The Plague of Justinian: Its Effects

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Nov 23, 2021.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    There was a decline but it was most obvious in the ranks of the clergy which would spill out onto the laity. Why the clerical decline? The plague took a disproportionately higher percentage of the best clergy who stuck around to administer the last rites to the dying and then they succumbed to the contagion. The clergy who abandoned their flocks were more likely to survive and then to take over vacant clerical positions but were more apt to not take their spiritual calling and duties seriously leading to a general decline and scandalous behavior much noticed by the laity. It did not take long for much of that laity to start questioning not only who was teaching them but what was being taught to them. In addition, the clerical hierarchy, desperate to fill the depleted ranks, opened up ordination to the clergy to improperly prepared candidates. Among those who noticed and noted this, was John Wycliffe, first among the proto reformers of the Reformation.
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  3. Gam3rBlake

    Gam3rBlake Well-Known Member

    Here is my only Justinian coin of any kind. It also happens to be my only 1000+ year old gold coin. ^_^

    Note the P-cross different from the T-cross shown on the solidus of @Tejas .

    Please ignore the dog hair on the reverse.
  4. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Another news report, from Cambridge itself, summarizing the new article:

    The article itself (no registration or fee required):

    [Sorry - I just noticed that @Valentinian already posted that link.]

    If Professor Sarris accurately characterizes the basis for the widely-publicized conclusions published in 2019 by two so-called "plague skeptics," their arguments indeed sound absurd. One can hardly evaluate the effects of that pandemic by means of a computer evaluation of the number and percentage of words devoted to it in surviving ancient texts.
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2021
  5. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    I've only skimmed the linked article, but did you see this?

    "The bubonic plague seems to have exacerbated the East Roman Empire’s existing fiscal and administrative difficulties, which Justinian had hitherto attempted to address via his provincial reforms. This fiscal instability, as noted earlier, also appears to have been reflected in the coinage.72 A series of light-weight gold coins (solidi) were issued at around this time, seemingly in either 542–3 or 547–50 (the first such reduction in the gold currency since its introduction in the fourth century CE), and the weight of the heavy copper coinage (follis) of Constantinople was also reduced significantly in the spring of 542 (hence at around the same time as the emperor’s emergency banking legislation, which refers explicitly to the disease).73 Whilst neither policy was necessarily a response to the plague, it remains plausible to argue that they were.74 Perhaps potentially most visually striking, however, as an éminence grise of Byzantine numismatics has suggested, is the fact that the Emperor Justinian, who (Procopius tells us) caught but then recovered from the plague, seems to have issued a series of coins in 542–3, on which he may have been depicted with either a bubo in his neck or under his chin, or, on one of the coins, possibly wearing a mask covering such a bubo. The feature disappears from the coinage thereafter. The emperor’s recovery, these coins may have been meant to signal to the population of Constantinople, would also be the empire’s (although this reading of the coinage is highly speculative).75
    (this footnote is: 75 Henri Pottier, ‘L’empereur Justinien survivant à la peste bubonique (542)’, Travaux et Mémoires, xvi (2010). For further discussion of the numismatic evidence, see also Preiser-Kapeller, Der Lange Sommer und die Kleine Eiszeit, 57–8.)

    Does anybody have a coin of Justinian with a bubo on his neck? Or a mask? I'd really like to see one! :doctor::vomit::nurse::dead:
  6. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Me, too.
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  7. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

    Well a mask would have been a good idea along with vaccination, which of course they didn't have. I wonder what percent of the population would refuse to get vaccinated?
  8. Tejas

    Tejas Well-Known Member

    This is very unlikely in my view. At the time people believed that the emperor had to be physically intact, which is why cutting off ones nose (next to blinding) was such a popular method to exclude somebody from becoming emperor. When Justinian II (?) managed to ascent to the thrown, depite having had his nose cut off, his coins did not show a missing nose or some kind of prostetic nose. Hence it is very unlikely (if not completely impossible) that there are coins that show Justinian with signs of illness.
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  9. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    I dug through my Byzantines last night and I actually have two folles dated Year 16, which I believe is 542-543 A.D., which should have the "swollen & sick portrait/masked" type. Unfortunately they are both in pitiful condition, so it is hard to tell. I could only track down the photo for one of them:

    Byz - Justinian Const. follis lot June 2021 (0).jpg
    Justinian I Æ Follis
    Year 16 (542-543 A.D.)
    Constantinople Mint

    DN IVSTINI[ANVS PP] AVG, helmeted, cuirassed bust facing holding cross on globe and shield; cross to right / Large M, ANNO left, cross above, X μI right, Γ below, CON in exergue.
    SB 163; DOC 45.
    (17.33 grams / 37 x 35 mm)
    eBay June 2021

    On a worn ancient, you can see anything if you squint at it long enough - I think what I've marked here has more to do with surface damage than the actual portrait - or is this a swollen neck?

    Byz - Justinian Const. follis lot June 2021 (0det).jpg

    More interesting than my poor specimen are some others I found. I did a Google image search and found this - on eBay, advertised as a "Black Plague Coin" (though not mentioning a portrait variation). Is this portrait a bit odd, a bit swollen? It is year 15, so it would be a year earlier than the theory. Hmmm. (I promise I have no connection to this eBay listing; I'm not trying to sell anything here):

    Byz - Justinian Const. follis plague pic eBay.jpg

    Then there is this year 16 Vcoin listing. Again, is that portrait extra lumpy?
    Byz - Justinian Const. follis plague pic Vcoins.jpg

    Another Vcoins listing (is that a mask?):
    Byz - Justinian Const. follis plague pic Vcoins2.jpg

    Here is one from FORVM -

    Byz - Justinian Const. follis plague pic FORVM.jpg

    acsearch turned up quite a few - some had normal portraits, but check out this one from a Freeman & Sear auction:

    Byz - Justinian Const. follis plague pic Freeman & Sear.jpg

    Perhaps these types of portraits can be found for Justinian in other years? Here's one of mine from Nikomedia (which has a different style than Constantinople, I'd guess) - this later portrait seems more - healthy?
    Byz - Justinian I NIKO follis Dec 2020 (7).jpg

    I know Byzantine portraits were all over the place in terms of style, but does this warrant further investigation? The examples I found above were based on about ten minutes sorting through a Google search and acsearch.

    Ashley Lee photo on Wikimedia

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Attached Files:

  10. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    You make a good point. Roman emperors, actually most rulers right up to today, make it an issue to keep their infirmities private, including the aging process. Look at how Caesar Augustus pretty much looks the same on his coins as Octavian, the triumvir and Augustus the emperor in his seventies. FDR made certain the public never saw him struggling with his leg braces. No one wants to think their ruler has health problems.
  11. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

  12. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    A movement/philosophy that started in the pre Roman times ( Plotinus 250 BC ) was Spiritualism, basically it changed art and how portraits on coinage were done. The concept in its simplest form is "Real beauty is in the soul and the body merely disrupts the perception of that beauty". Art became extremely abstract. You will see the evolution of this concept throughout the coinage in the empire, its highlight is the abstract portraits of Christ in the 14th and 15th century.

    My point is I doubt if the portraits of Justinian were literal, the art movement on coinage was just starting, but I do not think they would show defects of any type.

    One coin I have always sought, is a Roman issue Justinian AE20 with a perfect Roman Imperial type portrait.
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  13. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter 3rd Century Usurper

  14. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    The original article

    "The recent ‘revisionist’ literature, as noted earlier, repeats the arguments made by Jean Durliat in the late 1980s, that beyond the testimony of the likes of Procopius, there was little evidence from the non-literary sources (such as laws, coins and papyri) sufficient to indicate that the plague had a significant impact on the early Byzantine state or society, either in the reign of Justinian or beyond."

    The Byzantine AE coins of Antioch we not issued in Justinian's years 14, 15, 17, 18, and 19 (the exception is year 16), as I noted above and on my page on mint marks at Antioch:
    I think closure of a major mint that provided coins for a large region of the empire would be reckoned a "significant impact" if it could be attributed solely to the plague. However, there were other possible reasons for the closure.

    On a personal level, I remark that in my rural town we had our heating and cooling firm lose an employee and therefore they had to cancel our attempt at a major installation. Also, a second firm (the only one that does it) has had their clothes drier repairman ill (I don't know if it is with covid) and we have been without our drier for a month due to lack of a part and repairman to do it.

    I admit my problems are not of the order of the disruption of a society, but they illustrate that things that used to be simple can change when the person with some special skill is no longer doing it (as death would bring about).
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  15. Tejas

    Tejas Well-Known Member

    This is a wonderful coin above, but I doubt that its crudeness is due to some deliberation movement of abstraction in art. Instead, I think the crudeness shows the economic decline of the empire. I think by that time they simply didn't have the die engravers to make better dies.
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  16. BenSi

    BenSi Supporter! Supporter

    That might be correct but I don't think so. The art work in Byzantium even up to the 15th century was brilliant, to say they lacked the talented engravers is speculation but so is my observation. However, to my defense Plotinus has a feast day in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (I just found that out.)
    I also stumbled on this interesting paragraph on a very dry paper on the subject of his influence on Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

    (Remember Byzantium did not go through a dark ages like the west did. It maintained high literacy, even in Latin {because of their fierce pride in being descendants of the Romans, even military communiqués to the Romanians, for example, were in Latin until 1081} classics were studied and known through the schools, and it had almost all the classical and patristic works of antiquity, in sharp contrast to the west.

    So when you watch the coinage from Justinian to Constantine XI you will notice no ruler is ever depicted with a realism. A strong part of my argument, look at the beauty of the depiction of Christ in the Anonymous follis series, just goes to show they had the talent to do so.

    In the Cealtor (December 91) and in Wayne Sayles Ancient Coin Collecting Volume V The Romani/Byzantine Culture there is an excellent article on the "Antithesis Of Portraiture" Also the highlight was a drawing by Chris Connel that showed the Portraits of Christ in John VIII stravation was created by 3 circles, 2 semicircles, and 30 lines. A uniformity regarding the series. (The coin I posted was Manuel II and a half stravation. The nicest example I have ever seen is owned by @dougsmit

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  17. Tejas

    Tejas Well-Known Member

    I think if we look at the development of Byzantine coins from the 11th century down to the last stavrata of the 15th century there is no break that would mark a new artistic style, but a gradual deterioration of artistic capabilities.

    I think this deterioration matches well with the decline of the Byzantine empire that began in the 13th century and culminated in its demise in 1453. I'm not saying that this deterioration affected all aspects of culture and art, but for some reasons, from a certain time onwards, they didn't put much effort into coin making anymore.

    Here is a silver coin of Justinian minted shortly after the fall of Ravenna in May 540. The denomination is a half-Siliqua, but the coin was probably just called a denarius by contemporaries. The coin is one of the stars of my "Rome's Gothic War" collection.
    The coin was minted on an unusually large flan (14.5mm) and is probably BOT. The same die engraver had worked for the Gothic king Witigis and the style of the portrait is entirely "Gothic" rather than "Roman".

    Rev.: Chi-Rho
    MIB 77. Ranieri 360

    The coin was minted on an unusually large flan (14.5mm) and is probably BOT. I don't think that the die engravers who made the stavrata of the 15th century were capable of producing such dies.

    Screenshot 2021-11-26 at 13.35.08.png
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