Among the most affordable of all “ancient” gold coins are issues of the
Byzantine Empire, the successor nation of the Roman Empire. Its
emperors ruled over the Eastern half of the Roman world for about a
millennium after the European territories had fallen into Barbarian
hands late in the fifth century A.D.
Perhaps the best opportunities for a collector is the solidus, the
largest regular-issue Byzantine gold coin, which weighed about 4.45
grams. Among the most available of these are solidi of the first 10
Byzantine emperors, who ruled collectively from 491 to 685. We’ll
cover their main issues in a two-part series — the first five here and
the last five in a second installment.
Though there are many rare types of Byzantine solidi, often issued
at branch mints, in this series we’ll focus on the main types that
most collectors are likely to encounter.
Anastasius (491 to 518)
The first Byzantine coin issuer, Anastasius, was a reformer by nature.
He went to great effort in A.D. 498 to modernize the copper coinage
by introducing larger coins than previous issues, yet he did nothing
to update the gold coinage, which seemingly required no attention.
Except for the use of his own name in the obverse inscription, there
is no meaningful difference between Anastasius’ solidi and those of
his predecessor, Zeno (474 to 491).
Anastasius’ solidi show on their obverse a stereotyped bust of the
emperor, three-quarters facing. His image is accompanied by a Latin
inscription that bears his name and the abbreviations DN, PF and AVG,
proclaiming the issuer to be “our lord” (dominus noster), “happy and
dutiful” (pius, felix) and “emperor” (augustus). The emperor is shown
in military attire, resting a spear over his shoulder, holding a
decorated shield and wearing armored breastplate (a cuirass). Tied
around his plumed helmet is a pearl diadem, signifying his status as emperor.
The reverse shows the standing figure of Victory, who had been
derived from the Greek goddess Nike. Though she still symbolized
victory, by this time the Byzantine Empire was a thoroughly Christian
state, and she had been demoted from a goddess to merely a
personification. Initially she is shown holding a heavy “voided” cross
(as on the predecessor issues of Zeno), but later in Anastasius’ reign
she holds a slender cross, surmounted by a Chi-Rho or a P-Cross.
Justin I (518 to 527)
The earliest solidi of the next Byzantine emperor, Justin I, a
rustic soldier who had risen through the ranks, were patterned after
those of Anastasius. They show the three-quarters facing military bust
of the emperor and the standing figure of Victory holding a long cross
surmounted by a P-Cross.
At some point in Justin’s reign, however, the reverse design
changed: the female figure of Victory shown in partial profile was
replaced by the full-facing figure of an angel who sometimes is
thought to represent Saint Michael. He holds in his right hand a long
cross and in his left a globe surmounted by a cross, an emblem
commonly known as a globus cruciger or orb cruciger.
Justinian I (527 to 565)
At the end of Justin’s life he briefly shared authority with his
nephew and longtime advisor Justinian I, a man who ranks among the
great figures of world history. After a brief transitional issue that
showed the co-emperors enthroned and a standing angel, Justinian began
to issue solidi in his own name.
Justinian’s first issue carries over the designs of his uncle, save
for the use of his own name in the obverse inscription. They appear to
have been issued until 539, at which point Justinian introduced a new
imperial portrait type in which the military bust of the emperor is
shown full-facing. Justinian still wears a cuirass, helmet and diadem,
and holds a shield, but instead of resting a spear on his shoulder he
holds aloft a globus cruciger.
Justinian continued to use Justin’s old reverse type of a standing
angel throughout his long reign. Occasionally a piece is seen on which
the angel holds a globe rather than a globus cruciger or holds a long
cross that terminates in a P-cross design.
Justin II (565 to 578)
With the death of the childless Justinian, power passed to his
nephew Justin II, who made notable design changes to the empire’s
solidi. He used the same facing bust that had been introduced by his
uncle except that Justin preferred to show himself being crowned by a
Victory that stands upon on the globe in place of a cross.
Of even greater interest is his introduction of a new reverse type.
The novel design of Justin shows the figure of Constantinopolis, the
personification of the capital city of Constantinople, who is shown
enthroned, holding a globus cruciger and a spear or a scepter. This
city had been “founded” in 330 on the old Greek city of Byzantium,
from which the term for the Byzantine Empire is derived.
Tiberius II Constantine (578 to 582)
Design innovation continued under the next emperor, Tiberius II Constantine.
He discards the traditional plumed helmet of his predecessors and
instead depicts himself wearing a crown topped with a cross. He
otherwise maintains the armor and shield of the usual bust type, and
harkens back to Justinian I’s choice of holding a globus cruciger.
The greatest change under Tiberius II, however, occurred on the
reverse. Instead of the standing figure of Victory or an angel, this
emperor depicts a cross-potent set upon a pyramid-like base of four
steps. It is thought to represent the jeweled cross that more than 150
years before, in 420 or 421, had been erected on Golgotha by the
Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II (402 to 450), who on his own
solidi appears to have celebrated his imperial gift to Jerusalem.