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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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.

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