Featured A tale of two cities: Constantinople, Venice, and how Greeks enlightened the west

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Only a Poor Old Man, Dec 15, 2020.

  1. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    Geopolitics can be a troublesome thing. Today's friend is tomorrow's enemy, yesterday's rival is today's trade partner. This is certainly true of our times and perhaps was even truer in the ancient world. When it comes to forming complicated alliances the Byzantine Empire is among the first to come to mind, with its biggest frienemy Venice a close second. Their relationship has always been a very complex one, and my latest arrivals, one silver coin from the Byzantine capital and another one from the watery Italian city-state will allow me to research their monetary and cultural connections to some degree of detail. The coinage of these two empires shares many common characteristics and these two coins are no exception despite that they were minted a few centuries apart:

    (Tran. Legends: OBV=Jesus Christ conquers, REV= John emperor king of the Romans)


    My only silver coins up to this point were from ancient Greece, so I was happy to finally get my hands on some different examples. And these two are particularly interesting as they both were quite innovative for their time. The Byzantines for reasons unknown were not really using much silver for their coinage prior to around the 8th-9th centuries. The early miliaresia were rare and many believe they only served a ceremonial purpose or were special coronation issues. One wonders why is that, as there is a big value gap between the gold solidi and the low value copper follis. It is naturally to expect that silver coinage would be used for daily middle value trading, but only around the time of my coin there is evidence that they were in significant circulation. This possibly happened in order to compete with the similar in size arabic dirham which was common in middle eastern trade. Many dirhams that ended up in Byzantine hands were actually transformed into miliaresia as some overstrikes show.

    Reniero Zeno (detail from Oratorio dei Crociferi painting - Wikimedia Commons)

    The Venetian Grosso on the other hand dates from a couple of centuries later, but nevertheless was a fairly new coin type for its time. Prior to the times of Enrico Dandolo a couple decades earlier, the Venetians didn't make quality silver coins for high value trade and they actually didn't make many coins of their own to begin with. Up until that time they were quite happy to use Byzantine coins for their international trade. However the economic decline of Byzantium during the 11th century and the debasement of its coinage meant that it gradually lost its appeal so the Grosso and other denominations were introduced by the Venetians. Another reason could have been the need for Venice to be more independent economically from Constantinople during a period where their relationship was far from stable. Even if that was the case and the idea was to distance themselves from Byzantium, the Byzantine influence in the coin's design could not have been more obvious. The image of Jesus right down to the chosen artistic style comes straight from the Byzantine themes that had been familiar to everyone in the region for the past few centuries. At over 98% it was the purest silver coin of its time in Europe and it played a great part in the Venetian success story.

    The coronation of John Tzimiskes (from the Madrid Skylitzes - Wikimedia Commons)

    There is an abundance of fascinating history about the times of these coins, either about Ioannes Tzimiskes and his remorse of killing his predecessor Nikephoros Phokas or about the Byzantine/Venetian conflicts either side of the sack of Constantinople of 1204. However as I now own a Venetian coin and I am not planning on getting another one any time soon, I would like to mention a little known aspect of that shared history, the mass Exodus of Byzantine scholars to Venice and other Italian cities and how it kick-started the period that is now known to history buffs as the 'Renaissance'.

    As Venice and Byzantium had been trading partners for centuries there had always been minority populations of each other in both Venice and Constantinople. There was a well established familiarity and tolerance of the opposing culture, language and traditions so if a Byzantine wanted to seek their fortune outside the empire, Venice and Italy would be considered as a safe bet. Mass immigration usually comes in waves, and the Byzantine wave peaked around the 14th century when people of means and education could see and predict that the Byzantine empire was on a slippery slope of decline and eventual collapse. In times of prosperity it is the merchant classes that usually emigrate, but in difficult times we see what is commonly known as the brain-drain, and this is exactly what happened as anyone that could afford it and had the foresight to flee, did so.

    Cardinal Bessarion (Wikimedia Commons)

    The newly-arrived Greeks brought with them two very valuable resources. Their language and their knowledge of ancient Greco-Roman history and ideas. Probably not a big surprise, but the past hadn't survived that well in medieval western Europe (it was called the Dark Ages for a reason). Ancient texts that were painstakingly copied by Byzantine monks over the centuries were re-introduced to the Latins and that led to a revival in Greco-Roman studies, a movement that is known as the Renaissance humanism. The Byzantine empire has the reputation of being a theocratic one, but the reality was that it was a lot more progressive than the Latin world. Classical Greek studies were a permanent fixture in higher education while the Latin societies were quite puritanical and, well, medieval! The rediscovery of Greek Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical ideology combined with a modern Byzantine interpretation and approach caused a stir in the intellectual circles of Venice, Rome and Florence. This became even more evident while scholars and ideas kept arriving from the east. Many of them ended up holding prominent positions in Italian universities. Some of the most important names are Cardinal Bessarion of Trebizond (1403-1472), Ioannes Argyropoulos (1415-1487) and of course Dimitrios Chalkokondyles of Athens (1424-1511) who published the first printed versions of Homer and Isocrates. We have a recorded opinion of one of Dimitrios' students which shows the respect that he enjoyed in the Italian circles (Patterson, The History of Education, 2008):

    "A Greek has just arrived, who has begun to teach me with great pains, and I to listen to his precepts with incredible pleasure, because he is Greek, because he is an Athenian, and because he is Demetrius. It seems to me that in him is figured all the wisdom, the civility, and the elegance of those so famous and illustrious ancients. Merely seeing him you fancy you are looking on Plato; far more when you hear him speak."

    Dimitrios Chalkokondyles (Fresco, Santa Maria Novella - Wikimedia Commons)

    Of course not every immigrant was a scholar. There were thousands of Byzantines that ended up as successful traders and workers. There were more than 4 thousand Byzantines in Venice alone by the late 1400s and they established a strong community in the Castelo area. The Orthodox rites were initially banned in Venice, but eventually the Greeks were allowed to build their own Orthodox church in 1573, San Giorgio dei Greci which not only I visited when I was in Venice but attended Sunday mass as well. it contains some Byzantine icons that was brought by Anna Notaras just before the sacking of Constantinople in 1453. And talking about icons it is worth mentioning the Cretan school of Orthodox icon painting that eventually re-located to Venice in the 16th-17th centuries with prominent artists like Emmanuel Tzanes, Michael Damaskenos and of course El Greco.

    Before I finish, and congratulations if you had the patience to read my badly articulated write-up, let me make a few comments on Venice as a tourist destination. I absolutely loved it and always vowed to return which now I will do taking into account my new historical and numismatic interests. There are some tourist traps to avoid, but with only a little preparation it should not be a problem doing so. Firstly avoid going during the summer and other high season periods like the carnival. I visited in early December and it was delightfully empty. It is also fresh calamari season which will translate into excellent culinary experiences. But you should avoid regular restaurants especially in tourist hot-spots. Food in Venice is expensive and the quality can be indifferent, but the city is full of little osterias and bacaros (similar to sandwich and tapas bars) which the locals frequent. You will always find excellent local specialties there plus homemade pasta and oven dishes. And you should stay at least 4 nights, especially if you like museums and history. There is plenty to explore and see, and Venice will not disappoint.

    The following article provides an eloquent and detailed account of Byzantine influence in Renaissance Italy:


    Show me any of your coins you think may be relevant :happy:
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  3. OutsiderSubtype

    OutsiderSubtype Well-Known Member

    I don't have any relevant coins, but I would recommend the book Sailing from Byzantium by Colin Wells for a good, not too dense overview of how Byzantine thinkers shaped the Italian Renaissance.


    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Absolutely brilliant and, oh, by the way, very enlightening writeup, @Only a Poor Old Man. The link to the ORB site is great too; I'd lost track of that.
    Nothing in the way of coins I haven't posted recently. But your examples are terrific. The connection between dirhams and miliaresions had never dawned on me, but it's intuitive as soon as you point it out. ...Your example is the kind I always had a hankering for in the back of my mind. Sort of thing you look at in auctions and sigh over.
    Only a Poor Old Man likes this.
  5. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Unwell Unknown Unmembered Supporter

    It is wonderful that you have been able to travel to the locations like Venice where the coins were minted. Despite the fact that I own coins from the dawn of coinage ca. 600 BC on up to the present day, I have never owned a Byzantine coin - though I find the gold particularly interesting.
  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Nice article. I have not been to Venice yet, though I have been to both Rome and Istanbul for extended periods of time. Hopefully will get a chance before long.
    Only a Poor Old Man likes this.
  7. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    I guess this means these two are among the most common of their general types???
    A few years ago I felt it strange I had no Byzantine silver so I bought this miliaresion of John I (22mm, 2.65g but listed as 'clipped') at a show mostly because it was reasonable and not terrible looking.

    Similarly, I had no Venetian coins so I bought a 'one and only' (so far anyway) that happens to be a Zeno. This coin was listed as sold in Pegasi XXVIII in 2013 about what I paid in 2015 but I have no reason to believe those numbers are accurate. This was from the late Don Zauche who always seemed to have a few coins in 'name' auctions for less than price reports said they brought. Is it a general practice for auctions to make up prices for coins that do not sell? I understand wholesaling unsold coins but wonder how the realizations are set for unsold coins. Perhaps they were lots never paid for? I am not a trusting sort.
    TheRed, BenSi, Johndakerftw and 2 others like this.
  8. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    P.O.M., Thanks for another interesting article :D! Both coins are attractive high grade examples. I've been on the lookout for a nice looking Venetian grosso & hope to score one next year :watching:.
  9. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the suggestion, I will definitely be getting this one. It is a subject that hasn't been researched much, so I am pleasantly surprised that there is a book about it!

    I am not sure if there is a standard approach for when auction houses price and sell directly the unsold items. If an item was unsold, I would imagine it would make sense if they try to sell it for slightly less the starting price of the auction if the owner agrees.

    Is there any more Byzantine and Venetian silver in Cointalk? I would love to see some! (Maybe even a dirham too as it would be relevant). :happy:
    DonnaML and +VGO.DVCKS like this.
  10. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @Only a Poor Old Man, I do have a couple of Venetian grossos, which haven't been posted in a little while; might go looking for them.
    But now that you (reiteratively) mention it, it's really striking that I, for one, have seen more about the Iberian and Normano-Staufen Sicilian contributions to the Renaissance, largely by way of Jewish and Islamic influence (Alfonso VI of Castile, in particular, undertook a massive translation campaign from Toledo's libraries), than I've ever run across regarding the Byzantine contribution. Frankly odd, since the connection is so intuitively obvious --and no less intuitively profound.
    ...Here's my holed one of Pietro Ziani, earlier 13th century. (Bought mainly for the contemporaneity to Jean de Brienne's tenure as Latin Emperor of Constantinople.) COINS, VENICE, P. ZIANI, GROSSO.jpg
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2020
  11. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    Nice grosso, but this phrase of yours made me think.. We are used to the idea that the coins we collect spent a considerable amount of time buried in the ground, but do you think that is also the case with Venetian coins? A slightly comedic reasoning is that it is kinda hard to bury coins in Venice, but there is also the fact that Venice was never sacked/destroyed and that the rich families and their mansions survived hundreds of years after the coins were minted and many of them still exist. So maybe it is viable that many of those coins simply survived in old chests or hidden away in safes and occasionally changed hands until they were deemed collectible? I think that is an interesting thought! :happy:
    +VGO.DVCKS and DonnaML like this.
  12. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    That would be wonderful, if true! I agree that they're not likely to have been buried, but I'm sure that many were melted down.
  13. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Very, Very interesting brainwave, @Only a Poor Old Man!!!
    As one qualification, my first guess would be that a lot of the extant ones are from elsewhere (...right, it was Venice), found in the usual way. But your observation about the relative stability of Venice itself is pretty compelling.
    Only a Poor Old Man likes this.
  14. gogili1977

    gogili1977 Well-Known Member

    Interesting write-up.
    The first Serbian dinars, like many other Southern European coins, replicated Venetian grosso, including characters in Latin (the word dux replaced with the word rex).

    King Stefan Dragutin (1276-1316), Obv: King receiving banner from saint Stefan (nimbate), holding book of gospels. Latin legend STEFAИ REX SSTEFAH (STEFAN KING SAINT STEFAN) around. Rev: Christ enthroned, holding book of gospels decorated with 5 gems. Greek letters: IC XC (In Greek: Ιησούς Χριστός - Jesus Christ) above.
    King Stefan Uros II Milutin (1282-1321), Obv: Bare headed king receiving banner or flag from St. Stefan (nimbate), holding book of gospels. Latin Legend: VROSIVS. REX S STEFAII (UROS KING SAINT STEFAN) around. Rev: Christ enthroned, holding book of gospels decorated with 5 gems. Greek letters: IC XC (In Greek: Ιησούς Χριστός - Jesus Christ) above.
  15. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    Dear “Only a Poor Old Man”, what a wonderful exposition! Thank you! (I also have been meaning for months to say I love your Palaiologan insignia!) You raise an issue of tremendous importance for the intellectual revival of the west and for the rebirth of the Greek Classics, which had been unknown there for a millennium! While a broad bibliography of the Byzantine empire would be far too vast to note (a search in our library catalog for “Byzantine Empire”, for example, produces nearly 6000 entries), a useful book on the subject is: Harris, Jonathan: Greek emigres in the West 1400-1520. Publisher, Porphyrogenitus, 1995. ISBN 187132811X.

    Besides the flow of Greek scholars to the west, we recall that several of the final Emperors of the Eastern Empire also travelled west in unfortunately futile attempts to seek western aid against the encroaching Ottomans.

    John V Palaiologos, (emperor 1341–91) travelled to the courts in Hungary and Rome, in 1366, and 1369 respectively, to seek financial and military support. To win western favor, he even declared his intention to convert to Catholicism (which would not have won friends back home). Underlining the poverty to which the eastern empire had sunk by this time, on his return to Constantinople he was detained in Venice because of unpaid debts and was forced to promise the cession of Tenedos to the Venetians for his release.

    One of my stavrata of John V. Constantinople, 1379-91. 8.03 gr. 26 mm. Hr. 6. Sear 2510; DO 1266-67.

    John VII Palaiologos, (emperor 1390, regent under Manuel II 1399 to 1403). Grandson of John V, John VII in April 1390 usurped the throne of his uncle Manuel II with Turkish and Genoese support, but soon reconciled with his uncle and was deposed in September of that year. Nine years later, during Manuel’s prolonged absence in the west from 1399 to 1403, John served as his regent and was entrusted with the defense of Constantinople against the siege of Bayezid I. The capital was saved by Bayezid's defeat at Ankara in 1402. Shortly after Manuel's return from the West, John was made “basileus of all Thessaly” and despotes of Thessalonike, where he spent his final years quietly.

    One of my half stavrata of John VII as regent, Constantinople, 1399-1403. 3.77 gr. 21 mm. Hr. 12. Sear 2562; DO 1334-45; PCPC 346.8; Ashmolean 1029 sqq.

    Manuel II Palaiologos, (emperor 1391–1425). From 1399 to 1403 Manuel also visited western Europe, seeking assistance against the Turks who were besieging Constantinople (1394–1402). After being hosted in Italy and France, he was warmly received in England by Henry IV, and spent Christmas 1400 at the king’s new palace at Eltham. Although the dignity of the emperor and his attendants made a profound impression on their hosts, his attempt proved fruitless; although the Turks withdrew after the defeat of Bayezid by Timur at Ankara (1402), no lasting gains were achieved for the beleaguered empire, by now reduced to the city of Constantinople, its immediate environs, and a few scattered outposts.

    One of my stavrata of Manuel. Constantinople, 1394-1425. 7.41 gr. 26 mm. Hr. 12. Sear 2549; LPC 160,1; PCPC 332, 3; Ashmolean 913 var.

    John VIII Palaiologos, (emperor 1425–48). John also sought rapprochement with the West in order to resist further Ottoman advances. He was eager to achieve a Union of the Churches and personally participated in the Council of Ferrara-Florence, where he signed the decree of Union. After his return to Constantinople in 1440, however, he found much popular opposition to the decisions of the council. Moreover, the Crusade of 1444, a reward for the Union of Florence, never reached Constantinople, but was destroyed by the Turks at Varna. John died without ever implementing the Union.

    One of my favorite John VIII stavrata. Constantinople, 1425-48. 7.09 gr. 25 mm. Hr. 12. Sear 2564; DO 1636-38 var; LPC 172, 1; PCPC 348.

    John VIII Palaiologos was depicted by several painters on the occasion of his visit to Italy. Perhaps the most famous of his portraits is the one by Benozzo Gozzoli, on the southern wall of the Magi Chapel, at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, in Florence. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether my coin portrait or the painting below is the more realistic image!
    John VIII.jpg
  16. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    Thank you @Voulgaroktonou, this was an excellent contribution. I love your stavrata, very difficult coins to find especially in good condition (even though most were not in good condition from the day they left the mint) :happy:

    Fascinating, I didn't know that. A quick search shows that Eltham Palace still stands, and some important medieval bits like the great hall were Manuel was probably entertained are still there. It is not far from London, so I guess it will make a lovely day-trip when things get back to normal! :cat:
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  17. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Wow, @Voulgaroktonou, a stunning assemblage of near-surreally top-drawer late Byzantine, with an equally enlightening writeup. Hats Off!!!
    --Just Wiki'd "Voulgaroktonou" ...should I give it away? :<}
  18. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    If you wish, I don't mind. There's a story to that. When I first went to Greece on university business years ago, I needed a separate email for correspondence with the library back home. So, in choosing a name, I tried the more classical Boulgaroktonos. Nope, already in use. So I changed the beta to "V" to fit in with the medieval / modern pronunciation. Nope, already taken. Finally, I put it into the genitive case, and voila, it was available for the taking. Nothing new under the sun.
  19. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    I hope you can do it soon!
  20. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    That did confuse me at first, @Voulgaroktonou; I was only familiar with the archaic form, and didn't even suss out the correspondence before Wiki-ing it.
    Voulgaroktonou likes this.
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