Early Byzantine gold solidi coins recall past: Ancients Today

Coins of bygone civilization are widely collected
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 12/19/15
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Byzantine gold coins are widely collected as artifacts of a remarkable, bygone civilization. Though they may not have the fine artistry of Greek coins or the distinctive portraits of their Roman predecessors, Byzantine coins have a charm best defined by their simplicity.

The most widely collected gold denomination is the solidus, which weighed about 4.45 grams. Those produced by the first 10 Byzantine emperors, whose reigns cover the period A.D. 491 to 685, are among the most available and affordable in the series.

In the first installment of this two-part series (December Coin World monthly) we discussed the issues of Anastasius (491 to 518) to Tiberius II Constantine (578 to 582). In this part we will finish with the solidi of Maurice Tiberius (582 to 602) to Constantine IV (668 to 685). As in the first part, we’ll focus on the principal types struck at the capital of Constantinople, which collectors are most likely to encounter, rather than ceremonial, rare, or branch mint types.

Maurice Tiberius (582 to 602)

For his initial solidi, Maurice Tiberius adopted the same obverse type as had been used by his predecessor, Tiberius II Constantine, which shows the emperor’s crowned, facing military bust, holding a globus cruciger and a shield. The shield, however, is now almost imperceptible as it blends in with surrounding elements.

About a year into his reign, however, Maurice changed his obverse design. He abandoned the crowned bust and reverted to a more traditional one in which he wears a plumed helmet. As for the reverse type, he discarded the cross-potent on steps that had been used by his predecessor and reverted to the facing angel design that had been introduced by Justin I (518 to 527) and had been perpetuated by Justinian I (527 to 565).

Phocas (602 to 610)

The solidi of Phocas are distinctive in appearance, for this emperor represents himself with a full beard — something not found on earlier Byzantine solidi. No one could have predicted that bearded portraits would remain dominant for the next 850 years, until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Phocas’ portrait is presented as full-facing, adorned with an armored cuirass and a crown surmounted by cross. Additionally, he holds a globus cruciger, with the once-familiar shield over the left arm now being completely eliminated.

There are two major variants of Phocas’ bust type: the earliest with pendilia and the later ones without. Pendilia are ornaments that hang from the edge of the crown and dangle at the sides the emperor’s head. Phocas’ standard reverse type is quite simple, showing an angel standing, facing, holding a P-cross and a globus cruciger.

Heraclius (610 to 641)

Just as with Phocas, the portraits of Heraclius are bearded, with the length of his beard varying considerably depending upon when in his reign the coin was struck. Unlike Phocas, though, Heraclius issued three distinctive types of solidi, all of which were struck in large quantities.

One type bears the facing, helmeted bust of Heraclius, who holds a globus cruciger and a shield; another shows the facing busts of Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine beneath a cross; and the third type shows the standing figures of Heraclius and his sons Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas, each holding a globus cruciger. All of these obverse types are paired with a reverse showing a cross-potent on a stepped base.

Constans II (641 to 668) 

As if Heraclius hadn’t done enough to expand the normally streamlined approach to solidus production, Constans II issued four major types, with three of them being struck in very large quantities. Many variants are recorded, some of which involve beard length.

Two types use as their reverse type a cross-potent on a base of three steps. The first of these shows the facing, crowned bust of Constans II, adorned with cross and holding a globus cruciger; the other features the facing busts of Constans II and his eldest son, Constantine IV. The other common type shows on its obverse the facing busts of father and eldest son, and on its reverse the standing figures of the emperor’s two younger sons, Heraclius and Tiberius, flanking a cross upon a globe or a stepped base.

A final type, struck in smaller quantity, shows on its obverse the facing crowned bust of Constans II adorned with a cross and plumed helmet and holding a globus cruciger. The reverse type is reminiscent of an obverse of Heraclius, for it shows the standing figures of three rulers, Constantine IV, Heraclius and Tiberius, each holding a globus cruciger.

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