Featured Tetarteron - Byzantine Gold Exchange Rate to US Dollar - The "True Dollar" of the Middle Ages

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by The Trachy Enjoyer, May 29, 2021.

  1. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    "True Dollar" of the Middle Ages
    Many coins have been dubbed the "dollar" of the middle ages, almost always byzantine and gold. What is meant by this is that the coinage was widely available, widely accepted, and widely used. The usual suspects pointed to are the solidus and hyperpyron, both common today but infact were not used much by the lower rungs of society (aka the majority of people). Such coinage was typically used by the wealthy to pay taxes and the Byzantine government went out of its way to limit people's access to gold. It was discouraged to use in private transactions and outright banned from leaving the empires border. The Byzantine government would often require that those individual with higher tax rates (upper middle and wealthy) to pay their taxes in gold and all change paid back would be in bronze.

    Byzantine to USD Exchange Rate
    The US dollar, although sharing similarities with byzantine gold, is also quite different. Both were/are the means to pay taxes and the general means through which to measure a person's wealth. However, the US dollar is quite accessible to the average person, unlike Byzantine gold. Branko Milanovic calculates the average unskilled Byzantine worker (aka the average person) to have earned between 9-12 nomismata per year (gold pieces). Taking this number at the higher end, that would be one gold piece per month's labor. The average US monthly income is about $3,000 to put this figure into perspective. The ratio of 1 byzantine gold piece to $3,000 isn't necessarily correct as a number of factors fluctuate in each era and a true exchange rate is impossible to determine. What the 1 gold piece to $3,000 ratio does do is help put the value of a byzantine gold piece into a modern perspective. These were highly valuable coins not often used by poor (or middle classes for that fact). People in antiquity didn't have banks like people today and although they stored wealth, they wouldn't be going to banks to exchange hundreds of bronze coins for one gold piece. Once you consider that most Byzantines were paid daily rather than bi weekly as is the case in the US (so many small payments instead of smaller, larger payments), the picture of the average Byzantine using gold on anything resembling a regular basis becomes quite blurry...so if Byzantine gold wasn't used on a regular basis for transactions, what was?

    The answer to this question depends on the region and time you visit. Each would be worthy of a write up on its own but I will be focusing on Byzantine Greece and the Balkans between the years 1080-1350 (as will be seen later, these coins did circulate far more widely). This era saw a huge recovery, fall, and second rise for the people situated within these lands. Alexios I and the Komnenos dynasty oversaw the second to last great Byzantine flourishment, retaking old lands and invigorating the economy. Unlike anyone since Anastasius I, Alexios completely overhauled the byzantine monetary system and put an end to decades of debasement and inflation. Among Alexios' innovations was the tetarteron, the focus of todays write up and the "true dollar" of the middle ages.

    The Tetarteron
    (A note on sources: the rest of the write up relies heavily on the work "Coinage and Money is Medieval Greece 1200-1430" by Julian Baker and will quote heavily from there)

    The tetarteron, introduced alongside the trachy, was a small, flat copper coin initially issued at 4 grams and later reduced. Its name has been theorized to represent its 1/4th value of the anonymous bronzes issued almost a century prior. Julian Baker writes "After the rather unwieldy follis of the previous system, the tetarteron and its low weight made many more menial and everyday exchanges possible." The official exchange rate was 864 tetarteron to 1 hyperpyron (the standard gold coin of the era).

    Tetarteron coinage was not just limited to the Byzantine empire. Baker says, "The appearances of Byzantine copper coinages all along the Adriatic – folles and tetartera – are very strong indicators for the usage by Italians of the full canon of Byzantine denominations." It found great success around the Mediterranean and is one of the most common coins from the era found in hoards in Greece and the most common coin to be found deposited alone. This indicates high usage of the tetarteron as a relatively low value coin. People lost them while out and about, much in the same way we might lose loose change or accidentally misplace a $10 bill.

    Further proof for the wide usage of tetarteron coins comes from Baker. "The only coinages which were manipulated in different ways by the population at large were tetartera and trachea: it clipped and cut tetartera, turned them into trachea, or pared down older copper coins to resemble tetartera." This shows that the tetarteron was both widely used and widely available. When the currency on hand couldn't meet the needs of the population, they turned to the tetarteron to fulfil their needs. Baker continues, "One may suggest that in imperial times the Byzantine tetarteron had been purposefully introduced to our area, either by the state or by privates, specifically for usage in market contexts (though naturally with the final result of paying taxes). These markets would often have had an urban focus. Byzantine and sub-Byzantine trachea were added to this picture around 1200."

    Further evidence for the predominately urban based usage of tetartera comes thanks to excavations in Athens. Although many regions in Grecce and the Balkans from this era have sadly not been excavated yet, the large historical work done at Athens has led to many discoveries, accidental or not. "Athens was highly monetised in the twelfth century: hyperpyra are in good evidence, and the area traditionally used the copper tetarteron, of which there are thousands of finds", writes Baker. This urbanization does not extend eastwards beyond the Aegean, however, where "In the twelfth century the imperial areas of Greece and Anatolia were differently monetised: tetartera prevailed in the former and were absent in the latter, while Asia Minor was one of the key regions in which the electrum trachy was deployed".

    Conclusion: The True Dollar of the Middle Ages
    All this to say: the tetarteron was the "true dollar" of the middle ages. To quote my definition of the "true dollar", "What is meant by this is that the coinage was widely available, widely accepted, and widely used." The tetarteron was widely available in the middle ages, heavily used from the Aegean islands to the shores of Italy and beyond. The Tetarteron was widely accepted as seen as a "burdenless" currency (low value). The Tetarteron was widely used as is seen in hoard evidence across Greece, the Balkans, Italy, and more. Although no currency ever has or (most likely) will be universal, the tetarteron is the currency in the middle ages which most represents what the dollar is today: easily accessible, widely recognized, similarly low valued, easy and convenient to use. Unlike precious gold, this is a currency the average person could (and did) truly use.

    Coinage and Money is Medieval Greece 1200-1430 by Julian Baker

    My Tetartera: (Pre 1204)

    Manuel I Comnenus Æ Tetarteron. Thessalonica, AD 1152-circa 1160(?)
    . Facing bust of St. George, nimbate and beardless, holding spear and shield / Facing bust of Manuel, wearing crown with pendilia, holding labarum and globus cruciger. DOC 18; Sear 1975. 4.50g, 21mm, 6h.
    IMG_8541_scrubbed.png IMG_8542_scrubbed.png

    (Post 1204)

    EMPIRE OF NICAEA. Anonymous (1227-1261). Ae Tetarteron. Magnesia.
    Obv: Pelleted cross, with crescent ends; all over pelleted saltire cross.
    Rev: MP - ΘV.
    The Virgin Mary standing facing, orans.
    Sear 2154; LBC 314-5.
    Condition: Near very fine.
    Weight: 3.07 g.
    Diameter: 18 mm.
    IMG_9169_scrubbed.png IMG_9170_scrubbed.png

    The Empire of Nicaea. Anonymous, 1227-1261. Tetarteron, Magnesia (?).

    Obverse: I-C / X-C Jeweled cross with three pellets at the end of each arm
    Reverse: Two jeweled B's facing each other, one retrograde; with a pellet in each loop. DOC 7. SB 2155.
    IMG_9171_scrubbed.png IMG_9172_scrubbed.png

    John III Ducas (Vatatzes), emperor of Nicaea, 1222-1254. Tetarteron, uncertain mint.

    Obverse: Patriarchial cross on three steps; to left and right, IC - XC.
    Reverse: Half-length figure of emperor waering loros, holding labarum in his right hand and globus cruciger in his left.
    DOC IV, pl. XXXIV, 62b. Sear 2120.
    IMG_9173_scrubbed.png IMG_9174_scrubbed.png
    Share your thoughts! (and tetartera of course:pompous:)
    Last edited: May 29, 2021
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  3. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

  4. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    T.E. Thanks for an excellent article & photos of interesting coins :happy:. Your theory that the Tetarteron was the "coin of the realm" for the Byzantine shopper buying food & other sundries in the marketplace does make sense, since gold coins in the every-day marketplace would have non-negotiable. If the Tetarteron was like the dollar, then the gold Histamenon Nomisma must have seemed like the Bitcoin to the Byzantine "plebeian" :smuggrin:.

    Constantine X Ducas.jpg
    Byzantine Empire, Constantine X, AD 1059-1067, Constantinople Mint. AV Histamenom Nomisma: 4.39 gm, 27 mm, 6 h. Sear 1847. Ex Al Kowsky Coll.
  5. Alegandron

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

  6. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    What is the weight of the B - reversed B specimen. I wonder if it isn't actually an imitation, similar to the ones assigned to the Genoese Signoria di Rodi, or earlier under Ioannes Palaiologos in Rhodes?
    The Trachy Enjoyer likes this.

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @Al Kowsky, your comparison to Bitcoin is inspired!!!
    But @The Trachy Enjoyer, your seemingly inexhaustible combination of coolly late Byzantine, and erudition to match, is a constant joy. Many thanks, on both counts!
    The Trachy Enjoyer likes this.
  8. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    I haven't much experience with the imitation tetarterons. I did stubmle across an older thread of yours which was helpful!

    The weight on this is 1.56 grams. The style is crude but...then again, almost all are:smuggrin:
  9. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

  10. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    It seems I did record well, here is the entry from Lunardi:


    Perhaps the design did originate at an Imperial mint, but was imitated in the islands. Lunardi notes that the types assigned to the Signoria are finds from the island of Rhodes and virtually nowhere else.
  11. Douglas Ross

    Douglas Ross Member

    Thank you, excellent article and relevance to today.
  12. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    What publication is this from? It seems handy!

    Also, do you know what distinguishes these from the official Nicaean coins? I am not seeing a difference between the two. Is crudity (and/or hoard location?) the main deterministic?
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  13. nicholasz219

    nicholasz219 Well-Known Member

    @The Trachy Enjoyer This is very well done. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Nice collection of tetarteron.
    The Trachy Enjoyer likes this.
  14. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Giuseppe Lunardi - Le Monete delle Colonie Genovesi.

    And I don't have an answer to your question on how to differentiate. I don't know if we can be certain that it was an actual Imperial blueprint. The weights are variable, the workmanship... well it's a simple design, plus the type in itself is rather scarce and Lunardi links most of the specimens he came across when documenting his work to Rhodes. What he acknowledges though is that the grand diversity of the types and the modules of these types could hint to a longer minting period, perhaps involving Ioannes Palaiologos who ruled Rhodes as Despot in the 1260s and early 70s.
    The Trachy Enjoyer likes this.
  15. The Trachy Enjoyer

    The Trachy Enjoyer Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the book name! It looks to he very helpful

    As for the Nicaean (Byzantine, Sear 2155) vs Rhodian (Genoa, R12) tetarteron types, I have done some digging and perhaps discovered the distinction. Giuseppe Lunardi, the author who has noted the different types, doesn’t actually outline the difference. Upon searching for Genoan coinage in Rhodes, I didn’t have much luck. Using ACsearch, however, I looked up Rodi (Rhodes in Italian) Follaro. This brought an auction listing (https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?id=3961824) which highlights type R11 as having a star inbetween the two “B”s on the obverse.
    E79DA2A5-8DD9-4138-A9AD-7AC6950B7F39.jpeg 6A4509D5-7B7A-45B0-BEBE-D0F05F9A925D.jpeg
    Digging further, type R13 is similar in having a cross between the two “B”s.
    Official Nicaean issues don’t place any markings here so it would appear that any sear 2155 tetartera with a star or cross in between the “B”s would in fact be a later issue of Rhodes.

    Giuseppe Lunardi doesnt show the marking on his obverse for type R12 (2155) but without this a distinction would be impossible to make. My coin does have some detail between the “B”s but it is difficult to make out whether this is a star or just encrustation/surface issues.

    I honestly suspect type R12 is the Nicaean tetarteron issues which circulated for 20-50 years (we dont know the precise minting date) until the Genoans minted their own coins. The similar designs might lead to confusion on whether this is a whole new type (R12) or a lingering issue from Nicaea (2155). It could also be that imitations were made of the popular tetarteron coinage in Rhodes which were faithful enough for us modern collectors to see as indistinguishable.
    Last edited: May 30, 2021
  16. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    It may be so, but we should keep in mind that these minute details that we are searching in order to make clear differentiations were most likely irrelevant back then unless they were used as regular privy marks. Irregular coinage created to supplant a lack of official coinage does not usually employ such complex identification markers, so often times small details are just that: particularities of certain dies. When we, as researchers, try to put too much importance on some of these things in our quest to make clear-cut distinctions, we risk falling into a kind of numismatic pareidolia -- wanting to see patterns and distinctions that were not originally meant as such.

    What I would do instead, I'd focus on metrology and quality. Coins that do adhere to the Imperial standards and were struck with more care on better flans are more likely to have been official products, while smaller, more ragged flans with lesser quality strikes, of the likes that Lunardi gathered for his Signoria di Rodi chapter, are more likely local coins. The tertarteron has a history in this respect: the "Greece workshops" minting tetartera (or half-tetartera) in the 12th century for Alexius and Manuel.
  17. BenSi

    BenSi Well-Known Member

    Nice write up @The Trachy Enjoyer , I think their is no doubt that the tetarteron was the common mans coin in Greece, infact it is a coin that every person would have handled.

    I just got home from a long work trip, badly jet lagged but very happy to come home to my copy Julian Bakers Coinage and Money in Medieval Greece 1200-1430. The two volume set is filled with much more up to date info than DOC IV and V and Metcalf Coinage in Southern Eastern Europe 820-1396. Several newer find hoards are noted

    I have only been reading chapters of interest to me as of now but he seems to be critical in a subdued way of Hendy's work. Infact he seems to lean all official tetartera were not made in multiple mints but only one, Constantinople, he says maybe Thessalonica but more than likely not. That is the first time I have ever heard an academic lean that way. Most argue where the third mint was , he just eliminated two of them.

    The book is full of information on imitation tetartera that was predominate in the 13th century, he notes a pictures several types that I did not know were imitated.

    Here are a few post 1204 tetartera from my collection.

    Anonymous (Magn.) AE Tetarteron – SBCV-2154 DOC IV 6 Type D
    OBV Cross radiate, with lunate ornaments, decorated with pellets , at ends.

    REV Half length figure of Virgin, nimbate, orans wearing tunic.

    Size 20mm

    Weight 2.61gm

    DOC lists 4 examples. weight vary 1.32gm to 2.52gm and 19 to 22mm


    Anonymous3 (Magn.) AE Tetarteron – SBCV-2155 DOC IV 7 Type E

    OBV ICXC Cross decorated with pellets.

    REV Two B's back to Back . Pellets in the loops on r.

    Size 17mm

    Weight. 2.78gm

    Doc lists 8 examples from weights 1.81 to 2.55gm , Sizes from 16mm to 21mm

  18. THCoins

    THCoins Well-Known Member

    Very nice write up !
    To focus some attention also outside Europe i'd propose an oriental medieval "dollar" contender: The Bull & Horseman Jital.

    Area of common use in daily life and trade: Between north of the Caspian sea through eastern Iran to the border of north-west India with Nepal.
    Use of this basic design and weight standard: Continuously between 750 and 1250 AD.
    Estimated amount of circulating coins: Between 400 milion and 1 billion at the beginning of the 11th century.
  19. VD76

    VD76 Well-Known Member

    Nice to know the coins have found a nice home ;)……
    The Trachy Enjoyer likes this.
  20. Blake Davis

    Blake Davis Well-Known Member

    Terrific write up! Wonder how these went for?
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