Collecting early Byzantine Empire gold solidi coins: Ancients Today

Among the most affordable ancient gold coins
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 11/23/15
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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.

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