The History of Byzantine Coinage
Uses of Coins
Christianization of the Coin
Representation of Christ
Representation of the Virgin
The Transition to Byzantine Coinage

Roman imperial coinage had excelled in naturalistic portraiture, generally in the form of profile heads or busts, either bareheaded or wearing a laurel wreath or radiate crown. It also frequently showed the results of imperial public actions, either actually (e.g. buildings) or symbolically (e.g. the personification of Abundantia holding a cornucopia signifying prosperity).

Byzantine imperial representations are depersonalized and formalized when compared with Roman types. The emperor is represented facing, in low relief, and immobile; the great variety of activities shown on Roman coins disappears, and is replaced by a small number of types, all military in character.

Coinage of the 4th and 5th centuries saw the transition from the Roman to the Byzantine, being principally characterized by the replacement of profile busts with facing busts and the disappearance of pagan imagery on reverses.

Profile Busts Nos. 1–3
Facing Busts Nos. 4–7
Military Types Nos. 8–12


Although portraiture is not the strength of Byzantine coinage, there are times when it was briefly revived, but within the strict conventions of frontal representation.

The coins below illustrate its two main recurrences, in the 7th and in the 10th–11th centuries. How exceptional they are, and how unusual individualized portraiture was in the Byzantine tradition, can be seen from Nos. 18 and 19, busts of Constantine VII. It is difficult to believe that the two-dimensional and virtually beardless face of No. 18 can represent the same person as the majestic and heavily bearded face of No. 19, although the two coins are virtually contemporary with each other.

7th Century Portraiture Nos. 13–16
Middle Byzantine Period Portraiture No. 17–20

Types of Imperial Costume

The decline of portraiture increased the importance of costume and insignia in imperial representations. The emperor was often represented in military garb holding a spear and shield, in court costume wearing the purple chlamys, or in consular costume wearing the loros.

Military Costume Nos. 21–23
Court Costume Nos. 24–26
Consular Costume Nos. 27–29

Insignia: Diadems, Crowns, Scepters and Orbs

Early emperors wore only a simple diadem, usually shown as a band with two lines of pearls. An elaborate crown with pendilia hanging down on each side first appears on coins of Tiberius II (No. 31). The emperor's scepter was normally a plain cross-staff, but in the 11th century different types are introduced (Nos. 34–36).

Roman emperors were sometimes shown holding an orb, or globus, symbolizing the world they ruled. From Justinian I on this globe is surmounted by a cross.

Specific consular insignia were the scipio, an ivory eagle-topped scepter (No. 31), and the mappa, a folded piece of cloth used to signal the start of the circus games (No. 39). The latter eventually fused with a pouch that, filled with dust as a symbol of mortality, became known as the akakia (No. 35).

Diadems and Crowns Nos. 30–33
Scepters Nos. 34–36
Globus Nos. 37, 38
Consular Symbols Nos. 39, 40


Women of the imperial family having the title of Augusta had, up to the 5th century, coins struck in their own names. Coins of empresses thereafter are few. Only Irene, Zoe, and Theodora minted in their own right (Nos. 46–48); otherwise empresses are shown mainly as regents, in association with their sons (Nos. 43, 44, 49).

Early Byzantine Period Nos. 41–44
Middle Byzantine Period Nos. 45–49
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