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.