Most silver coins from Byzantine Constantinople’s mint are rarer than the empire’s other issues

Ancients Today: Nearly 1,000 years of silver coins assume many forms, depending on when minted
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 12/23/16
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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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