Byzantine Overstrikes

Some Most Byzantine Coins

The Eastern Roman state that survived the fall of the West (the famous event of 476 AD) is termed Byzantine in honor of the city of Byzantium which was renamed Constantinople upon its refounding by Constantine the Great. The term had no meaning to the inhabitants of the Empire who simple considered themselves 'Roman'. The Byzantine Empire was known for political complexity, intrigue and mystery. Byzantine art is formal and ornate. The word Byzantine itself is defined in some dictionaries as 'highly involved, intricate and convoluted' or 'having so many labyrinthine internal interconnections that it would be impossible to simplify by separation into loosely coupled or linked components.' The coins we examine this week are certainly most 'Byzantine'.

A prime requirement for the production of an issue of coins is a supply of metal on which to strike. Most mints used newly mined metal but a number of issues were produced from the recycling of older coins. When this was accomplished by melting and recasting new flans this would require complex trace element testing to detect. Our subjects this week were produced by overstriking directly on older coins. When the force and alignment of this new strike was less than perfect, traces of the 'undertype' remained. When production techniques were especially sloppy, the undertype could be as clear as the new struck design. Such was the case with many Byzantine bronzes.

Usually I begin by showing the Featured Coin of the week but, for a change, we will examine a few lesser coins to practice reading these coins. A good place to begin is to try to find the orientation ('up') of the undertype. This can be as simple as rotating the coin until some detail from the undertype makes sense. In the case of our example, the strongest part of the undertype shows the reverse mintmark NIKO at the bottom and ANNO written vertically down the left side of the coin. The problem here is that it helps a great deal to know what the undertype was in advance but usually , with luck, some feature will establish a reference from which we can seek other details. The obverse of this coin of Focas shows the letters DNMA to the right of the head with the D being smaller (anticapitalization?). Since this was a common start for coins of Maurice Tiberius (whom Focas replaced as Emperor) it would seem reasonable to place this at the left. After rotating the coin we see the confusion over the right side of Focas' face is actually the cross on a globe that Maurice held in many coin portraits. It will often help to have at hand a coin of the type suspected of being the undertype for comparison. The Maurice I have here is from Constantinople rather than Nikomedia but still shows the basic layout of the undertype. Remember that dies and styles varied so minor details (like, here, the length of the cross) will not always be an exact match. If you have trouble seeing the undertype on this example try referring to red outlined areas below and then go back to the plain photo. Note from the position of the bottom of the large M and the undertype mintmark that the original coin was rather off center to the top.

When examining overstrikes, keep an open mind to all the possibilities. There is nothing in the rules that the undertype will be from the same mint or that the new obverse will be struck on the undertype obverse. Our next coin demonstrates both of these points.

Another Focas follis of the same type and Nicomedia mint was overstruck on a different type of Maurice Tiberius. This time the small reverse die of Focas failed to remove much of the detail from the Maurice obverse even though the strike was well centered. There is clear undertype legend and the crown of Maurice is bold. Through pure good luck the original mintmark remains to Focas' right (here rotated to the bottom) so we can read THEUP (=Theopolis=Antioch). Neither this not the preceding coin show the date numeral from either strike. Finding a coin with every bit of the detail we want will require looking at thousands of specimens. Fortunately, this is quite possible; Byzantine overstrikes are very common. Finding a coin with absolutely no trace of overstriking can be much more difficult in some issues.

And now ........ Our Featured Coin:

Heraclius & Heraclius Constantine - Follis (40 nummia) - 610-641 AD - Constantinople mint
Overstruck on earlier coin - 30mm, 10.9g

What is it that made this the coin to be honored with the larger picture? The strike on this coin is so uneven that only half of the latest attempt is visible on either side. The top strike was from dies without obverse legends (making the coin much less confusing!). We are shown standing figures of Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine. Rotated a quarter turn to the left we see the top of the undertype portrait (Focas, I think) and small faint letters OCA shown here at 7 to 8 o'clock. At the bottom, in a much larger and bolder font, is TIb. The letters look right to be Tiberius II Constantine who ruler before Maurice Tiberius. Is this a triple strike? I have absolutely no explanation of how the under-undertype could be so bold by comparison. There must be an alternate reading that I am missing. I considered the possibility that the trace of XXXX that I see on the reverse (therefore, Focas) is actually XXX from a 30 nummia coin of Tiberius. This would require me to be wrong (a regular event, trust me) about the reading of OCA on the obverse. How did this coin get the honor of being Featured Coin? It is the one I want help understanding. What do you see here?

Frequently, overstrikes are messy combinations of the two dies that contributed to their production. Some, like this Heraclius over Maurice, segregate the two dies to separate halves of the flan. Others interlace detail so that is difficult to tell which details belong to which design. There are no real rules on this subject except that the undertype was struck earlier than the top coin. In some issues, this rule can be used to establish dating sequences. It is often said that every ancient coin is a unique individual. This is certainly true when dealing with overstrikes. What you see and what was lost is a matter of luck.

Why were coins overstruck? Some issues were struck to convert politically incorrect coins into current material. This seems to have been more of a factor during the Byzantine period than in the earlier periods. Some were made to produce profit and convert old, heavy issues into coins of the current standard. This Focas (year 4) over Maurice (year 16 - got lucky here!) was clipped removing the metal overage. The extreme of this was employed when some older issues were quartered and a new coin struck on each piece. The mints seemed to have no concern that overstriking left so many remnants of the earlier coins. Perhaps Byzantine overstriking served the same function as countermarking in earlier issues. The new coins were thus certified as good value and backed by the current ruler. Production must have been at a furious pace. Collectors who value their coins for their mystery rather than artistic beauty might find Byzantine overstrikes a worthwhile study.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith