform in which the high-purity miliaresion was replaced with a cup-shaped coin usually called an aspron trachy. It often weighed about 4.5 grams, but even at its peak it was just 7 percent silver, and within a century it had declined to just 2 percent. Soon afterward it was merely copper.

Good silver makes return

Perhaps a century after the demise of the aspron trachy, good silver coinage returned significantly in the Byzantine world. Sometime around 1300 the Emperor Andronicus II (1282 to 1328) introduced a new silver coin, the basilicon. Though it was modeled after the coins of the powerful city-state of Venice, the fabric of this new Byzantine coin was not much different than the old miliaresion.

In the 1330s and 1340s, a shortage of silver in Europe caused a reduction in the weight of the basilicon. Perhaps in about 1367 the Emperor John V (1341 to 1391) abandoned the basilicon in favor of an entirely new silver coin, the stavraton (sometimes called a half-hyperpyron). Introduced at a weight of about 8.50 grams, it was the heaviest regular-issue silver coin ever to be struck in the Byzantine Empire. Though its weight eventually slid to about 7.40 grams, the absence of any current gold coinage marked it as the highest-value Byzantine coin.

In physical appearance, the stavraton resembles the old hexagram, for its planchet is thick and heavy, its shape only approximately round, and it has cliff-like edges. Like the hexagram, it also suffered from poor striking quality that makes finding a complete example nearly impossible. 

The stavraton and its fractions remained the silver coinage of the empire up through the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (1448 to 1453), who perished defending the walls of Constantinople against a besieging army of Ottoman Turks. 

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