5th Century AD Roman Bronzes

Coins on the Cusp of History

Collectors tend to pigeonhole their coins into 'categories': Greek, Roman and Byzantine just to name a few. The fact, however, remains that neither coins in particular nor history in general should be broken into such neat little packages. Roman civilization arose out of the cultural influences of the Greek world and Greek cities continued to thrive and issue coins with some degree of independence throughout the period of Roman domination.

Similarly, the division between the Roman and Byzantine periods is not easily defined. The man on the street of the Byzantine Empire thought of himself as 'Romaion' (of the Romans). Some historians define the start of the Byzantine period to be when there was a separate Emperor for the East and West. Others end the Roman period at the traditional date for the 'Fall' (476 A.D.) and default to Byzantine everything after that date. Coin collectors tend to consider the 498 A.D. currency reform of Anastasius to be a convenient place to start the Byzantine coinage.

Cohen, the great 19th Century cataloger of Roman coins, declined to list issues in the name of Arcadius who was given the Eastern Empire by his father Theodosius I but did list coins of his brother Honorius who received the West. The coin shown here (AE2: 21mm, 5.5g) was issued in the Eastern mint of Antioch and is listed as Cohen 20 because it shows the Western Emperor. Since mints coined for both rulers, this same mint on the same day was striking the same type coin for Arcadius. These are not found in Cohen. A writer of catalogs has to decide where to start and where to finish. Unfortunately, Cohen took the early option. This week we will look at a few coins of the Roman Empire too early to be considered Byzantine but too 'Eastern' to have made it into the Cohen catalog. They are the issues of the stable Eastern Empire during the last years of the Western chaos that culminated in the famous 476 A.D. 'Fall'.

Our 'Featured Coin' is a tiny nummus or AE4 of the Eastern Emperor Leo I. Most 5th Century bronzes available are wretched little scraps of metal too small to bear all of the die design. Even with a dirt filled flan void that goes all the way through and a flan so small it loses the mintmark and half of the obverse legend, this coin is better than most. Through pure good luck the little legend that remains includes the unusual variety with 'Lambda' for 'L' in LEO. Since this variety was issued at Constantinople, the lack of a mintmark on the flan is less significant. The coin also has a nice strike of one of the several monograms ('LEONIS') used by this ruler. One of the appeals of this specialty (rather popular among collectors) is the possibility of finding an unusual variety that was previously not recognized. This one, however, is listed in RIC.

Leo I - Bronze AE4 - Constantinople mint
Bust right DN LambdaEO (PF AVG)
Monogram in wreath LEONIS
(CON in exergue off flan)
RIC (Vol X p293) 686 - 10x12 mm, 1.2g

Above are six more 5th century examples. They are special for the fact that they bear enough detail to allow full attribution; not all coins from this period are so clear or so easily attributed. We have (left to right) Theodosius II (cross), Constantinople; Marcian (monogram), Constantinople; Leo I (Lion), Constantinople; Leo I (Verina, his wife, standing), Nicomedia ; Leo I (Facing bust of Verina), Constantinople and Leo I (monogram) Constantinople. Of the late emperors, coins of Marcian (450-457 A.D.) are most frequently seen but Leo (457-474 A.D.) offers the greatest variety of types. Sizes and weights vary quite a bit. At 0.6g, the smallest Leo shown here weighs about half the largest. At the same time that these coins were being produced, Western mints were producing even more wretched looking AE4's in the names of the puppet emperors that filled the last days of the Western Empire. These are all rare and certainly worth searching out when looking at unidentified lots. I regret that I have none to show you.
The value of the nummus was so little that most purchases required a bag (follis) full. In 498 A.D. Emperor Anastasius reformed the coinage issuing bronze denominations up to 40 nummia (a "follis") with values marked on the reverse in Greek numerals (M=40). For comparison, our photo includes an 8mm, 0.46g. pre-reform single nummus of Anastasius and a 35mm, 17.29g. post reform 40. The styles and weight standards would vary greatly over the following centuries but the follis of 40 nummia became the standard bronze coin of the Byzantine economy. Several were shown in our previous feature page on Byzantine coins.

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(c) 1998, 2011 Doug Smith