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Talking about Ancient and Byzantine Coins: Interview with Yannis Stoyas

October 20, 2015

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: money – or the lack of it – has kept Greece in the news for the last few years. But what about the currencies in use for centuries before the euro was ever imagined? This comprehensive new interview by Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso with Greek numismatist Yannis Stoyas covers many aspects, from the role of gold coinage in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires to the contemporary worlds of numismatics, auctions and governmental regulations on coin collecting. As such, this wide-ranging interview will be of interest to readers from many backgrounds.

Yannis Stoyas works as a Researcher Curator in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection, Athens. Since 2004 he has been teaching Numismatics and History of Money at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. He has participated in numismatic exhibits and conferences and has produced several publications. Among them, he is co-author (with Prof. Vasiliki Penna) of the Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Greece 7 (Academy of Athens, 2012). He is also a PhD candidate in Medieval History (University of the Peloponnese), working on a dissertation under the title ‘The Catalan-Aragonese presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1261-1460: An economic, military and political study.’

Background and Initial Inspirations

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today, Yannis. I’d like to begin by asking firstly about yourself – how did you get interested in the study of coins in the first place, and how did you continue this interest to where you are today?

Yannis Stoyas: It is quite telling that my first and most profound love was history, rather more than archaeology, which I studied at the University of Ioannina, in my hometown. But with coinage you can combine both, at least from a certain point of view that deems necessary to employ in numismatics a historian’s mentality.

Yannis Stoyas- interview with Balkanalysis

Numismatist Yannis Stoyas is a leading expert on ancient and Byzantine coinage, and offers considerable insight into both historical and contemporary issues affecting coins.

Numismatics deals with several layers of history such as art history, economy, religion, political propaganda, etc. There are aspects of all these illustrated on coins or associated with them. The basic thing is to see what link can be discerned connecting a coin possibly with a historical event. This is my main scope.

CD: Very interesting, and an important point. So, if your main motive for pursuing a career with numismatics is academic, can you tell us a little more about how you became interested in it in the first place?

YS: After finishing my undergraduate studies, I started working in the Archaeological Service, for the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Quite early on, I felt this inclination to deal with coins in particular, and so thereafter, from 1996 to 2007, I worked in the Numismatic Museum at Athens. In the beginning, I had the privilege to work under the guidance of Ioannis Touratsoglou, the Museum’s Director until 2002. My first numismatic work was actually in an EU-funded collaboration project with the British Museum, the realization of an internet exhibition; back then, this was a rather pioneering thing. That was between mid-1996 and early 1999.

CD: What was that exhibition about?

YS: It was called ‘Presveis – One Currency for Europe: Common Coinage from Antiquity to the Modern Age.’ Common coinage was divided into two major categories of case studies. One, in the coinages of ancient federal states and leagues; such an example is the Achaean League in the Hellenistic period. Two, in the common currencies more or less imposed, either by the success of their own prestige or by military/political force. Within this category, the coinage of ancient Athens was quite successful in an international level, used for trade or for mercenary payments. Another example would be the coinage of Alexander the Great, imposed by his military campaigns and then widely diffused. The focus of the project was to examine the idea of common currency, from its very beginnings, and present it online for the public. Collaborating with the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, which has a really magnificent collection, was quite an experience.

The KIKPE Numismatic Collection and Its Scientific Purpose

CD: Very interesting. And since then? What brought you to your current position?

YS: I continued to be employed by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture until 2009; since that same year I started to work for the KIKPE (the Welfare Foundation for Social and Cultural Affairs/ Koinofeles Idryma Koinonikou kai Politistikou Ergou). This is a private foundation that conducts a wide variety of public-benefit nonprofit activities. These activities revolve around the two basic axes in the foundation’s name, social and cultural aspects. Within the foundation’s cultural/educational undertakings is also incorporated one of the most intriguing coin collections in Greece.

CD: This is a very interesting institute indeed. Can you tell us how large are the KIKPE’s numismatic holdings?

YS: At present, in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection there are kept about 4,500 coins. A main part is comprised of Ancient Greek coins, while the part of Byzantine coins is also large; in our acquisitions there are also included Roman Provincial, Western Medieval, Islamic, Ottoman, Modern Greek coins, etc. The Collection has some keynote features that make it rather unique. First of all, it is monometallic, containing almost exclusively copper and/or bronze coins. All were purchased from auction houses in the abroad.

CD: Interesting! But why only at foreign auctions, when there are so many local collectors and excavations? I would imagine foreign auction prices would be much higher as well. And why do you not buy the more ‘desirable’ silver and gold coins?

YS: Well, there are some legal complexities with buying from within Greece, so a policy has been assumed not to bother getting involved in such a fuss. On the other hand, it is safer to follow a standard procedure and bid in auctions abroad or buy from fixed price lists and then import the items, with the Greek state always being aware. If this is done according to a strategic plan, the goals of the collection can be achieved. Perhaps the Foundation could also buy gold coins if it wished, but this is not the adopted approach.

CD: What is determining your Collection, then?

YS: One point was to cover the whole ancient world, from Spain to India, and from Crimea to Morocco. That was more or less the known world then, where coinage was minted and used for trade (leaving aside the case of China). The initial idea was quite simple: to have at least one coin from each mint that functioned during the Classical and Hellenistic times, and then proceed with other periods.

CD: Still, it is not in the purview of the collection to have silver or gold coins from these mints?

YS: Technically speaking, there are in the Collection a few subaerate coins, plated coins with a copper core and silver coating; there are also very few coins of copper-silver alloy and of cupro-nickel alloy. Such cases are within our scope.

CD: If price was not the issue, why did you choose to focus on the copper and bronze coins?

YS: Because this Collection is intended to be used on a scientific level, mapping the ancient world through coins. Another essential concept was put forward by the head of the Collection, Dr Vasiliki Penna (also Associate Professor in the University of the Peloponnese), and this was to bring in the spotlight the everyday transactions in several ancient societies; dealing with copper and bronze is preferable, because these were the base metals most commonly used in the everyday life of the people. These are also found widely, across the whole geographic area we are researching. Furthermore, after a fashion, some coins are repatriated; it is more preferable to acquire them at foreign auctions, so they are brought back to Greece by making legal purchases.

CD: Interesting! Is that a difficult procedure, or with certain complex regulations?

YS: This is rather a quite simple procedure: one has to present the documents which indicate that the items were legally acquired in compliance with international rules.

Legal Issues Affecting Collectors of Coins and other Antiquities in Greece

CD: How does it work on the legal aspect within Greece, which has strict antiquities laws, for a private collection such as this to be developed?

YS: The KIKPE Numismatic Collection is a collection established with proper documentation and the according legal status, as far as the Ministry of Culture is concerned. It may be noted that it is quite a different thing to have a collection with the right to expand it.

CD: Meaning? Say someone finds a coin on the ground in some village. Or, there are many locals who have small collections at home, sometimes inherited within the family.

YS: Right. The process, if you find a coin or want to register a collection, is that first you go to the responsible agency of the Ministry of Culture and officially declare that you have these coins in your possession. However, though this might be approved, you can’t expand the registered antiquities in your possession. There is a certain classification, however, where a person or private foundation can be given this right from the Ministry of Culture. In Greece, most of the owners are known as simple possessors, and very few as collectors. The KIKPE foundation is counted among the collectors.

CD: So say you are a tourist, what do you do if you discover a coin? Do you get to keep it?

YS: One should go by the book and visit this agency of the Ministry of Culture, which used to be called the Ephorate for Antiquities Shops and Archaeological Private Collections, but which has now become a Department. Alternatively, one should contact the relevant local Ephorate. The main thing remains that you have to declare that you have the coin in your hands, whether it be one item or a hundred. On occasion a citizen may be allowed to keep some antiquities in his or her possession; these cannot be sold without the authorities knowing, as antiquities in general are considered property of the Greek state. It is quite different when one is given ownership for certain items.

CD: And what about if someone wants to take their newly-discovered coin out of the country? In regional countries, there are different laws, but every once in a while we hear a story about foreigners arrested while trying to make off with coins or other antiquities. In some countries, the law states that items less than 100 years old, for example, can be taken away.

YS: It is not allowed to take something out of Greece in accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO Convention concerning the protection of cultural heritage. Besides international regulations, there is also national legislation, of course. In Greece there was for many years a cut-off date of 1453, the fall of the Byzantine Empire. There is a distinction between movable and immovable objects as well. Movable objects, which consist of excavated archaeological finds, are under protection of law if they date from before 1830, the creation of the modern Greek state. Accordingly, the law on coins up to 1453 still stands.

There have also been some additions to the law, like the definition of a ‘coin hoard’ for example. This is by extension also protected by the state, because it is an ensemble, with an additional historical and archeological value. To give an example of how rules are enforced one could mention the case of the phoenix of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the modern Greek state. This silver phoenix was the first modern Greek currency, issued in 1828, before the drachma.

Now, if you find one coin of 20 lepta (a copper fraction of the phoenix) minted in 1831, it is not protected. But if someone finds in a field, say, 10 or 12 such coins of the same date, this is considered a coin hoard and thereby as a group find falls under protection of the law.

International Law and Disputes over Antiquities

CD: This is a very interesting subject, as of course there are many in Greece who would like, for example, the Elgin Marbles back from the British. In recent years there have been more legal challenges from states where antiquities have been taken abroad, and they want them back based on the argument of provenance. How is international law involved here?

YS: This is of course the fundamental question of ‘who owns antiquity’ to use the title of a book by James Cuno, on this debate, which has been argued for a long time. A pivotal thing has to do with which countries have ratified the UNESCO Convention and when. There are several matters regarding the protection of cultural heritage that have to do with illegal trafficking. Some people would argue that coins are something of a mass-production product, as it is approximately estimated that a couple of dies could have produced up to 15,000 coins, which would be practically all the same. Note that this number depends on the metal and other relevant factors.

CD: But I imagine in that case, finding the original dies would be something quite exciting for collectors and important for scholars. Do you ever see these come up?

YS: Well, some pairs of ancient coin dies, mostly Roman, can be found in auctions. But these are very rare, so you are right, they have a certain value in themselves. But it is not as simple as that, as these are made of base metals, being important mainly as technological instruments.

CD: Regarding the provenance issue again and historical legacy, we know that Turkey often claims to be the Ottoman inheritor, and Greece feels like it upholds the Byzantine legacy. How does this affect coins and coin hoards from the periods in both countries?

YS: For coins, as for other ancient items, whether they are found in Turkey, Greece or elsewhere, there are some restrictions according to the UNESCO Convention concerning illegal movement from where they have been discovered. To cite a quite well-known example, such was the case of Turkey asking for the return of a great hoard of Athenian decadrachms. Back in the mid-1980s, there occurred the famous case of the Elmalı or Lycian Hoard of these rare ancient Greek coins found in Turkey and resold in the US, before being returned to Turkey following a legal challenge. This example was so studied that even a conference was held about it.

This was very important scientifically for numismatists, since we knew of only about a dozen Athenian decadrachms at that time. With the said hoard another fourteen surfaced. Later, in the mid-1990s, the Karkamış hoard of 3,000 coins was found near the Turkish-Syrian border, which brought the number of the Athenian decadrachms to about 40. A meticulous study undertaken by a German scholar, Dr Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert, in Vienna, refined this matter on several levels, taking into account these additions and some more, so that by now we know of approximately 45 specimens. So, in a way, these kinds of high-visibility discoveries and disputes sometimes can provide new knowledge about some rare coins. Of course, the importance of knowing the archaeological context of the items cannot be overlooked.

Dealing with the Illegal Trade in Rare Coins

CD: Since we are talking about auctions and re-sales, what about the internet? There are obviously millions of coins being sold on various websites all the time. Do the authorities monitor this trade for if any stolen items come up?

YS: There is a department in the Ministry of Culture that deals with such matters, and which has undertaken a truly Herculean task.

CD: What about the shady world of private auctions? We frequently hear stories about how the best treasures of antiquity are sold discreetly in such places as Switzerland, Germany and Austria to sophisticated millionaires. Is there anything to be done about this? And what about the initial transactions from say, poor farmers or collectors who provide the coins and middlemen who transport them out?

YS: That is a very difficult issue, if you were to try and track down the thousands or millions of coins, seeing what belongs to whom.

Illegal activities also take place, no doubt there, but we usually find out about these when they come to light. An interesting example, which happened ten years ago, at the Customs of the London Heathrow Airport involved one of the famous coins struck in the name of Brutus, produced at a traveling or military mint, ca. 43-42 BC. At that time Brutus was in the Roman province of Macedonia; the coins in his name could have been minted somewhere near his camp, possibly at Amphipolis or perhaps at Thessaloniki. The issue in question, to which the coin intercepted at the airport belonged, was the ‘Ides of March’ denarius, famous already in antiquity. It depicts the cap of liberty and two daggers, like the ones used to kill Julius Caesar, as well as the date of the deed: March 15 (44 BC).

So, getting back to the story, a crucial point was to pinpoint where these coins were minted and where they could have circulated. By establishing a provenance from the Greek territory, the said coin had to be returned to the Greek state.

By the way, the UNESCO Convention was created in 1970. It was ratified by Greece in 1980 and signed by the UK in the early 2000s; such technical details can be of importance regarding how things are accordingly handled.

More recently, a similar case emerged about a rare silver octadrachm of Mosses, a very obscure ruler, perhaps of the Bisaltai, which was brought illegally to Switzerland and then claimed by Greece.

The Science of Numismatics: How Coin Finds Can Change History

CD: These last examples show some of the interesting historical details associated with coins. Since of course your main interest is on the academic side of coins, rather than the business of coins, I would be curious to hear more about how the study of coins is today and some of the interesting details you come across while researching here.

YS: Numismatics is a science – they used to call it an auxiliary science, which is somehow inappropriate. In fact, it is an instrumentum studii and it can be used as a primary source in historical research in some cases. For example, there are some kings known only by coins. For example, a Celtic kingdom, existed in the 3rd century BC in what is now Bulgaria.

CD: In Bulgaria? That is earlier than I thought too.

YS: Well, we know that the eastern Celtic tribes had reached the Danube in the late 4th century BC. Later they launched an offensive on Macedon and they even reached Delphi in 279 BC in a failed attack; after they were repulsed, there were three detachments of these Gauls disengaging towards the north and east. One ended up in central Bulgaria, creating the Kingdom of Tylis, as it was known. It was a short-lived state in Thrace, lasting about 60 years.

Another contingent went to Asia Minor where they would become known as Galatae. One of their major centers was Ankyra (modern Ankara); subsequently the Galatian kingdom was often at war with Pergamon. The descendants of these Gauls became eventually Hellenized and then Christianized.

CD: So, from all this fascinating history, who is the king known only from coinage?

YS: We know that the last Celtic king in Thrace was Kavaros (known both from texts and coins). With him the Kingdom of Tylis perished, but before him there were at least two other kings, whose names are only attested from coins: Kersibaulos and Orsoaltios. No textual record survives for them.

It is supposed that they would have most probably been Gaulish. There was a coin hoard reportedly from the Banat area, or perhaps from the broader territory, even from Bulgaria. Some punch marks on the coins of this hoard are considered Celtic. Among the other coins found, there was one coin of Orsoaltios.

CD: Wow! That is a very interesting example about a group that I’m sure very few people have even heard of.

YS: Another case in point: Domitian II went unrecorded by ancient historians and until recently this second Domitian from the 3rd century AD was considered an imaginary emperor. There was of course the well-known Domitian from the Flavian dynasty (1st century AD). However, evidence on another Domitianus – one of the pretenders from the times of the 3rd-century crisis of the Roman Empire –was for many decades put aside.

However, there are now two extant coins of Domitian II: one, in a French museum, known since 1900, had been considered a fake; a second piece, however, found recently in 2003 in Oxfordshire, helped confirm that the first one was genuine. A fine study by Dr Richard Abdy of the British Museum made clear that the two coins matched, and that thus there was indeed a Domitian II after all. He was involved in the turmoil of the breakaway Gallo-Roman Empire and probably ruled briefly in AD 271.

CD: It’s amazing that only one or two coins can so dramatically affect our knowledge of the historical record, in the absence of textual sources. Are you personally working on coins with this kind of history-enhancing value?

YS: Well, there are still some very rare coins to study. Recently I went to a conference in Berlin on ancient Thracian coinage. It was the second time I had to deal with a rare coin issue with the legend Melsa on it; one such coin is in the holdings of the KIKPE collection. The legend could be referring to anything, as in “Melsa” (singular genitive, i.e. of Melsas) or “Melsan(i)on” (plural genitive, i.e. of the Melsans), for a city perhaps. A city with that name is not known, but such a scenario should be thoroughly examined in order to be disproven. The other hypothesis that came up as a proposal was that Melsas could have been an unknown king. The writing is in Greek, while several kings in the Thracian lands produced coins with Greek script.

I have proposed that the said coin has not to do with a historical person, but with a hero – probably Melsas, the heroic founder of Mesembria Pontica, modern Nesebar. However, this coin issue may have no direct connection with that city- there could be just a link with the hero. In brief, I would not consider after all an association with a thus-far unknown ruler, or with an obscure city. Specimens of this coinage come from a certain area near the Romanian-Bulgarian border; certain clues rather eliminate the possibility of an unattested city having been there. I would suppose it more likely to have been a sanctuary in the name of a legendary founder.

CD: The ancient Thracians have always been an intriguingly enigmatic people. Does numismatic research help in identifying them better?

YS: Yes. Another related rarity would be a coin issue of a Thracian tribe, the Danteletai, which is not well known from literary sources. This is why there have been some misconceptions about their territorial location in antiquity. This has been stated as having been near Kyustendil in Bulgaria, but from coins and literary evidence, it seems that their homeland was (at least initially) closer to Mt Haemos. Very few of these coins are known to have survived; in 2012 we knew only of five, and now some more have appeared. One of these is kept in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection.

CD: That’s a great detail, and congratulations for that. But when you are working with so many coins, or seeing records of them in other collections, is it possible to lose track of what is what? Are there possibly other similarly rare coins in collections that people just overlook?

YS: It happens. When something is rare, you can have trouble to identify it. When I first saw the KIKPE piece of the Danteletai, I managed to recall an old Bulgarian publication which I had come across a dozen years ago; there a claim had been made that such a coin was fake, but evidently research moves on. There is another thing to maybe ponder: after a coin is correctly identified and properly studied, it can become referenced by the auction companies. Such scholarly references cited in the auction catalogues tend to add more perceived value to the coins for sale.

Auctions, Scholarship and the Effect on Coin Value

CD: That is a very interesting point, and it raises a question I was thinking to ask. People like you, who have all this specialized knowledge that can make or break the value of a coin… do these kinds of companies contact you to do appraisals?

YS: Personally I don’t do this kind of work. There are some numismatists who are working for auction houses full time, and they do a fine job. It’s another matter that all parts of the numismatic community should cooperate in the name of comity and for the benefit of science and research.

CD: But they don’t pay for it? That doesn’t sound fair.

YS: The auction companies pay the people who work for them. When there is some connection between the academic community and auction houses, it should be understood as well-meaning conduct between civilized people. And, as a scholar, it is always good to see that your work is quoted, as one should quote the work of others.

CD: And what about the other way around, if you see something up for auction that piques your interest – can you examine it to use it in your research?

YS: Yes. An example that comes to mind is in relation with a recent study of mine on a Roman Provincial coin issue of Abydos at the Hellespont, struck in the name of Commodus as caesar. Note that during that period provincial mints, especially east of the Adriatic, were allowed to produce copper coins, in the name of the emperor or of a young caesar. Anyway, I wanted to take an opinion from an auction house, about a coin issued again in the name of Commodus as caesar, but from another mint in Asia Minor. For such a specimen I had noticed an intriguing remark made by someone in the personnel of the auction house, so I proceeded to make contact and ask for some elaboration.

The whole thing worked as a quite useful insight, even for a while though, as part of a working hypothesis. Eventually this remark outlived its usefulness, because my study became more thorough and more extensive, leading to a more precise chronological classification of certain issues minted both in Rome and in the eastern provinces.

CD: Since the coin value is so much determined by its history, auction houses must dread such situations – the possibility of being wrong and the customer being displeased. Does this happen often?

YS: There are always cases in which some mistakes are made, even by auctioneers; nobody is infallible, and numismatists are occasionally in error too. Probably when such mistakes are made it is rather a combination of partial lack of knowledge, time pressure, or even wishful thinking to inaccurately consider something as rare, when in fact it is not.

Besides proper documentation, usually the factors of known provenance or pedigree are employed to help determine rarity and value. There is something of an overvaluation tendency sometimes, especially when the market goes through a period of hype and, when possible, these kinds of mistakes should be corrected.

CD: Interesting indeed. But do you have time, and do they let you, to work with a coin before the sale?

YS: One can ask for permission, either before or after a sale, to publish a photo of a coin that is rare, but it is not guaranteed. There is a chance, if a coin is very rare and if the buyer cannot be known, that it could get out of reach for research for a very long time. So, one has to go and ask for an image, e.g. in order to use it in a scientific article.

CD: That sounds like a fair request – after all, you’re doing it to expand scientific knowledge.

YS: Well, usually it is not difficult to get an affirmative response. As noted this can become on occasion a decisive factor: sometimes a publication appearing about certain coins may after a fashion influence the value of the coins referred to. Matters of authenticity and rarity when dealt with by scientific research can obviously affect a coin’s value to some extent.

Historical Insights to the Late Roman Economy and the Byzantine Gold Coinage

CD: I think many of our readers will be interested in the Byzantine coinage in connection with the historical aspects you have mentioned. Is there anything you can add about this?

YS: Sure. Here let me quote the famous words of Robert Sabatino Lopez, a scholar born in Genoa in 1910, who immigrated to the US in 1939. In a 1951 paper, he coined for the Byzantine gold coinage the term “the dollar of the Middle Ages.”

CD: Why was it considered thus?

YS: The starting point for discussing this coinage is the establishment of the gold solidus (or nomisma) in AD 309/310 by Constantine the Great. The introduction of this new coinage marked a differentiation from the previous one in terms of value. The previous gold coin unit was the aureus, which had been introduced by Augustus; according to the Augustan standard, 60 gold aurei were equivalent to one libra or litra, i.e., one Roman pound of gold (ca. 328 grams).

The newly established equivalence was 72 solidi to one Roman litra. What was in effect done was to introduce a lighter coin, with a high intrinsic value (24 carats), but at about 4.5 grams of gold, lighter than its predecessor. By the way, the word ‘carat’, derives from the Greek term keration (alternatively, siliqua in Latin) and it became largely employed as a metric fraction from this time onwards.

CD: Interesting! Yes, as they say, all words come from the Greek. What led Constantine to make this reform, however?

YS: As already mentioned, the 3rd century AD saw a big tumult within the Roman state, a multifaceted crisis hitting almost all levels of society. So, anyway, the Tetrarchs re-consolidated the state to some degree. Then, a little later, Constantine started to eliminate all the other contenders; he obviously wanted to break away from the previous tradition even before he became sole emperor in 324.

His idea was to use lighter coins and spend less precious metal on coins in general. Inflation was there for sure, and rampant, as we can see in a famous edict of Diocletian issued in 301. The measures taken were insufficient to stop it. Obviously, you cannot easily check inflation or make it illegal.

CD: Sure. But does this mean Constantine invented the concept of a carat? What was used previously?

YS: The carat is an old metric idea, however it took physical form when it became a coin. Before Constantine it was never a coin, just a metric unit used to measure gold, dust or nuggets. A carat is like 0.189 grams of gold- practically it itself could never be a gold coin. But when under Constantine I a coin was issued with a carat designation, it was a silver one (this is the siliqua). The ratio is quite revealing: the equivalence between gold and silver was largely set at 1 to 12.

Since a very small gold piece was impractical to use, making a coin out of its silver equivalent was more preferable instead. Less gold would be spent also in coin production. Thus the carat became a monetary unit and accordingly, it became important.

CD: That is a really intriguing story. I never knew that detail. So, this is the origin of the Byzantine monetary system?

YS: Yes, the foundations had been laid. The important thing with the solidus was what it is implied by its name, a ‘solid’ coin that was fully intact and highly pure. A coin of 24 carats gold is very valuable and a formidable means for conducting transactions. That is why it dominated the Mediterranean commercial world and many medieval markets for centuries.

But the metal is just one aspect- the other is the imperial power. The only one who could produce this coinage was the one, until Charlemagne, emperor.

CD: Was this because of Byzantine access to gold, or simply the imperial authority?

YS: The Byzantine Empire was not very famous for its gold mines. The ones in Nubia (an area in southern Egypt) were probably the most known. Some celebrated ancient gold mines would have probably been exhausted by the Byzantine period. There were some known to be exploited in Armenia, Asia Minor, Montenegro, Serbia, and elsewhere; obviously, Byzantium had access to these mines for quite a while. The access to the Nubian mines lasted until the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in 641.

CD: Did that cause a dramatic change?

YS: No, interestingly enough. The Byzantine gold solidus remained a powerful instrument for centuries as it was not based on mine production, but largely on import and taxation, taking reserves of gold and turning them into means of transactions. In fact, politically, it is more or less a powerful currency imposed. This is rather the case, by a combination of political and economic power- when your coinage is respected and coveted because it has been disseminated by force, diplomacy or other means. The Byzantines were thus adept at using their gold coinage as a weapon.

CD: A very interesting point, using money as a weapon, and this concept is obviously still alive and well with certain modern countries and currencies, as Greece has experienced these last few years. But I seem to recall part of the story of Byzantine coinage had to do with debasement at various points, like under Alexios I Komnenos, and other happenings related to the empire’s changing fortunes.

YS: Indeed. But, first, let us clarify a technical distinction regarding Byzantine coinage- when do we place the start of it? For a particular reason, it is with emperor Anastasios I (491-518). The turning point was actually his coin reform of 498; a second stage of this reform was performed by 513.

It involved only the copper coinage, bringing in a factor which has to do with economic developments of importance. For quite a while the inhabitants of the Empire were using small and impractical nummi– bronze coins, small like lentils. They were very debased, and a very unreliable form of currency. Then came Anastasios, who in 498 introduced the follis, a large copper coin. This was the first and more essential reform.

The follis was a reliable coin, and something of an innovation. Anastasios ordered the value of the coin to be placed on it with a letter, Μ. This was the Greek letter mu, that is the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, also signifying as a numeral the number 40. It equaled 40 of the small nummi, which continued to circulate for a while, until the end of the 6th century. Similarly, on the other smaller denominations the coin’s value was also placed.

CD: What was the impact of this reform?

YS: There are two very important reasons why this reform was successful. First, if one would go to the market to make some transactions for everyday items, he or she should have been carrying a purse or a pouch, having great difficulty to do shopping with a bunch of the minute and unreliable old coins. With the folles in use, large coins with marks of value, things were simplified.

Reason two involved fiscal affairs- one thing is the public, the other is the state, which has to collect the taxes. Especially in Byzantium this had to do mostly with land, as it was largely an agrarian society. It may be said that trade was not equally significant to the larger tax base. For the emperor, it was profitable to develop a system for what the state would accept from tax collectors.

For example, one collector would take in 7,000 of the small and debased nummi, and would take one solidus for all of that. But, he had to add another 200 little nummi for this amount – it was like a surcharge. This regulation made one gold solidus the equivalent of 7,200 nummi, but this was only in connection to the revenues of the state, not for the other everyday transactions. If the tax collector wanted to exchange 7,000 of his small pieces with an individual person, he would accept one solidus back. When one dealt with the Byzantine state, he would end up giving more to the state, which made a profit of 200 nummi per solidus transaction.

CD: And this had a beneficial effect for the state for some time, I would suppose?

YS: At the end of the reign of Anastasios I, the imperial treasury was full of gold: its solidi equaled approximately 104,000 kilos of gold! Now, if you do the math, there is no doubt that you have a very successful gold coinage, alongside with the efficient economic policy followed. It could be argued that the state treasury became full of gold because of the reform of copper coinage and, significantly, the political power to impose it mainly through taxation and tight management.

CD: So in daily life in that time, were the gold coins really used by regular people?

YS: Through the centuries, gold coins would be used only for large transactions, like large-scale trade, tax payments, etc. With one gold coin, to give an example, one could buy ten cows, as attested on one occasion in the 12th century, or a common psalter book- a quite expensive item in the Middle Ages.

The Prestige of Byzantine Gold Coinage, its Regulations and Gradual Decline

YS: Stories abound also about the power of Byzantine gold coinage in textual references. Such a narrative is about a merchant who reached Taprobane, which was most probably modern-day Sri Lanka. It’s a well-known source, the former trader Kosmas Indikopleustes, who later became a monk. This is a mid-6th century text relating a story from the beginning of that century about Sopatros the merchant, who was brought before the Indian ruler of the island, together with a Persian ambassador.

The king was asking questions about the respective kingdoms. The Persian was boasting, and the king noticed that the Roman/Byzantine remained silent. So he asked what the man could say in favor of his own land. Sopatros told the Indian king that the coins could be compared rather than comparing accounts. They just had to juxtapose a gold solidus with a Persian silver coin.

When the Indian king compared the two coins, he decided that the greatest king was in fact the Byzantine emperor. This is a tale, and of course every such tale has elements of propaganda in it. But a valid point is that one coin is attested as having prestige over all the others for that period, the solidus, and that it lasted for several centuries.

An analogous point is also made by the historian Procopius. Such is the case with a reference in 536-7 to the Franks, a rising power that had occupied Marseille. He was irritated as the Franks had issued gold coins with their own images. This was viewed as trying to usurp the imperial right to coin solidi.

CD: So the Byzantine state tried to prevent others from minting gold? It is just a metal- how could they enforce this?

YS: The Byzantine state would not bother e.g. about tremisses (thirds of solidus) being produced by the Franks or the Visigoths, but they had serious objections about others seeking to mint solidi with an image other than the imperial portrait. Theodebert I, the Merovingian king of Metz in Lorraine at that time, did so, and this was more than frowned upon by Procopius.

This was a crime worse than counterfeiting: it was considered to be abuse of the imperial authority.

CD: Fascinating stuff! So the use of gold coinage and its inscriptions had an aspect of financial competition between states, even then.

YS: Another example will make it more evident. I have to quote Procopius once more. In 542, he recounts a case in which Justinian I did not allow the Persians to receive ransom for a certain captured Byzantine aristocrat, Ioannis from Edessa in Syria, who had been taken as a hostage.

His grandmother was willing to pay the ransom, the equivalent of about 10,500 solidi. So here comes the intervention of the emperor, who said “I will not allow this in order to not give to the barbarians the wealth of the Romans.” A very important element can be noticed, which is that in Byzantium there was a prohibition on the export of gold coinage.

CD: Indeed. This sounds like an interesting policy with some modern similarities…

YS: It was rather a mercantile policy of how coin circulation could be controlled. It is well known that the Byzantines were paying tributes to avoid invasions, or bribes to warlords who could be employed or used against other enemies. A significant amount of gold was leaving the state – that is true – but in the case mentioned previously Justinian declared actually that the emperor alone was responsible for regulating how much money was getting over the borders. It is also like making a statement, because the currency was interwoven with the name of the emperor, and thus his personal power.

CD: How did the state enforce attempts to export money? What about melting it down to evade detection?

YS: In Byzantium, generally speaking, there was capital punishment for counterfeiting, altering or defacing gold coinage; this parameter was tied up with imperial authority, continuing also the Roman legal tradition. During the period of Iconoclasm, the major topic was of course how to deal with the reverence or the misuse of the religious images. The Iconoclast emperors tried to oppose what they perceived as idolatry; inevitably, the matter of the religious and the imperial images on the coins came up.

There is this story about a certain St Stephen the Younger who was presented before the emperor Constantine V, in the 760s. According to the story, he takes out a gold coin in the emperor’s image and name, and they have a debate. Stephen asks what would be the consequences for him, were he to willingly step on this coin with the emperor’s face engraved on it. So the Iconophile saint then accuses the emperor of affronting the images of the divine by his policies, and he steps on the coin. For this offense, he was driven to prison charged with stepping illegally on the royal image, as the source relates.

CD: That’s great.

YS: Again, gold coinage and the imperial right to issue it were matters of very serious importance. Sometimes these matters involved some sort of financial war or even could lead to real war. A remarkable example was with the Arabs, around 692. At the time, caliph ‘Abd al-Malik was involved with Justinian II in a conflict about coinage. The Arabs had to pay tribute to Byzantium and they proposed to do this by issuing their own coins and paying the amount due with them. From Byzantine sources, two views on this episode are recorded: one, that is a contra-emperor source, says that Justinian II foolishly did not accept this and campaigned against the Arabs. Justinian can be called a fool in retrospect though, because he lost the war.

Another source, however, states something very interesting, that it was unacceptable for anybody to use a different kharakter – this Greek word means the stamp or imprint on the coin, which also includes the royal image – for the minting of gold coins.

CD: Very interesting. And as time progressed? What led to the decline and debasement of the Byzantine gold coinage?

YS: The Byzantine gold coinage was used as a weapon for centuries more. A later Western source, Liutprand of Cremona, was a bishop visiting Byzantium during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. There is a 968 episode where a person in the Byzantine court literally threatens the bishop with coinage: Byzantium was so powerful in terms of money, he said, that it could employ with it other nations against a certain opponent, in order to crush him like a clay pot, which cannot be glued together again. At that time this claim was far from bragging.

The swan song of the Byzantine nomisma was gradual at first. The gold coinage began to be debased during the second quarter of the 11th century. There is a theory that this was a time of creeping inflation, and that can be seen arguably as a means for economic growth. But it is just a claim for now, as we haven’t yet found the real causes to fully explain the collapse. Several reasons have been proposed, but this is a matter that merits further research. In any case, after 1071 debasement became rampant, leading to a ‘gold’ coin which was a pale shell of its former self (being below 6 or even below 3 carats in purity).

The numismatic reform of Alexios Komnenos, which you mentioned already, was based on the hyperpyron- introducing this gold coin which was now of about 21 carats pure, no longer 24 carats. Without going into further details, this 1092 reform was quite pivotal for a period of temporary recovery.

However, debasement started anew after 1204 and was gradually continued during the Palaiologan period; by ca. 1300 the hyperperon had dropped down to 14 carats and by 1310 the Byzantine gold coin’s worth was down to 12 carats, half of its original value. As the territory and the political power of Byzantium waned more and more, with dire consequences, the fate of the once powerful coinage was unavoidable. The hyperperon ceased to be minted altogether soon after the middle of the 14th century. As the scholar T. Reinach wittily remarked, the Empire perished in 1453, “when it had spent its last gold coin.”

Numismatic Exhibits ahead for KIKPE

CD: That is all very fascinating background on a very detailed study. So, finally, to return to your work at the KIKPE institute, can you give us some updates on your past and upcoming activities of interest?

YS: In the past, the KIKPE Numismatic Collection went public for the first time with two exhibits in Greece, at Athens in 2006 and then at Thessaloniki in 2007. The first exhibit was held in the Benaki Museum; this was part of an ongoing agreement as the material of the Collection has been given on loan to the Benaki Museum for safekeeping and for organizing cultural events with the participation of both institutions.

After the repeated success of the temporary exhibit at Thessaloniki, the KIKPE Foundation adopted an extroverted policy, in order to promote Greek culture abroad, through concepts mostly involving coins. The first such project to be realized in this direction took place at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in 2008, an exhibition called ‘Classically Greek.’ It combined banknotes, coins and other objects. Later, in 2012, an exhibition was organized at Geneva; it was housed by the Fondation Martin Bodmer and was entitled ‘Words and Coins: from Ancient Greece to Byzantium,’ combining coins with manuscripts and old books, juxtaposed thematically.

At the moment, we are preparing for a periodical exhibition at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. It should be inaugurated hopefully by July 2016. The focus will be on the development of the human figure as showcased on coins, medals, gemstones, etc.

The KIKPE foundation is also in discussions with the American Numismatic Society in Manhattan, so that we may be able to proceed with a joint project. The possibility of organizing a numismatic exhibition in New York City is under consideration. Another venture to be attempted would be to co-produce a book on copper coinage through the ages- but anything would be very premature for the time being.

The proper organization of these activities is the responsibility of the Board of the KIKPE Foundation. At the same time, on our part, there are other tasks which should be taken care of, as very important work has to be continued also concerning the documentation and cataloging of the Numismatic Collection.

CD: That’s a great result and exciting program you have going on. I wish you good luck with it, and with your research in general. Thank you very much for taking the time to share these fascinating stories.

YS: Thank so much also for having such an interesting conversation.

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