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The Byzantine Konstantinato

Byzantine Coin Collection

The International Currency of the Middle Ages
By Elizabeth Kosmetatou


The gold Byzantine coin, commonly known as Konstantinato, or To Nomisma (The Coin), was the first perfect monetary unit to combine the three characteristics of aureum solidum, integrum et totum. These terms refer to a coin which is made of solid gold of a certain weight that is pre-determined and guaranteed by the issuing authority, and whose extrinsic value is therefore the same as its intrinsic value. It was exactly these qualities of the Byzantine coin that made it internationally accepted. In fact, the Konstantinato circulated widely through trade not only within the Byzantine Empire and the neighbouring countries of the Near East, but in Medieval Europe as well. It is frequently discovered in Medieval contexts in France, England, and even the Scandinavian countries.

The Konstantinato was first issued in gold in A.D. 312 by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (A.D. 311-337). Constantine came up with radical solutions in order to settle the affairs of the troubled Roman Empire. He was the heir to a long line of strong emperors who sought to revive the weak and virtually bankrupt Roman Empire. This effort was initiated by the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) who inherited a Roman state that had suffered from the excesses and the incompetent administration of the emperors of the third century A.D. (A.D. 235-284). In order to better govern his empire, Diocletian had divided it into two parts: the Eastern and the Western Roman Empires. He had also founded the institution of Tetrarchy: the rule of the Empire by two Emperors and their respective Caesars and designated successors. Constantine abolished the Tetrarchy, and shifted imperial power from the West to the East. He duly moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to the old Greek colony of Byzantion, strategically situated on the boundary between Europe and Asia, on a hilly peninsula between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. The new city had a 7-mile-long inlet, a natural harbor, and a population of perhaps 1 million in the time of Justinian, arguably the most important and powerful Byzantine emperor. It was there that Constantine built his magnificent new capital in A.D. 324 which he named Constantinople after himself.

Constantine's monetary policy was radically different than that of his predecessors. Until his time in the early fourth century A.D. and since Antiquity, silver was mainly used for the coinage of the Graeco-Roman world. Larger denominations, the tetradrachms, were used for all major transactions, trade, payments of wages, and personal savings. On the other hand, everyday transactions were made with bronze coins. Gold coins were usually struck in cases of emergency, at times of war, in order to finance large mercenary armies. It is under Constantine in the fourth century A.D. that gold replaced silver as the monetary standard instead of silver.

The types of the Konstantinato remained simple throughout the life of the Byzantine Empire and varied from period to period. The Konstantinata which were struck by Constantine the Great followed the traditional types of the coinage of the Roman Empire. The obverse depicted the diademed portrait of the reigning emperor, while on the reverse was the figure of Victory seated on a throne and holding a small winged Victory and a cornucopiae, the horn of abundance. The reverse legend reads: CONSTANTINUS AUG(USTUS). After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, and as the Byzantine regime defined itself more and more as theocratic, the types of the Konstantinato changed as well. From then on, the obverse invariably depicted Christ or Virgin Mary, while the portrait of the emperor, alone or with his wife, occupied the reverse. Occasionally, the reverse was uniconic with bearing a legend only. The largest denomination of the Konstantinato weighed about 4.50 grams, or 24 keratia (Carats) as the Byzantines themselves called them. The term kerati refers to the ceratonia siliqua, the kernel of the carob-bean. Significantly, this Greek word eventually passed in the Aramaic language as girat and in Arabic as kharubah. The term kerati/karati eventually became part of modern international terminology of weights and measures. An international committee that was convened in 1877, decided to impose the carat as the international unit of measure for gold and precious stones which had a fixed weight of 0.20 grams.

Returing to our discussion of the Konstantinato, we should take a closer look at the monetary equivalences. The Konstantinato was the basic monetary unit of the Byzantine state. 72 such coins weighed one litre of gold. Smaller denominations of the Konstantinato were the so-called semissis (which was half a Konstantinato) and the tremissis (which was one third of a Konstantinato). Next to the gold Konstantinato, the Byzantines also used silver and bronze coins for everyday smaller transactions. The silver coins were called milliaresia or hexagramma (Six grammata or grams) and were first introduced in the 7th century A.D. by the emperor Herakleios (610-641). Each milliaresion was worth 24 pholleis or pholera. Each phollis was worth about 40 noumia, as the bronze coins were called, while one milliarision was worth 1,000 bronze noumia. 12 milliaresia were worth one gold Konstantinato. The Byzantine state usually paid its foreign debts in the so-called kentetaria, units that were worth 100 litres of gold coins.

The Byzantine state exercised a tight control against possible tampering with the weight of gold coins, but followed a more relaxed policy with regard to the bronze coins, whose weight tended to fluctuate from place to place. We know for a fact that strict laws were passed against the arbitrary devaluation of the Konstantinato by state employees who worked at the mint. Modern numismatists have weighed all extant Konstantinata which are kept in museum collections, and have discovered that their weight remained consistently unchanged throughout the Byzantine period and initially fluctuated only between 4.20 and 4.40 grams.

The Byzantine economy flourished for several centuries, but severe problems resulting from the Arab invasions of the 10th century A.D., led to the first devaluation of the Byzantine Konstantinato under the soldier-emperor Nikephoros Phokas (963-969). In order to finance his numerous expensive campaigns against the Arabs, Phokas first debased the official currency by issuing the so-called tetarteron, a coin that was lighter than the regular Konstantinato by 1/4. The tetarteron coin was used alongside the older and heavier issues of the Konstantinato, which had not been recalled from circulation, and were consequently more sought after. The simultaneous use of coins which belonged to different monetary systems created the first monetary confusion in the Byzantine Empire. But it is noteworthy that the Konstantinato was still made of pure gold.

The Byzantine issuing authority further debased the Konstantinato in the following centuries, this time by meddling with the purity of its metal. By the end of the 11th century, the emperor Alexios Komnenos (1081-1118) systematically devalued the official currency in order to effectively deal with the increasingly accute problems of his administration. The empire was threatened by the Normands and the Crusaders from the North; by the Petsinengians and the Koumanoi, who were barbarians from the North; and by the Seljuk Turks from the East. The enemies of the Byzantine Empire demanded "protection" money from its rulers. This tribute had to be paid in hyperpyra, that is in the old Byzantine currency that had been issued before the mid-11th century, and which had never been recalled and withdrawn from circulation.

So, how much of its value did the Konstantinato lose over the centuries? As our reader may remember, the Byzantine coin which was first issued by Constantine the Great, weighed 24 carats. Pachymeres, a Byzantine historian of the 14th century A.D., informs us that by the time the last Byzantine dunasty of the Palaiologoi came to power (1282-1453), the state currency weighed only 12 carats. Modern numismatists have been able to determine that these late Byzantine Konstantinata were made of more silver than gold, and the coin had lost more than 50% of its value. The hyperpyra were always in demand, and the exchange rate between these old coins and the Palaeologian Konstantinata had been fixed at 1:4. The debased Konstantinato which was issued by Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor, was only the shadow of what the official Byzantine currency had once been.

The reputation of the Byzantine Konstantinato goes beyond politics and time. First of all, this coin functioned as international currency. As Kosmas Indikopleustes, the explorer of the Indic Ocean under the Emperor Justinian I (527-565), proudly put it, the Byzantine Empire dominated international trade for a long time, and the Konstantinato was accepted everywhere. Secondly, the Konstantinato functioned as a symbol of the power of Byzantion, as well as a token of trust which was vital for the economic stability of the region. And last but not least, the Byzantine Konstantinato was even worn as a jewel and used as a good luck charm in later years.

Selected Bibliography on the Byzantine Konstantinato

Ahrweller, Ane, "Chryso Byzantino Nomisma. To dollario tou Mesaiona", Archaiologia 1 (1981), pp. 37-40

Dumbarton Oaks, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, (Washington, D.C., 1966)

Hahn Wolfgang and William Metcalf, eds., Studies in Early Byzantine Gold Coinage, (New York, 1988)

Hendy, Michael F., Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy ca. 300-1450, (Cambridge, 1985)

Mosser, Sawyer McArthur, A Bibliography of Byzantine Coin Hoards, (New York, 1935)

Wroth, Warwick, Catalogue of the Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, (London, 1908)

Author of the paper: Elizabeth Kosmetatou
Web Design: Thanos Voudouris

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