An Introduction to Billion and AE Trachea, The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Billion Trachy

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by BenSi, Apr 24, 2022.

  1. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    Many collectors have run across these in group lots, coin shows and local dealers, just noting them as a curiosity. The coins are far more numerous than the knowledge behind them. Here is a brief breakdown of the denomination.

    Manuel Comnenus I Billion Trachy SBCV-1966

    The cup shaped coins first appeared as gold coins in the 11th century however in 1092 the coin reform of Alexius changed that. In the first coin reform in 600 years, coins were issued cup shaped in Gold, Electrum, Billion .The Alexius coin reform marks a turning point in numismatics, majority of the new system was based on mixed metal coinage, this was a first in the history of coinage.

    Pictured Above, Hyperpyron, Electrum Aspron Trachy and Billion Trachy.

    The most common of the cup shaped coins is the Billion Aspron Trachy. The word Aspron means white but the coins we see now are not always white in color.

    Here is an example of that, the same issue of Alexius I Comnenus but very different conditions. The reason for this is each of these coins were AE with silver added, then a silver wash was added before circulation. Then during circulation and during the time before they were recovered time took its toll.
    Alexius SBCV-1918

    Trachea come in different shapes and sizes because they were minted for several hundred years, as with all things in time, they changed. To help explain the denomination I break it into three sections, 12th century issues, Latin Rule Issues , Palaeologan Issues

    12th century trachea are the easiest to attribute, they tend to be larger in size, better stuck and legends are still legible. They represent the empire at the end of its finest.

    Above Various 12th century issues.

    At the end of the 12th century is where the confusion starts for the collector, a series of coins that are Bulgarian imitations or faithful copies ( Lower Value Copies of Manuel, Isaac II and Alexius III) come into existence, these, coins similar to the original issues but underweight, smaller flans, less silver, to add to the problematic attributing ,during the reign of Alexius III or the Latins ,older trachea began to be clipped to smaller sizes. These imitation coins at this time are under debate as to who issued them. Many of the original books on the subject have the imitations as Bulgarian, the main reason for this is that is where most hoards of them were found, current thought is these were issued in Constantinople during Latin rule or maybe even done in a field mint for the military, this remains uncertain.

    Constantinople falls in 1203, the knights of the 4th crusade on route to Jerusalem found the riches much closer. The unarmed city fell quickly, and a pair of puppet Emperors were put in place, the reign was short because they could not pay for the new positions.

    The new rulers of Constantinople did not start a new currency, the Latin rulers attempted to continue the coinage of Eastern Romans. Rarely these coins were well struck, few came out as attractive. One interesting note is the rulers did not put their names on the coinage, it would seem without a name the pride in the coinage disappears.
    Above Nicer examples of the Latin rule issues.

    As time continues trachea become a less valuable denomination, the silver content began being reduced during Manuel I Comnenus reign. In some post 1203 examples the silver disappears completely creating a copper coin.

    The kingdoms in exile still make some beautiful examples, I include these as the Palaeologan period for trachea, a true attempt to the grandness of the 12th century issues, Again the sheer quantity of different designs makes attributing the coin much more difficult. The details make a difference, making attribution possible but a bit more of a puzzle. The more interesting ones are always sought after. Trachea is minted in Nicaea and Thessalonica until Palaeologan return to Constantinople in 1261.

    During this last hundred years of trachea being minted they became a bit smaller and flatter, no longer deep cup shaped. The last cup coin was minted in 1367.


    I did not attempt to explain the ongoing debate on why they were created in that shape, no one has the real answer, just theories but that adds to the mystery.

    One name we are indebted to for trachea identification is Simon Bendall, in 1954 he collected his first Eastern Roman coin, an Isaac II trachy, he was in a field no other collector or dealer focused on, he was one collector that paved the way. He has several books and numerous articles attributed to him.

    The fall of Constantinople changed history forever and the modern world was born. What we have now are remnants of the brilliance of the Eastern Roman Empire. Nothing is more distinctly Roman than these cup shaped reminders of the past

    I hope this is a step to helping coin collectors have a better understanding of trachea. A common denomination without a common knowledge.

    We have many great collectors on this board that can easily add to what I have written, we also have an excellent thread dealing with trachea , literally we have hundreds of examples in it. It also has an explanation of how these coins were created.

    The trouble with t̶r̶i̶b̶b̶l̶e̶s̶ trachys | Coin Talk

    Any questions or comments please feel free, my specialty is the 12th century, but we have numerous collectors on this board who specialize in the later time periods. I am sure they would be happy to clarify.
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  3. nerosmyfavorite68

    nerosmyfavorite68 Well-Known Member

    I think it's a fine introduction, written by an accomplished collector.

    What are some of the main theories on why they were scyphate?
    -being stackable was the main one I've heard over the years.

    I have a few trachea, along with a mystery bag of perhaps 25-50 smaller trachea, none of which are photographed. When my coin photos become less horrendous I'd like to photograph the contents of the bag, purchased in the 1990s.

    Here's one photographed one from my collection (the dealer's description).

    John II, Comnenus. AD 1118-1143.. AV hyperpyron (30 mm, 4.39 gm). Thessalonica. Christ seated facing on throne with back. Rev: Facing figures of the Virgin and John. SB 1949. EF. Graffiti on reverse (ex JJencek, 2009).
  4. Black Friar

    Black Friar Well-Known Member

    Excellent primmer, they are usually encountered in tough shape, but I love the challenge of attribution. They are especially difficult to find with silvering intact. They wore down quickly.

    A few years back a dealer in California came upon a small hoard and marketed them as electrum that's how good this group was. I ordered six as the price was very low.
    Upon receipt, I knew they were not electrum but had a seemingly large amount of silver in them. I got on the phone with him and let him know they were very high grade billon not electrum. He knew David Sear well who happened to be geographically close so he took them to David and David let him know they were billon but quite well preserved. The John Comnenus photo is one of those coins.

    The dealer made good the money and in fact I purchased more from him. I kept the best and sold the rest to another Byz collector. The dealer became a good friend. That is what is so wonderful about this hobby of ours. We collect coins, but most importantly friends.

    Attached Files:

  5. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Nice writeup. Even though I like Byzantine coins, I admit I haven't found a passion for these particular types. Mainly it's the attributing and how junky some tend to look.

    I own a few of them.

    Alexius III (1195 - 1203 A.D.)
    Billon Trachy
    O: IC-XC, + KE HQEI Bust of Christ facing, beardless, wearing nimbus cross, holding scroll & raising hand in benediction.
    R: [ALEZIW ECP TW KWCTANTI] Alexius & St. Constantine standing facing, holding labara, globe cross between.
    Constantinople mint
    Sear 2013

    Andronicus I Comnenus (1183 - 1185 A.D.)
    Billon Trachy
    O: MP - ΘV. The Theotokos (Virgin Mary) standing facing on dais, holding bust of the infant Christ.
    R: ANΔPONIKOC ΔECΠOTHC / IC - XC. Andronicus standing facing, holding labarum and globus cruciger, being crowned by Christ to right, holding Gospels.
    Constantinople Mint
    sb 1985

    Isaac II Angelus (1185-95 A.D.)
    Billon Aspron Trachy
    O: MP ThV, The Virgin seated on a throne, facing. She holds a nimbate head of the infant Christ facing.
    R: I/CAA/KI/OC DEC/PO/TH/C, Isaac standing facing, holding a cruciform scepter and akakia.
    Constantinople mint, 1185 - 1195 A.D.
    SB 2003, BMC 19-31.

    Manuel I, (1143-1180 A.D.)
    Billon Trachy
    O.: Christ, bearded, seated facing on throne without back, wearing nimbus cruciger, pallium, colobium, Gospels in left; no stars; in field / IC – XC
    R.: MANYHΛ ∆ECΠ; the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) standing facing at right, crowning the emperor standing at left, holding labarum and globus cruciger; M above Mary's outstretched hand.
    Constantinople mint, 1167 - 1183 A.D.
    SB 1966
  6. JohnnyC

    JohnnyC Active Member

    Most likely the scyphate type derived from a desire for larger sized flans which could accommodate more complex designs, particularly for the 11th century histamena.

    Broader flans though meant thinner fabric and hence a tendency to bend, so the cup shape was likely designed to stiffen the flans of the larger sized types.

    Ross G.
  7. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    Many theories are discussed throughout time @nerosmyfavorite68 , the answer by @JohnnyC is one of the most logical but again a theory. BTW I consider Ross to be one a the few experts on post 1204 Eastern Roman coinage. His works can be read at

    I personally think it might be two reasons, new coinage had to be different to be successful, a Good example is Anastasian coin reform, he suddenly made huge large follis that were Larger than the sestertius. The coin reform of Alexius accomplished the same effect by changing the design of the common coin without costing more metal. I am sure when they came out they impressed not only the citizens but the neighboring countries as well.

    Another thought is a symbolic reason of a religious type, what type I am uncertain, but Medieval symbolism is very different than things we would Use today. A few examples, In Albrecht Durers works The Virgin being depicted with a snail, it was not because she was slow it was because the snail was sign of purity, they did not know where it came from, it was born from the dew.
    Another example by Durer has the Virgin chained to a monkey, the sybolism is not something we would use today for anyone let alone a diety, the symbolism meant she had her beast side under controll.

    Again just ideas but I think David Michael Metcalf said it best, infact it is one of my favorite quotes in all Numasmatic literature.

    "Archeological Evidence cannot lie, because it cannot talk. Only written sources preserve the very words and thoughts of another age, and laungage offers incomparably richer testimony than do the materials remains."

    Until we find and translate an explanation its all guess work.
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2022
  8. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    BenSi, Thanks for an interesting & informative article :happy:! The coins you illustrate are extraordinary examples, much finer than the examples I've seen in regards to strike & condition ;). Did the 3 coins in your 2nd photo circulate at the same time & what were their comparative values o_O? The transition from solidus to trachy seems complicated & confusing :confused:. Wasn't the 1st transition from solidus to histamenon nomisma, like the coin pictured below ?

    Romanus III, Solidus.jpg
    Romanus III, AD 1028-1034. AV Histamenon Nomisma: 4.40 gm, 24 mm, 6 h. Sear 1819. Al Kowsky collection.

    And wasn't the 1st scyphate coin also a histamenon nomisma, like the coin pictured below ?

    Constantine X Ducas.jpg
    Constantine X, AD 1059-1067. AV Histamenon Nomisma: 4.39 gm, 28 mm, 6 h. Sear 1847. Ex Al Kowsky Collection.

    Did the hyperpyron, like the 1st coin in your 2nd photo, then follow the histamenon nomisma ?
  9. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    Hi Al,
    Pictured are 12th century coins from the reform from l to r, Manuel Hyperpyron, Manuel Aspron Trachy, Manuel Billion Trachy.

    1 Hyperpyron was equal to three El Aspron Trachy or 48 Bill Aspron Trachea.

    It was, the debasement of coinage happened in the 2nd half of the 11th century, some monasteries and powerful land owners tried to outsmart the system by paying the taxes in the old debased coinage. Alexius pre reform nomisma was around 3 carats, Michael VII about 15 carats. The old coinage was recycled and taken off the market. The Alexius Hyperpyron during the post reform was 20.5 carats.
    I am uncertain how the Emperor handled this tax problem but I am sure a solution was created, more than likely an end to accepting the old currency for tax or rating it at a lower value.

    As I said above the first concaved coins came during the 11th century ( Such as yours) , the beauty of the new system is it had mixed alloy coins ( El Aspron Trachy, Billion Trachy , Billion City Tetartera.) .
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2022
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  10. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Thanks especially, @BenSi, for the best, brilliantly concise and comprehensive overview of this interval that I've ever seen, along with some terrific links! Not that the other content wasn't easily on the same level.
    Spaniard, Quant.Geek and BenSi like this.
  11. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Well-Known Member

    BenSi, Thanks for the answers & info :happy:. I don't collect any Byzantine coins after the 11th century, never the less, I find those coins & history fascinating :D. My late brother Henry gave me the set of books by John J. Norwich about 20 years ago, & they sparked my interest in Byzantium. I have only one coin left from the 11th century that I've posted a number of time & will post again for this thread ;).
    Romanus IV, Diogenes, AV scyphate histamenon nomisma Al Kowsky Collection.jpg
  12. nerosmyfavorite68

    nerosmyfavorite68 Well-Known Member

    Or perhaps the cup added some measure of strength to a thin metal?
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  13. Quant.Geek

    Quant.Geek Well-Known Member

    Outstanding write up Simon! Seems that the trachaea are starting to rub on you :D
    BenSi likes this.
  14. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    Thank You Ram , I have always had an appreciation but in my early collecting years the different types confused me as it would for other new collectors.

    I decided to break them into three groups for this introduction article , I thought it would make the subject more palatable. I condensed Bulgarian/faithful imitations into Latin Rule and condensed the empires in exile into Palaeologan rule.

    By the way @Quant.Geek , your collection grows more amazing all the time, I think you have the finest collection of copper and billion coinage I have ever seen.

    Here is an Alexius I am trying to find a better example of. Mine is a bit battered. It is an early post reform coin, I think he recycled them during his reign making them difficult to find.

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  15. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    @Black Friar I heard this story with a little variation when I purchased this coin, must have been around 18 or 19 years ago. I remember calling the dealer who was in the Pacific Northwest he was driving somewhere but told me the story. I ended up purchasing the coin ( one of the old coin sites, don't remember its name but pre Vcoins and not at auction.) I have treasured it ever since. I was very happy when you told the story and posted the coin, I always wanted to see the other examples from that find.

    Here is our coins side by side (From the photo you posted.) , they are both type B The extra line on the Scepter, both collar pieces have 5 jewels again as you can see indicates type B, but comparing the coins they are different dies.
    Interesting note, in DOC they note the same type with a silver as high of 10.63% I think yours is higher than that. ( Of course yours is pictured on top.) It looks full silver. Mine has aged a bit, I think the Florida humidity has not helped it. I can see small areas with copper showing( On Emperors side.)
    Thank You for posting your coin @Black Friar , I always wanted to compare them.

    It is still a mystery to me on why these coins were minted with such high silver content, who was the government trying to impress? Maybe these were coins from John II own purse? If only the coins could talk.
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  16. TheTrachyEnthusiast

    TheTrachyEnthusiast New Member

    Nice! Its refreshing to see some Thessalonican trachys in this thread! I would post my own but I don’t seem to have the ability to upload photos
  17. TheTrachyEnthusiast

    TheTrachyEnthusiast New Member

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    that seemed to have worked. Both are of Theodore Komnenodoukas!
  18. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Ah, the great style and the detailed legends of Thessalonica in the late 1220s.

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  19. TheTrachyEnthusiast

    TheTrachyEnthusiast New Member

    Awesome! Thats a great example of a type which has hitherto eluded me! Have you been watching the Theodore Ducas AR trachy at nomos? Its quite the specimen but getting a tad bit too expensive for my tastes!
  20. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Unfortunately I don't have the means for these high end venues.
  21. TheTrachyEnthusiast

    TheTrachyEnthusiast New Member

    Ah, neither do I most of the time. You don’t often see Thessalonican AR, however, which is why I have been following. I believe the last to come to an auction house was at least 3 years ago
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