Last Christmas, my sister and her husband decided to get me the best gift ever – Byzantine coins. Not only have I always wanted a few genuine antiquities, I also wanted to try my hand at identifying some of the salient features of these coins. I’ve made numerous drafts and corrections, and as I am not a numismatist there will likely still be errors, but here is what little information I can glean from two of the coins. The first image here is the reverse of a follis of Justinian.
This coin tells us a lot more about it. The Roman numerals on the right read XVII and are paired with “ANNO” (“in the year”) on the left, which date it to about 544. This is not an exact date, but likely to be close. Although Justinian took power solely in August 527, the anonymous author of the Chronicon Paschale suggests that his reign is calculated from April of the 5th indiction, which would also be 527. However, there is some question as to whether the anonymous author is correct in this matter. This only matters in the sense that it is unlikely that Justinian was minting his own coinage as of April 527 when his uncle Justin was still alive. Since the Byzantine year begins in the middle of September, it seems likely that in the 45 days following Justin’s death Justinian would have minted some coins; however, we do not know if he inscribed them with “ANNO I”, so it is impossible to know if “ANNO I” is 527 or 528, or even if Justinian’s coinage included regnal years so early on.
The capital M that dominates the coin is the stated value, as Greek letters double as numbers. In this case, the value of the coin is 40 nummi, although by the end of Justinian’s reign the coin would be reduced to 30, as it was too heavy for convenience. The size gave this particular type of follis a rather short life, as the first one was minted by Anastasius I ca. 498, and yet it did not survive the reign of Justinian. A nummus is simply the base unit of monetary value.
It reads “CON” at the bottom of the coin. This means that it was minted in Constantinople.
Tucked inside the large M is the Greek letter epsilon (ε). This is the coin’s officina mark, which is the subdivision of the mint. Since there were only a limited number of mints in the Roman Empire, each mint had a number of internal branches within the city it was stationed in. In this case, the ε takes the numerical value of five, so this coin came from the fifth branch of the mint in Constantinople.
Obverse of the Justinian follis. It depicts a figure. Although the detail is sufficiently faded that it is impossible to tell whether he is wearing a chlamys, the globus cruciger in his right hand strongly suggest that this is Justinian and not Jesus. This is further supported by the inscription “DNIUSTINIANUSPFA”, which reads in Latin “D(ominus) N(oster) Iustinianus P(ius) F(elix) A(ugustus)”. This translates to “Our Lord Justinian, devout/holy/loyal fortunate/blessed emperor.”
Obverse of the Herakleios nummus. This is able to tell us a little about the date, but not enough to satisfy a numismatist. There are two figures here, both crowned, which provide a little bit of information. Religious figures rarely appear in pairs on coinage, so this is almost certainly Herakleios and his son Herakleios II Constantine by Eudokia. Herakleios II Constantine was born May 3, 612 and crowned on January 22, 613. This gives us a starting date for the coin, unless it happens to depict Epiphania, Herakleios II Constantine’s sister who was crowned before him. However, I know of no case of a crowned minor female appearing on Roman or Byzantine coinage. This gives us a likely start date of 613 for the coin. In 632, Heraklonas, a son of Herakleios by his wife Martina (Eudokia had died of epilepsy back in 612) was raised to the throne. However, the gold coinage depicts the three of them together, so this coin is unlikely to date beyond 632.
Reverse of the Herakleios nummus. Dating this coin has proved to be impossible, and without a more specific mark it will not happen. I have had great trouble in photographing this coin, and even with a magnifying glass, its features are hard to make out. What we’re looking at here is a coin worth twelve nummi. On the upper section there is an iota on the left and a beta on the right, and the numerical value of these two Greek letters is twelve. There is a cross separating them, which appears to be sitting upon a delta. Theoretically, this could give the coin a value of sixteen nummi, but I have never seen such a nummus, so it is totally possible that the cross is simply sitting upon a triangular base. Below that there are three Greek letters: ΛΕΖ. This is the mint mark, so the coin was produced in Alexandria.