Featured Life in the Byzantine empire

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Only a Poor Old Man, May 7, 2021.

  1. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    I got a couple of fractional Byzantine coppers the other day, and I was wondering what kind of a write up they could inspire. And then it hit me... While we pursue our passionate hobby and research the history of our coins, we tend to focus on the rulers depicted on the obverse. The circumstances of the society that the coins actually represent are often side-lined or not researched at all. This is mostly down to how we collect ancients nowadays... We are usually after an 'Alexander' tetradrachm or a 'Justinian' solidus and most associated research revolves around their personality and individual achievements. But if you think about it, the very nature and purpose of a coin is to abet in the commercial running of everyday life. So what kind of lives did these people have and how different those lives were compared to ours?

    A way to find out is to focus our research into the buying power of the coin in question during the era it was minted. However this is not always easy, simply due to lack of available and specialised historical information. It is much simpler to start with an investigation into the overall characteristics of the society the coin represents. That of course will be fairly generic and it may span several centuries, but as most of us are not scholars with access to academic sources, it can't be really helped. The culture I want to present to you today is the Byzantine one, and another inspiration to this was an earlier thread from @furryfrog02 who kindly received a free old issue of National Geographic along with a coin he ordered. That issue was a Byzantine Empire special, and as soon as it came to my attention I knew I had to get it. Luckily, NG is a popular magazine and I had no trouble at all locating a copy at a very reasonable price. A few days later, it arrived in my mailbox:


    The article inside was fascinating and very interesting as it drew my attention to those aspects of every day existence that we sometimes forget about. I felt quite driven to research it further and to my surprise I came to ascertain that the Byzantine community was very interesting even after putting military affairs and scheming emperors aside. I would like to share some of those aspects with you, but before I even start doing that, I probably need to briefly explain what the Byzantine empire was for those yet unfamiliar with it. In a nutshell, it was the continuation of the eastern part of the Roman empire. As many of us are aware, it was originally partitioned into west and east in the year 285 AD by emperor Diocletian for administrative purposes, making Constantinople the capital of the east. The partition was roughly based along ethnic and linguistic criteria, as the west comprised mostly of the Latin speaking world whereas the east was mostly Greek. When Rome fell in 476 AD, the eastern part survived and flourished for another 1000 years, and that civilisation is what is known today as the 'Byzantine Empire'. Its Greek nature forced Historians to come up with the term 'Byzantine' in order to distinguish it from the earlier Roman empire which to them was a very different beast.


    It wasn't that different to begin with, though. It was a gradual shift, rather than a sudden one. Roman administrative practices were dominant in the early days and were only slowly phased out as the centuries passed. It wasn't until the 7-8th century when most people (including the ones at the top) could not read a word of Latin, that you can safely say that Byzantium had fully transformed into a Greek-Orthodox Christian world. Despite that, many elements of Roman structure survived till the very end of the empire in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks. It was actually this mixture of Roman organisation, Greek education/culture, combined together by Christian morals and ideology, that created an entity strong and cohesive enough to survive for a thousand years after the fall of Rome. You see the Byzantine empire was never about conquest or military might, and its wars were mostly defensive or about re-capturing lost territory. The Byzantine army never enjoyed large numbers and it often relied on the clever use of technology and foreign mercenaries. It was the strength of Byzantine economy and society that kept it strong for so many years, which is the main theme of this write-up. Because of such strong foundations the empire managed to survive its fair share of bad emperors who embezzled, fornicated, drunk, and took advantage of their position rather than use it to promote and support the interests of the state.

    General economy and taxation

    The best way to go about this is to focus on each aspect separately. The most important one would always be the economy, as a successful one is really a pre-requisite for every other one to flourish and develop. As in most ancient economies, the biggest sectors were agriculture and trade which makes sense considering the vast and diverse territories within the Byzantine domain. What made a big difference though is the way it was structured and combined together in order to transform grain into gold. Location, location, location is the principal motto of modern-day realtors, but it is also very useful into turning your produce into a commercial commodity, and the Byzantines were lucky enough to control key parts of the Mediterranean and the fertile lands surrounding it. The Anatolian peninsula in particular was of the outmost importance, and the most productive of them all. The economy was strongest during the periods where this area was peaceful and Byzantine, and it struggled when the Arabs and Turks started making their presence and territorial ambitions known, interrupting both production and the long established trade routes that reached all the way to China. Cereal crops, fruits, wine, olives and its oil, were the Byzantine farmer's specialty, something that had barely changed since the times of the ancient Greek city-states. It is interesting to note that even though there were large estates controlled by the rich few (with the locals being tenants to the land they cultivated), there was also the 'village' system which was effectively corporations of small free-holders that owned their land and employed either slave or immigrant labour. (Slavery fell out of favour after the 7th century under pressure from the church, and it comprised of prisoners of war anyway) The central government profited from both systems through taxation, and in return was responsible for organising the flow of commerce and setting up the standards. The Byzantines were among the first to establish tightly regulated guilds, controlled prices and rent, standardised weights and measures, and even hold regular inspections to ensure traders and merchandise adhered to those trading and quality standards.


    For many centuries there was a harmonious relationship between the various classes involved in the running of the economy. Farmers, merchants, suppliers, manufactures and all the administrators in-between helped to run a very tight ship. There was no shame into being a trader or manufacturer, but pride and acknowledgement of usefulness. While most western Europe bartered, banking, insurance and credit was developed in the east with fixed ceiling for interest rates ( 8% during Justinian's times - 12% for maritime as there was increased risk involved). And even though there was a fair amount of corruption, a benefits system based on merit was introduced, and officials and judges were paid regular salaries in order to to deter bribery. Some people say that the Byzantine society was somewhat too bureaucratical, but that was to the direct benefit of the common people, as there were things like housing codes and planning standards (for example you were not allowed to build anything closer than 10 feet to adjacent property). Many of these marvellous bureaucratic practices are described in detail in the 'Book of the Prefect' (Τὸ ἐπαρχικὸν βιβλίον) which was a commercial manual written under Leo VI the Wise...

    End of Part 1 - To be continued on a later date...

    This Byzantine write-up is too generic and it is going to get long... I decided to do it in parts and update this thread with the latest ones every time I get new Byzantine coppers/bronzes. It is a bit ambitious, but just innocent fun really...

    Feel free to add coins or anything relevant till then. Let's get the Byzantine discussion going!
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  3. Andres2

    Andres2 Well-Known Member

    Great write up , many thanks,Old Man

    Leo VI the wise (2).jpg
  4. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    Thanks for the write-up. I was fortunate to take a class from one of the foremost Byzantine scholars when he was in residence at Berkeley, Warren Treadgold. It was a very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating experience. Of particular interest to me was the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the Empire over the centuries. Threatened with destruction in the 7th century, rising to new heights of power in the 9th and 10th centuries, decline in the 11th century, a revival under Alexius Comnenus and then a final descent into weakness and elimination in the 15th century at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who had become too strong to repel.

    I'll offer up a gold coin.

    Constantine X Ducas, 1059-1067.

    AV Histamenon Nomisma. (AV, 28 mm, 4.41 g, 5 h), Constantinople. +IhS XIS RЄX RЄςNANTҺIm Christ, nimbate, seated facing on square-backed throne, wearing tunic and pallium, raising his right hand in benediction and holding book of Gospels in his left. Rev. +KωN RAC Λ O ΔOVKAC Constantine X standing facing, wearing crown and loros, holding labarum in his right hand and globus cruciger in his left. DOC 1a. SB 1847.

    Last edited: May 7, 2021
  5. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I wonder how many students would sign up for such a course today?
  6. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    There were 14 students in the class as I recall. It wasn't offered every year but was in the catalog of classes, so when I got a chance to take the class when it was offered I jumped at the opportunity.
  7. Randy Abercrombie

    Randy Abercrombie Supporter! Supporter

    I feel like a broken record as I have shown this before. I am a US guy that ran across this at a coin show some years back. I been taken with Byzantine coins ever since...... I am loving this write up. I associate all my coins with the history of the time and the people that used them. Anxiously awaiting the second installment.
    IMG_3619.JPG IMG_3621.JPG
  8. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Struck at Constantinople under Constans II (641-668 AD), the obverse of this follis reads in Greek : " Under this sign.. Conquer ".

    Constans II      SB 1000.JPG Constans 2     Follis.JPG
    Theodosius, chrsmat71, Limes and 9 others like this.
  9. SchwaVB57

    SchwaVB57 Well-Known Member

    I will gladly send this book, "Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy C. 300-1450", by Michael Hendy, FREE, to any contributor to this thread that @Only a Poor Old Man chooses to receive the offer. It came in a box of books purchased years ago. I have never opened it, since I do not have any coins from the period. He can PM me the information for shipping. I hope someone can get information out of it.
  10. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Fantastic writeup, @Only a Poor Old Man. And and two more solid coins! I especially like the decanoummion. It's fun to see you expanding into the minor denominations. And I'm likely to go trawling for a copy of that NG.
    ...Sorry, among the handful of Byzantines I have pics of, any of them would be redundant here. But your observaton about Byzantine emperors had to remind me of medieval monarchs in the West. When you run across one who, in any capacity, was a conscientious ruler, you almost breathe a sigh of relief. I liken Louis IX /St. Louis, with his extensive domestic reforms on one hand, and his two disastrous crusades on the other, to the US president Lyndon Johnson. A sterling record on Civil Rights, and the aspirational economic reform of the Great Society, interrupted and derailed by his belly-dive into the Vietnam War.
  11. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    ...Many thanks for your magnanimous offer, @SchwaVB57. ...@Only a Poor Old Man, you hear that? [Edit:] --Not that I'm likely to be the most deserving candidate.
  12. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    P.O.M., About 10 years ago I took a Con Ed course in Rochester, NY with a group of giddy old women that turned out to be fun :D. One book that was recommended is pictured below. It's a "coffee table" book of very light reading, 147pp, that is loaded with beautiful illustrations :happy:. The book is a collection of essays put together by The Editors of Time Life Books, & cost me only $3.00 :p. The book is probably still available as a publisher close-out ;).


    IMG_0877 (3).JPG
  13. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    You may be surprised... The Byzantine empire is getting a lot more popular as of lately :)

    I would like to coincide it with new copper purchases, but as I have a couple in my radar, it hopefully shouldn't take long! I think I will touch upon charity, women's rights, and the hospital system which I find fascinating.

    That is very kind of you, but I don't think I deserve such power to decide the fate of your book. There is no need for me to get involved, I imagine that anyone interested they will probably contact you directly :bookworm:

    Funnily enough, I just realised that I didn't say a word about them! I love them too, and they represent a very affordable solution to the current times of crazy auction prices. Byzantine copper is still affordable with some exceptions being very well preserved examples of A2 anonymous Follis or the massive Justinian ones. They seem to be very hot at the moment.


    Small coppers are a pain to photograph, and that was definitely the case with those two... They are lovely in hand and especially the pentanummion is an absolute darling. It is very well preserved (EF according to the seller). These are exactly the types of coins that were handled by the common people on a day to day basis. Tetradrachms and solidi are the types of coins that often got hoarded as soon as they were minted, but these little ones ended up in many pockets. That is why they rarely come in such great condition. The decanummion looks like it was clipped and probably started out as a higher denomination.

    One thing I haven't mentioned in the write up is that I read somewhere that copper coins were not accepted as taxes. If I am not mistaken people had to go to moneyers (probably with bags full of coppers) to get them changed for gold currency. Any change due, they would get it back in coppers. Very profitable system for the government and of course for the moneyers who must have been filthy rich!
  14. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Yikes! So with their remarkable sophistication on every other level, they had the equivalent of CoinStar?
    (That's an American company that makes machines that take your change, and convert it to 'real money.' --Whether in bills or via credit from the store's cashier; I've never used one.)
  15. SchwaVB57

    SchwaVB57 Well-Known Member

    Since you do not want to choose a winner @Only a Poor Old Man. Monday, May 10, I will put all contributor's names up until that time in a hat and draw a winner.
  16. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    You can put mine in, @SchwaVB57. With the caveat that if, for instance, @The Trachy Enjoyer, or someone else obviously on that level (sorry to & for who I'm forgetting) is in for it, I would rather defer to them.
  17. SchwaVB57

    SchwaVB57 Well-Known Member

    I will random draw a name, notify the individual by PM. If the winner is not interested, I will draw again.
  18. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Byzantine Glass Weight. 7th Century.

    Glass Weight  Byz 7th c..JPG
  19. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Excellent writeup, @robinjojo ... I really do not know a lot about them. Thank you.

    BYZANTINE EMPIRE. Andronicus II and Michael IX, AD 1295-1320.
    AR Basilikon, 22mm, 2.1g, 6h; Mint of Constantinople.
    Obv.: IC XC KVREI BOHΘH, Christ enthroned, right hand raised in benediction,large dot either side.
    Reverse.ΑVΤΩΚΡΑΤΟ - PΕC PWΜΑION; Andronicus standing left and Michael standing right; holding between them a labarum.
    Reference: DOC V part 1.Class VIII.(f) 528-534
    From the @H8modern Collection
    Ex: @John Anthony
  20. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    Nice! Almost complete legends:jawdrop::)
    +VGO.DVCKS and Alegandron like this.
  21. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    Have you heard of Julian Baker's Coinage and Money in Medieval Greece 1200-1430? Its a brand new publication which has come out with over 2000 pages across two volumes covering almost every aspect of the medieval Peloponnesian, Epirate, Thessalonican, and other lands. Topics range from the different economies operating in tandem (English Sterling, Venetian Grosso, Northern Italian gold, Byzantine Hyperpyron and trachys, local Achaean mint production, etc), hoard finds, hoard value and content, locations in medieval Greece where coinage types are found (across all economies), the function of bullion, the issuers of the currency operating in the area, the users of the currency, historical and socio economic trends, etc

    It sounds like the kind of book you would be interested in and is by far the most comprehensive I have ever seen for this era and possibly/probably in any era
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