Lettered Byzantine Bronzes

Denominationally Marked Coins

Historians and coin collectors like things tied up in pretty little packages. Ancient coins often are collected in categories 'Greek', 'Roman' and 'Byzantine'. 'Greek' coins include a number of cultures not at all Greek but needing to be shoehorned somewhere into the system. Greek cities during the time of the Roman Empire produced a coinage combining Greek and Roman characteristics. Fourth Century Rome was divided into East and West which developed along separate paths. The East came to be known for the city of Byzantium converted to Constantinople as capitol of the Roman East. Again there is a period of history on the border between what fits neatly into 'Roman' and what seems better termed 'Byzantine'. Roman Emperors of the East who ruled before the fall of the West are Roman or Byzantine depending on just how one chooses to force the categories. The division is not very crisply defined.

Gold coins of these ruler follow the same pattern. 'Byzantine' sixth century solidi look like the natural progression from solidi of the Roman fourth century. In bronze coinage, however, there is a completely different situation. Collectors of bronze coins see a distinct line between what is Roman and what is Byzantine. This line was the introduction of a completely different bronze coinage by the numismatic 'First Byzantine Emperor' Anastasius (491-518 AD). The coinage reform of 498 AD ended the production of huge quantities of tiny bronze coins which had declined from the large, impressive issues of Diocletian to tiny scraps of metal hardly recognizable as coins. Anastasius' new system centered on a 'follis' worth 40 of the old, tiny coins. To make sure that there was no doubt of the value of the new coins, the value was spelled out with a huge Greek numeral M=40. These denominationally marked bronzes were the standard of the Byzantine world for nearly three centuries.

Largest (B) is 38mm diameter.

There are many varieties of the denominationally marked Byzantine coins over these three centuries. Certainly a small page like this can not cover all of these. We will examine a series of examples which will introduce the series. Full identification of many of these coins is made difficult by the fact that many Byzantine bronzes are poorly struck and poorly preserved. Our examples are far from high grade but are still better than many offered on the market. Certain identification of some will require handling a few thousand coins.

The Examples:

A: Anastasius I - Follis of 40 (M) nummi - Constantinople mint. The thin flan of this coin was insufficient to strike up the full detail. Missing is the workshop letter under the M and much portrait detail.

B: Justinian I - Follis - Cyzicus mint. Many Byzantine bronzes used facing portraits with many fancy details. Unfortunately, many are worn or poorly struck and missing facial details. The reverse shows a year of reign date (ANNO XII = Year12 = 539 AD) as well as the mintmark, workshop letter (B) and decorative cross.

C: Focas - Follis - Constantinople mint. A few 40 nummi coins used Roman numerals in place of the Greek. Here XXXX equals 40. Inflation reduced the size of the follis. Many later folles were overstruck on older coins which were clipped to reduce the weight. This flan is obviously trimmed. This coin was shown on my page on Byzantine Overstrikes. It is quite confused in appearance but shows enough of the undertype to reveal this year 4 Focas was struck on a year 14 of Maurice Tiberius. Overstrikes that are fortunate enough to retain both dates are a bit unusual but seem to bring no premium when sold. Overstrikes are so common in this series that coins not showing any trace of undertype are more scarce and desirable.

D: Maurice Tiberius - Follis - Constantinople mint. Some issues used a script letter M. This coin is dated to year 8 using a ligate form ui as 6 with two additional strokes to equal 8. By the time this coin was struck, it is becoming common for obverse legends to be partial and difficult to read.

E: Focas - Follis - Antioch mint. Some issues show full length portraits. On this year 2 follis we see the Emperor (left) and his wife Leontia (right). At this time, the city of Antioch was named Theoupolis.

F: Constans II - Follis - Constantinople mint. Latest and smallest of our example folles is this small coin of Constans II. The reverse exergue contained the year date and workshop letter but both are lost on this specimen. The obverse legend does not name the Emperor but shows the Greek EN TOUTO NIKA = By this sign you will conquer.

G: Justin II - Half Follis of 20 Nummi - Cyzicus mint. In addition to the folles of 40 nummi, various fractions were also issued. Most common is the half follis with Greek numeral for 20 = K. Rare is the month that I do not receive an email asking about a coin with the large K on the reverse. Many are so poorly struck that it is impossible to read the obverse legend. Layout of devices is the same as on the larger coins.

H: Focas - Half Follis - Carthage mint. As on the larger follis, some 20 nummi coins used Roman numerals in place of the Greek.

I: Heraclius - 12 Nummi - Alexandria mint. Some mints issued coins of odd denominations. In addition to this 12 nummi piece, there are coins of 30 and 16 nummi.

J: Justin I - 5 Nummi - Constantinople mint. Fractions of the follis included the quarter of 10 nummi (Greek numeral I=10) and the eighth (E=5 nummi). These small coins are rarely struck well enough to contain all the legends. This example shows the mintmark CON vertically and workshop delta both right of the large E. Being off center in the correct direction here was fortunate.

K: Pile of one nummus pieces from late 5th century for comparison. While a few one nummus coins were issued in the denominationally marked series (A=1), the denomination was so small that it was little used. The examples in our pile (20 including those completely hidden in the pile) just demonstrate the sorry state of bronze coinage before the reform of 498 AD.

After the 8th century, Byzantine rulers abandoned the use of denominationally lettered bronzes ending a fascinating series for collectors. Byzantine bronzes can be considered a bit crude and ugly but they are plentiful, low priced and well deserving of study by collectors.

Back to Main page

(c) 1997 Doug Smith