What Is Byzantine Coinage?

Marlene Garcia

Byzantine coinage represents the monetary system used during the Byzantine Empire from 498 to 1453. Fives stages of Byzantine coinage evolved over 1,000 years in medieval Eastern Roman history. Most coins in the early period depicted busts of the emperors who ruled at the time. Byzantine coinage minted during later phases began showing images of Jesus and other religious symbols.

Some Byzantine coinage used images of Jesus and other religious figures.
Some Byzantine coinage used images of Jesus and other religious figures.

The best-known Byzantine coinage emerged in the third century, when Emperor Constantine the Great was transferred to Byzantium, later named Constantinople in his honor. He is credited with creating a monetary system based on solid gold coins, which determined the value of all other coins based on weight and material used to mint them.

The solidus gold coin weighed 24 carats and was marked by the symbol “OB” to indicate it was minted from pure gold. Each coin was also identified by which mint produced it. The solidus remained the coin for large transactions until its value began declining in the sixth century, when silver was added to its minting process. During this period, one silver coin and five copper coins also existed.

Silver was rare because there was no local source for the precious metal. Coins made from silver were minted in the fourth century but were eventually taken out of circulation. The first gold coins mixed with silver were known as billions, a crudely formed coin worth less than the solid gold solidus.

When the Roman Empire fell, gold coins disappeared and were replaced by silver and copper coins. New sources of silver made this the most valuable metal after gold coin production ceased. Silver coins re-emerged between 1350 and 1453, just before the Byzantine period ended.

Bronze Byzantine coinage was the least valuable, with one coin equal to 7,200 gold coins. Called nummus, this type of coin was used mostly in local trade for everyday necessities. It was large and flat, with crudely struck numbers.

Between 796 and 1025, a series of bronze coins called the anonymous follies began depicting religious images instead of replicas of emperors. Images of Jesus, depicting a bust or sitting on a throne, marked these different-sized coins. Some showed a bust of the Virgin Mary and various styles of crosses. Many of the anonymous follies show evidence of many overstrikes.

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