Byzantium: its internal history and relations with the Muslim World

Speros Vryonis Jr.


Internal History



(In: Zbornik Radova Vizantoloshkog Instituta, VIII (Belgrade 1963)) 



The subject of this article is a hoard of fifty-one gold coins from Attica, the contents of which range from the reign of Constantine IV through that of Leo III. This find, which includes forty-seven solidi, three semissus pieces, and one tremissus, is one of two contained in the Thomas Whittemore Collection of Byzantine coins in the Fogg Museum at Harvard University [1]. The coins are for the most part in mint condition and represent issues of eight emperors and nine reigns.


This hoard is of particular interest inasmuch as the numismatic evidence has been increasingly considered and discussed and variously interpreted, of late, in the history of Athens and of Greece in Byzantine times, as well as in the question of Byzantine urban history as a whole. A considerable portion of the discussion on this subject has centered about Athens and Corinth inasmuch as it is from the excavation results in these two cities that the most abundant numismatic information is available. The numismatic basis for the discussion of the history of medieval Athens has been the numismatic material unearthed during the course of the excavations by the American School. Of the 37.090 coins in the publication of M. Thompson, stretching from the last century of the Roman Republic to the declining years of the Venetian Republic, only one gold piece was found and that a late Venetian one [2]. Thus all the discussions on the numismatic evidence for the early medieval history of Athens have centered about bronze coins and bronze coins alone. Here is the analysis of the coins finds, as they appear in Thompson’s publication, by reign and by ratio of number of coins per year of each reign.



*. I wish to thank Prof. John Coolidge of the Fogg Museum for kindly granting me permission to publish the hoard.


1. A. Bellinger, A Hoard of Silver Coins of the Empire of Nicaea, Centennial Publication of the American Numismatic Society (New York, 1958), pp. 73-81.

2. M. Thompson, The Athenian Agora, II Coins (Princeton, 1954), p. 5, passim.






It has been suggested by some scholars that this evidence, when compared with similar evidence from Corinth, which also displays a rarity of coins from the immediate successor of Constans II through the eighth century, points to a break in relations between Athens and Corinth on the one hand and with Constantinople on the other. However P. Charanis was able to show the error of this conclusion first by the internal inconsistancies of the numismatic evidence itself, and also by the testimony of the historical sources which showed definitely that Athens during this time was not lost to the Byzantines [3]. Another scholar, A. Kazhdan, has examined the numismatic material from the point of view of the continuity, or lack of continuity, of urban traditions and money economy in the Byzantine Empire during the late seventh, eighth, and early ninth centuries. In an earlier study he had utilized the catalogues of Wroth and Tolstoy as indicative of the volume of currency struck by each emperor. On the basis of such compilations, which showed a marked decrease in the number of coins of the seventh century, he concluded that there was a corresponding urban decline. He adds that the coin finds from the excavations at Corinth, Athens, Pergamum, Sardes, and Priene display a similar decrease in number from the late seventh and eighth centuries. So much then for the conclusions which Kazhdan drew from the numismatic



3. P. Charanis, „The Significance of Coins as Evidence for the History of Athens and Corinth in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries,“ Historia, IV (1955), 163—172.





evidence: a marked urban and economic decline in the seventh-ninth centuries [4].


The methodology of Kazhdan, has, however, drawn sharp criticism on two grounds. First, Ostrogorsky has observed that the coin finds in Greece and Asia Minor, as well as the material from Wroth and Tolstoy, consist very largely of bronze coinage. This was completely the case of the coins from the Athenian Agora and also of the Corinthian coins from the period under discussion. Therefore all that can be concluded from this evidence is that beginning with the mid-seventh century there was a drastic reduction in the bronze coinage, but not necessarily in the gold coinage. A really significant analysis of the coinage, Ostrogorsky went on to point out, should consider the gold issues separately from those in bronze, for it is the gold coinage which was more important in the question of urban continuity and commercial activity [5]. Grierson made a second observation concerning the analysis of collection catalogues. These catalogues do not reflect the volume of coin minted, but rather the taste of the collectors of coins [6].


It is at this point that the hoard of fifty-one Byzantine gold coins from the Whittemore Collection should be considered and compared with those from the Agora.




4. A. P. Kazhdan, „Византийские города в VII—XI вв.“, Советская археология, XXI (1954), 164—18S. He has repeated these arguments, with slight variations, in Деревня и город в Византии IX—X вв. (Moscow, 1960), pp. 260—270. D. M. Metcalf, “The Byzantine Empire,“ Congresso internazionale de numismatica, I, Relazioni (Rome, 1961), 240, has also remarked that the bronze coinage of this period needs to be interpretated against the background of economic decline.


5. G. Ostrogorsky, „Byzantine Cities in the Early Middle Ages,“ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XIII (1959), 48—52.


6. P. Grierson, „Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 498-c. 1090,“ Settimane di studio del Centro di studi sulVAlto Evo, VIII, Moneta e scambi nell' Alto Medievo (Spoleto, 1961), 445—446.





What is to be concluded from this hoard? It is very difficult to say except that perhaps the complexity 2nd uncertainty of numismatic evidence produces more difficulties than solutions. One thing is, however, particularly noticeable. The dates of the hoard span 668—741, exactly the period in which the bronze issues decrease so markedly. So this gold hoard whould tend to suggest and to reinforce further the proposition of Ostrogorsky, that the decline of the bronze output after Constans II reflects, perhaps, nothing more than a change in monetary policy and not an urbin, economic decline of Athens. In line with this thought is the fact that the Agora excavations unearthed only twenty-three bronze coins for the reign of Leo III Whereas the hoard contained twenty-two gold coins from the reign of the same emperor. The existence of this hoard calls into question the validity of the numismatic evidence uncovered in systematic archaeological work in Greece and elsewhere. For though the archaeological evidence revealed small quantities of bronze coins from the period, the existence of a hoard of Byzantine gold coins tends to contradict the conclusions from the analysis of the bronze finds of the archaeologists. Further, this type of numismatic evidence is subject to such a variety of ’contaminating’ factors that to accept it in such whole hearted fashion as has done Kazhdan is risky at very best. What has survived of Byzantine coinage is undoubtedly only a very small fraction. So many centuries have elapsed since this coinage was struck that the opportunities for disturbance of the evidence have been infinite. Anyone who has read the accounts of the travellers in the Ottoman Empire cannot but have been struck by the number and avidity of coin collectors from western Europe who frequented the bazaars of Instanbul and of all the provincial towns of Rumeli and Anadolu. Amongst the most famous of such collectors were the Austrian de Busbecq (16 th c.) and the Englishmen Ricaut (17 th c.) and Leake (19 th c.). In addition all the major commercial centers have been inhabited without interruption to the present day so that much of this money remained in use for centuries. The number of coins which must have been found and dispersed during the course of these several centuries is exceedingly great. There are many other factors which have disturbed the reliability of the numismatic material. One which I myself know from personal experience in these parts of the world is the following. Large finds of coins which are supposedly rare endanger the interests of the coin dealers. Thus, on one occasion a dealer informed me that as a result of a very large find of solidi formerly thought to have been rare, he bought them 2nd melted them down for the gold. To have put them on the market would have driven the prices of the solidi of that particular emperor so low that he would have lost money! In this instance the dealer was aiding and abetting the fiction of the rarity of issues struck by a particular emperor. That this phenomenon is not restricted to present times or to the gold coinage is recorded by our sixteenth century friend de Busbecq. During his journey from Istanbul to Amaseia he remarks:


„We found everywhere a great abundance of ancient coins, especially of the later emperors, Constantine, Constans, Justinus, Valens, Valentinianus, Numerianus, Probus, Tacitus &c.





In many places the Turks use them as weights, especially for drachms and half-drachms, and call them giaur manguri, or ’infidels money’. There were also many coins of the neighboring towns of Asia, Amisus, Sinope, Comana, Amastris, and also of Amasia, the goal of our journey. A Coppersmith, from whom I inquired for coins, greatly aroused my wrath by telling me that, a few days before, he had a whole jarful of them and had made some bronze vessels out of them, thinking that they were of no use or value. I was very much grieved at the loss of all these relics of antiquity; but I avenged myself by telling the man that, if he had still h$d them I would have paid a hundred gold pieces. I thus sent him away quite as saddened at so much profit having been snatched from his very grasp as I was annoyed at his destruction of ancient remains...“ [7]


Thus what we have of the original Byzantine coinage is only a very small proportion which has survived by chance. And there is no way by which we can determine that the percentage which has survived from the output of each emperor is completely determined by the actual output itself rather than by other factors. The fact that one chance find, such as that in the Whittemore Collection, can change the sum total of gold coins from a particular period so greatly is proof of the above statement. On the basis of the publications of Moser, Pachomov, and Gerasimov only 254 gold coins have been uncovered in hoards and archaeological excavations from the period 685—842 [8]. From the Whittemore hoard fifty of the coins are from this same general period thus raising the total of gold coins to 304, or almost 20%. Obviously this type of evidence is not worthy of our credence. The further unreliability and chance character of the numismatic evidence as a reflection of urban and economic vitality is reflected in the figures for gold coins in Attica in the periods 685—842 and 842—1204. In Mosser’s compilation the only record of gold coins found in Attica during these two periods was a burial of ten solidi from the reign of John II Comnenus (1118—1143) [9]. This coincided with Kazhdan’s theory that there was drastic urban decline in the late seventh through the early ninth century, and then an economic and urban revival in the following period. But if we are to adopt his reasoning in the light of this newer hoard (viz. that economic activity and urban vitality are reflected in the ’abundance’ of money), then we would have to admit the opposite conclusion, namely that because of the fifty gold coins from the Whittemore hoard, Athens was a more thriving urban center during the period 685—842 than during the period 842—1204. One is forced to admit the inconclusive and unsatisfactory nature of the numismatic evidence.



7. De Busbecq, The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, tr. E. S. Forster (Oxford, 1927), p. 49. He remarks that from the time he reached Belgrade and throughout his journey to Amaseia he and his friend, William Quacquelben, sought after coins passionately.„It gave me great pleasure, on arriving at each halting-place, to inquire for ancient inscriptions and Greek and Roman coins, or failing these, for rare plants.“ p. 48. P. Ricaut, The Present State of the Greek and Armenian Churches (London, 1679), p. 37, notes the finding of a „Bushel of Medals“ of the emperor Galerius in the ancient theatre of Smyrna during his stay in Smyrna (1675), „...of which I myself purchased some.“


8. Kazhdan, op. cit.3 p. 269.


9. S. Mosser, A Bibliography of Byzantine Coin Hoards (New York, 1935), p. 8.





* * *


Having indicated the unreliable and unsatisfactory nature of the numismatic evidence as a source for Byzantine urban history, let us take a brief look at Kazhdan’s theory on Byzantine urban history. In Marxist theory societies must progress through the following socio-economic phases ; slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism. According to Kazhdan, with the decline of slave production in the early Byzantine period, the cities also declined. Therefore in 7—9th centuries (the period of transition from the era of slave-based to a feudal society) cities and towns disappeared [10]. That this was so, Kazhdan argues, is apparent from two facts: (1) A decline in the number of coins of this era in the excavations and coin hoards. As an ’abundance’ of coined money indicates economic vitality (what of Roman coinage in the third century A. D.?) so its decrease is indicative of economic stagnation [11]. (2) There were neither merchants nor craftsmen nor trade in the provinces during this period, therefore there could be no cities [12].


As we have already commented on his interpretation of the numismatic evidence let us proceed to the second point, the alleged absence of merchants, craftsmen and trade. Kazhdan is in a sense arguing ex silentio, for the sources tell us very little about the social and economic life of Byzantium in the period of the late seventh to the ninth centuries. But even the little which the sources report is indicative of the fact that both merchants and craftsmen, as well as trade, were present, and also that a money economy based on gold played an important part in the provincial life of the empire.


There is the well known passage in Theophanes informing us that Constantine V brought 6,900 artisans and craftsmen from western Asia Minor, northern Asia Minor, Greece, Thrace, and the islands to Constantinople to assist in public building projects [13]. Naucleroi and merchant ships are mentioned in great profusion along the shores of western Asia Minor [14]. Curiously Kazhdan is willing to admit that during the 7—9 th centuries the minting of gold did not decrease significantly. But, he continues, gold was no longer used for commercial exchange, rather it was used for the payment of tribute



10. In conjunction with this theory Kazhdan remarks that after the ninth century new cities began to appear. One of the few such „new cities“ which he identifies specifically is the Anatolian city of Phygella on the Aegean coast, Kazhdan. loc. cit., 184. Once more, however, Kazhdan is indulging in conjecture. This „new city“ of Phygella was, in effect, not a product of this supposed founding of „new cities“ in the 9—10th centuries. The eight century Latin pilgrim, Willibaldus, visited it between 723—726 and remarked of Phygella, „...villam magnam.“ Hodiporicon S. Willibaldi, Itinera Hierosolymitana et Descriptiones Terrae Sanctae, ed. T. Tobler and A. Moliner, P (1880), 256.


11. Kazhdan, op. cit., pp. 261, 267.


12. Kazhdan, loc. cit., 188 ff.


13. Theophanes, Chronographia, ed. C. de Boor (Leipzig, 1883), I, 440.


14. Theophanes, 487; Theophanes Continuatus, 385. H. Grégoire, Recueil des inscriptions grecques chrétiennes d'Asie Mineure, I (Paris, 1922), 91, 127, lists the tombstones of an eighth century marble worker from Tralles and of a seventh-eighth century butcher from Caria. The activity of merchants from Amastris in Trebizond is mentioned during the ninth century, Vasilievsky, Труды, III (Petrograd, 1915), 43—47.





and for hoarding [15]. In actual fact there seems to be no evidence in support of this conjecture. What little evidence there is points in the opposite direction, namely that gold coins continued to serve as a medium of exchange in trade and commerce. In the reign of Constantine VI the commercial fair of Ephesus netted the government 100 pounds in gold coin [16]. Another chance remark informs us that one cerularius accumulated 100 pounds of gold from the income of his craft in the reign of Nicephorus I [17].


The legal literature of this period reflects a society with a money economy and a merchant class. Many of the provisions of the codes would be meaningless in an economy not based on money. The Farmer's Law (usually dated at the end of the seventh or early eighth century), though essentially concerned with rural society, shows that both farm labor and shepherds were paid in cash [18]. Not only do farm laborers and shepherds receive cash for their services, but both are liable to payments of cash fines in case of violation of certain laws. Thus any farm laborer who steals various tools during the pruning season or during the season for cutting wood surrenders his daily wage of twelve folleis [19]. A shepherd who has been hired to pasture the flocks of another person is deprived of his salary when he is caught milking the animals and selling the milk secretly [20]. Those who steal a plough must pay twelve folleis per day from the time that the theft occurred [21]. The Rhodian Sea Law (also dated 600—800) speaks of maritime commercial enterprises involving investments of gold and silver [22]. The Soldier's Law also imposes fines in gold solidi [23]. The Ecloga, issued by Leo III and reflecting contemporary conditions, indicates that marriage contracts were concluded by the payments of sums in cash [24].


A certain category of servants could save their salaries and with these buy themselves free; [25] Chapter IX is devoted to buying and selling; Chapter X is concerned with the lending of money; Paragraph one of Chapter X discusses the borrowing of money for business ventures on land and sea, and it also discusses the legal position of capital in a partnership; Chapter XVII lists a number of offences which are punishable by the payment of cash fines.



15. Kazhdan, op cit., pp. 269—271. But he alleges that by the eleventh century gold was once more used in commercial exchange!


16. Theophanes, 469.


17. Theophanes, 487—88. How would he have been able to accumulate it if his customers had not paid him in gold?


18. W. Ashburner, „The Farmer’s Law,“ Journal of Hellenic Studies, XXX (1910), ch. 22, 25, 33, 34, 62.


19. Ch. 22.            20. Ch. 34.            21. Ch. 62.


22. Zepos, Jus Graecoromanum, vol. II, III, 17.


23. Zepos, Jus Graecoromanum, vol. II, A, 47.


24. Ecloga, I, 1.            25. Ecloga, VIII, 6.





A further indication of the role played by a money economy based on gold are the following two factors: (1) The soldiery were paid in gold; (2) A significent portion of the taxes was paid in cash. Again it is due to two chance remarks in Theophanes that the size of the military roga of two themes has been recorded. In the last year of the reign of Nicephorus I, Theophanes reports, the Arabs captured the military pay chest of the theme of Armeniakon. The roga amounted to 1,300 lbs. of gold, or 93,600 solidi [26]. Two years earlier the Bulgars had performed a similar deed by capturing the pay chest of the theme of Strymon, which amounted to 1,100 lbs. of gold, or 79,200 solidi [27]. These two figures are fairly consistent one with the other. The difference between the two sums is to be explained by the fact that the Armeniacon was a larger theme with a larger army and hence a larger sum of cash was needed. It is possible, on the basis of these two figures, to speculate with some profit as to the thematic military budget for Asia Minor in the ninth century. We may use the pay of the various Asia Minor strategoi to fix roughly the proportions of the pay chest of the various themes.




26. Theophanes, 489.


27. Theophanes, 484.





This sum does not seem overly large when one realizes that in the Cretan expedition of 911—12 consisting of slightly over 40.000 men (including primarily the imperial fleet, contigents of the maritime themes o! Samos, Cibyrrheote, Aegean, the Mardaites of Attaleia, and cavalry) the military roga amounted to a little more than 3,300 lbs. or slightly less than 239,000 solidi. Also the ninth century Arab sources relate that the armies from the Anatolian provinces included 70,000 troops, the soliders drawing an annual pay of betwen 12 and 18 solidi. According to these figures the annual pay expenditure on the troops would range from 840,000 to 1,260,000 solidi. Thus it would appear that the figure of 690,300 solidi as a to al spent on the military purses of the Asia Minor themes in a given year of the ninth century would be a conservative one. That it is a conservative estimate would seem to follow also from this further fact. The theme of Strymon had a military chest of 1,100 lbs., and yet it was inferior in rank to the themes of Opsicion and Bucellarion (which I have reckoned at 3/4 of 1,300 or 975 lbs.). [28a]


In addition, disabled veterans were entitled to permanent pensions, and the widows of soldiers were entitled to payment in gold from the government [28]. Finally, as we have already seen in the case of the fair at Ephesus, land, head, and commercial taxes yielded large sums in gold coin during the period of 7—9 th centuries [29a].


In spite of the meagre nature of the historical sources for the period under discussion, it is quite evident that conditions which Kazhdan describes did not prevail in Byzantium. The few details which have been recounted above, and which testify to the continuity of a money economy based on gold, and to the continuity in commercial life, show that though Byzantium might not have been as wealthy a state as when it ruled the whole Mediterranean, nevertheless it possessed a vital urban society and a money economy in the 7—9 th centuries. The vast military expenditures of the government in the provinces alone put plenty of hard cash into circulation, and it is to be doubted that it was all hoarded [29]. In fact the evaluation of Byzantine military expenditures as a factor in the vitality of the Byzantine provincial economy is a phenomenon which would be of considerable interest for further investigation.



28a. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Caeremoniis, ed. J. J. Reiske, I, 653—654. On pay of the generals see 696—697. H. Gelzer, Die Genesis der byzantinischen Themenverfassung (Leipzig 1899), pp. 97—8, 114. Ibn Khordadbeh, tr. M. De Goeje (Leiden, 1889), pp. 84, 199.


28. L. Bréhier, Les institutions, p. 382. In one case it is recorded that Michael I gave five pounds of gold, or 360 solidi, to the widow of each soldier who had fallen in battle.


29a. Theophanes, 482—483, mentions rich tax revenues in gold from Thrace during the reign of Nicephorus I. In fact all of Nicephoros’ fiscal measures (Theophanes, 486—487) are meaningful only in terms of a society with a money economy.


29. This documentary evidence indicates that large sums in gold were dispersed to the provinces. Yet very little of this gold coin has appeared in the excavations and hoards. This shows that coin hoards and excavation results are no indication as to the volume of coin minted !





A case in point is the following. The three hoards of gold coins found at the Aesclepium in Athens and dating from the seventh century are usually associated with the passage of the emperor Constans II and his army through Athens. If this is in fact correct, it indicates that the Byzantine armies on the march through the provinces were good spenders and paid often in gold [30]. Given also the state of society, especially in the 7—9 th centuries when Byzantine armies were in a constant state of motion, their presence in and passage through the provinces included the extensive dispersal of cash.


By way of summary, one is not convinced by Kazhdan's use of the numismatic evidence that cities and towns, and with them commercial life, disappeared in provincial Byzantium from the end of the seventh through the early ninth centuries. The written sources do not support such a view, and the Whittemore hoard from Attica shows how capricious the numismatic evidence is.



30. I. N. Svoronos, „Θησαυροὶ βυζαντινῶν χρυσῶν νομισμάτων ἐκ τῶν ἀνασκαφῶν τοῦ ἐν Ἀθήναις Ἀσκληπείου“, Journal international d'archéologie numismatique, VII (1904), 143—160.


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