Door Prize Tells Sordid Story of Ancient Byzantine

This porous copper piece given as a door prize at a coin-club meeting shows Byzantine Emperor Justin II and his wife, Sophia, seated and “nimble”—with halos—to denote their high status.

By Gerald Tebben

A porous bit of copper won as a door prize at a recent coin club meeting set me off on a trek through nearly 1,500 years of history.

Coins are like that. Even the humblest—and this one is very humble—has a story to tell about history, civilization and humanity. The trick is to tease it out of the metal.

The kraft envelope the coin came in described it as “ancient” and gave no detail. A big letter K on the coin’s reverse told me that it was Byzantine. Beyond that, clues were few.

In 330, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital to Constantinople, setting in motion the division of the empire into the Eastern Empire of Byzantium and the Western Empire of Rome. In 476, Romulus Augustus, the last Western emperor, abdicated, ending the rule of Rome. The light of Byzantium, itself, was extinguished 1,000 years later with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Byzantine coins have a crudity and numbing sameness that makes them hard to like. Rome, especially in the first three centuries of the Christian era, prided itself on artistic realism. Coinage portraits accurately replicated each ruler’s visage, warts, goiters and all.

Byzantine coins were made during the Dark Ages, and they look it. Heavy lines and dots instead of shaped relief were employed to show such things as facial features and clothing folds.

A Byzantine bronze coin typically shows a representation of the emperor or Jesus on the obverse and a big K or M, denoting the denomination, on the reverse.

The obverse of my coin shows what at first appear to be two enthroned saints, complete with halos. The letters UST and N emerged from the pitted copper.

A patch of verdigris obscured the top of the reverse. In addition to the large K, the letters NNO ran down the west side of the K, TES below and E to the east.

More than 100 emperors ruled Byzantium. The letters UST on my coin narrowed the choices largely to the Justinian Dynasty, 518 to the early 600s.

Justin II (565 to 578) ruled jointly with his wife, Sophia. His coins were the first Byzantine pieces to show both the emperor and empress, nailing the coin’s attribution.

The halos around their portraits do not denote the divinity of saints but rather the exalted status of earthly rulers. In medieval times, rulers were frequently pictured nimbate—with halos.

The reverse of the coin reveals that it’s a Byzantine 20-nummi coin struck at the mint in Thessalonica.

The letter K is the denomination. Letters doubled as numbers in Byzantium. The first nine letters represented the numbers 1 through 9. The next nine letters were used for decade numbers—10 through 90. K is 20, making my coin a 20-nummi piece.

The letters NNO were the last three letters of the word anno or year. The E to the right of the K represented the number 5. My coin was struck in the fifth year of Justin II’s rule—Nov. 15, 569 to Nov. 14, 570—shortly before he went mad.

The letters TES represent the mintmark of Thessalonica, Greece.

Justin II was one of two men named Justin in line to succeed the aged Justinian I. One of the Justins, master of the soldiers, was guarding the Danube frontier when Justinian died. The other Justin, in charge of the palace’s day-to-day affairs, was in Constantinople on the night of Nov. 14 and 15, 565, and he had already lined up the support of patriarch John Scholasticus, an important stakeholder.

When Justinian I died, the keeper of the bedchamber, the only official present, said the dying ruler in his last breath named the nearby Justin his successor. The patriarch crowned Justin II that night and a new ruler was presented to the city the next morning. The other Justin was eventually murdered.

Justinian had reconquered much of the old empire and paid some potential enemies a subsidy to keep the peace—a practice that was not popular with the populace, but was less costly than war.


Justin II would have none of it, setting in motion a series of falling dominoes that quickly cost the empire its European and African territories. As Justin II went insane amid the chaos, Sophia increasingly took over the government.

Bars were installed on the palace’s windows to keep him from jumping, and he savagely bit his caretakers in fits of violence, giving rise to rumors that he had eaten two chamberlains.

Justin’s rule is a lesson in hubris. In “Byzantium: The Early Centuries,” historian John Julius Norwich wrote in 1988, “Proud, arrogant, unshakable in his self-confidence, he believed implicitly that with wisdom and determination, with prudence and fortitude and above all with courage, … enemies could and would be scattered—and that he was the man to do it.”
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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