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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series – Heraclius: The Greatest Emperor You’ve Never Heard of

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series - Heraclius: The Greatest Emperor You've Never Heard of

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series  by Mike Markowitz …..
Of the characters conspicuous in historical past, that of Heraclius is one of probably the most extraordinary and inconsistent. Within the first and final years of an extended reign, the emperor seems to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, or of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of the general public calamities. However the languid mists of the morning and night are separated by the brightness of the meridian solar; […] Because the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been tried than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.

—Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)[1]

AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF the Roman Empire within the West (476 CE), the Japanese Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, survived for an additional 977 years. We name that empire “Byzantine”, however it referred to as itself Roman, or slightly Romaion, as a result of its language was Greek, and its religion was Orthodox Christian.

A lot of the credit score for this survival goes to Heraclius (or Herakleios), who started his profession as a insurgent towards a brutal tyrant, and ended it by founding a dynasty that endured 4 tumultuous generations.

The complicated coinage of Heraclius is usually widespread and reasonably priced, providing infinite problem and delight for collectors. In 1982, the late nice numismatist Philip Grierson wrote, “…the coins are of such slovenly fabric that they have been little sought after by collectors (p. 85).” The rising quantity of enthusiastic Byzantine collectors,and the robust bids these cash typically convey at public sale, point out how this has modified.

Overthrow of Phocas

Within the winter of 602, Byzantine troops on the Danube frontier rose in mutiny towards the emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602). They selected Phocas, an officer of Gothic ancestry, as their chief. He overthrew Maurice, murdering him and his household.

Phocas. 602-610. AV SolidusPhocas. 602-610. AV Solidus (21mm, four.48 g, 6h). Constantinople mint, eighth officina. Struck 603-607. Topped and cuirassed bust dealing with, holding globus cruciger / Angel standing dealing with, holding employees surmounted by staurogram and globus cruciger; H//CONOB. DOC 5h; MIBE 7; SB 618.

For eight years Phocas held the throne by way of a reign of terror, whereas the Avars and Slavs overran a lot of the Balkans and the Sasanian Persians superior into the empire’s japanese provinces.

Phocas issued huge portions of gold solidi to pay troops and purchase off invading barbarians. Many are badly made–off-middle or double-struck. Examples can typically be discovered for beneath $300 USD. Nicely-struck examples of the bronze follis, which depict standing figures of the emperor and his empress Leontia, are scarce. A pleasant one introduced $425 in a 2014 public sale.

In 608, an aged basic serving as governor of the province of Africa (trendy Tunisia) rebelled towards Phocas. Heraclius “the Elder” gave command to his son of the identical identify (born about 575). The “Revolt of the Heraclii” issued gold solidi at Carthage, bearing aspect-by-aspect portraits of father and son. This was an act of defiance; solely the emperor had the authority to mint gold, however the portraits are naked-headed, not topped, and the inscription hails them as “consuls” – an historic title that was largely ceremonial by the seventh century. The reverse of these cash revived the “cross on steps” utilized by emperor Tiberius II Constantine (reigned 578 – 582). An instance introduced $18,000 in a current public sale[2].

Phocas, with Leontia. 602-610. Æ Half Follis Phocas, with Leontia. 602-610. Æ Half Follis (20mm, 5.56 g, 12h). Theoupolis (Antioch) mint. Dated RY 1 (602/three). Phocas, holding globus cruciger, and Leontia, holding cruciform scepter, standing dealing with; cross above / Giant X·X; cross above, date throughout area, e under. DOC 91; MIBE 85; SB 673. Close to EF, inexperienced patina. Wonderful for difficulty.

The revolt superior quickly throughout North Africa, taking Alexandria, the place gold solidi of higher type and workmanship have been issued. These are considerably much less uncommon; one introduced $eight,438 in a 2016 public sale[3]. There are uncommon solidi from an unsure mint in Cyprus or Syria bearing the portrait of Phocas however the identify of Heraclius[4].

Bronze small change was struck at numerous locations in the course of the revolt. Cash bearing the Greek abbreviation AΛEXANΔ have been attributed to a short lived mint within the coastal city of Alexandretta (now Iskenderun, Turkey) however Hahn and Mettlich argue that these have been issued at Alexandria, Egypt (p. 71). These cash are crudely struck on ragged blanks, and dated in Roman numerals in accordance with the yr of the “Indiction”, a 15-year tax evaluation cycle. An outstanding follis (the most important bronze denomination, about 10-12 grams presently) dated Yr XIII, (610 CE,) introduced $2,400 in a 2009 public sale[5].

Revolt of the Heraclii. 608-610. AV SolidusRevolt of the Heraclii. 608-610. AV Solidus (16mm, four.49 g, 6h). Carthage mint. Dated IY 13 (609/10). D N HЄRACΛI CONSVΛI IΓ, bareheaded busts of Heraclius the youthful, beardless, and the exarch Heraclius, bearded, every sporting consular robes; cross above / VICTORIA CONSVΛI, cross potent set on three steps; IΓ//CONOB. DOC three; MIBE 1; Lacam, Civilisation, pl. XXXI-A, 2 = CNG 100, lot 287 (similar obv. die); SB 710. Close to EF. An earlier obverse die state than the Adams specimen cited above. Extraordinarily uncommon.

Heraclius “the Younger” arrived with a insurgent fleet at Constantinople on October three, 610. The tyrant Phocas was shortly deposed, and brought in chains aboard Heraclius’s flagship:

“Is it thus,” requested Heraclius, “that you have governed the Empire?”

“Will you,” replied Phocas, ”govern it any higher?” (Norwich, 282)

Phocas was then dragged away and chopped into small items. That very afternoon within the Imperial Palace, Heraclius married his fiancé Eudocia and was topped as emperor.

The first Constantinople gold coinage (“Class I”) of Heraclius as emperor bears his bearded dealing with portrait topped and in armor, sporting a flowing army cloak and holding a cross. There are lots of variations within the sort, and good examples could be discovered for properly beneath $500[6].

Revolt of the Heraclii. (Summer 608-November 610 AD). Bronze follisRevolt of the Heraclii. (Summer time 608-November 610 AD). Bronze follis (10.36 gm). Syria, Alexandretta, Yr XIIII=610 AD. OMN ERACLIO CONSULII, dealing with busts of Heraclius on left and his father, the Exarch Heraclius, on proper, each bearded, naked-headed, and sporting consular robes, cross between their heads / Giant M between ANNO and numerals representing the indictional yr; above cross with A beneath; AΛEXANΔ in exergue. MIB 16a. Sear 722. Berk 534. DO 16. Inexperienced patination. Struck on a broad flan.

Points of the “Class I” solidus from provincial mints, nevertheless, are uncommon. An instance from Ravenna, a strategic Byzantine outpost on the Adriatic coast of Italy, went for over $5,000 in a current European public sale[7].

Sons of Heraclius

In 613, Heraclius elevated his yr-previous son, Heraclius Constantine, to the rank of co-emperor. A picture of the toddler beside his father seems on the obverse of the “Class II” solidus. The lengthy inscription in tiny letters (not often absolutely legible, even on nicely-preserved cash) abbreviates his identify to HERA CONST. This sort was struck for 16 years, with many variants because the younger co-emperor grew up. Selection VF examples could be discovered for underneath $400.

AV Solidus. Constantinople mint, 5th officina.AV Solidus (20mm, four.48 g, 7h). Constantinople mint, fifth officina. Struck 610-613. Helmeted and cuirassed dealing with bust, holding cross / Cross potent set on three steps; N to proper; Є//CONOB. DOC four; MIB 6a; SB 732.

Starting in 629, a brand new design (“Class III”) exhibits Heraclius Constantine as a bearded grownup beside his father, who now has an extended beard and massive moustache.

Constantinople and a number of other provincial mints struck fractional gold cash within the identify of Heraclius. These denominations remained unchanged all through the reign. The semissis (nominally 2.25 grams, often a bit much less) was valued at half a solidus. It bore a stylized profile bust of the emperor on the obverse, and a “cross on globe” reverse. Though it was struck in small portions, good examples can typically be discovered for underneath $300.

The tremissis of 1.5 grams, valued at one-third of a solidus, was issued in bigger portions. The obverse was the identical because the semissis (some semisses have been even struck with tremissis dies, regardless of the dimensions distinction). The reverse was a easy “cross potent” (a sq. cross with a brief crossbar on the finish of every arm). Even in excessive grades, tremisses are nonetheless very reasonably priced gold[8].

HERACLIUS, 610-641 Mint of Ravenna SolidusHERACLIUS, 610-641 Mint of Ravenna Solidus c. 610/611. Yr H. Obv. DNN HЄRA – CLI PЄRP AVG Draped and cuirassed bust dealing with, sporting plumed helmet with pendilia. In r. hand globus cruciger. Rev. VICTOR I – A AVGG H Cross potent on 4 steps. CONOB beneath. Sear 894. DOC p. 238 (Class I). MIB 108a. four.46 g. Extraordinarily uncommon. Solely three specimens recognized.

After Empress Eudocia died in 613, Heraclius married his 16-year-o niece, Martina. The Orthodox Church thought-about this incestuous, and monkish chroniclers who wrote the historical past have demonized Martina, who bore a son, Heraclonas, in 626. About 632 younger Heraclonas was elevated to co-emperor alongside his elder stepbrother, showing on the gold coinage for the remaining of the reign. There are two principal variants of this “Three Kings” design: initially with Heraclonas as a tiny determine[9]; after 636, absolutely grown.

There was no room for an obverse inscription, however the message was clear.

Silver & Bronze

By the beginning of the seventh century, silver disappeared from circulation within the Japanese empire. Western mints issued a small quantity of tiny silver cash, the “half siliqua” of one gram and a few even smaller fractions.

In 615, in response to financial disaster, Heraclius started an enormous problem of a brand new emergency coin, the silver hexagram, weighing about 6.eight grams. Authorities and army salaries have been paid within the new coin, changing conventional gold. The cash have been overvalued, at a fee of 12 hexagrams to the solidus (about twice their bullion worth). Many of these cash have been carelessly struck on irregular blanks minimize from hammered-out sheets of “church plate” — altar fittings and liturgical vessels. The obverse exhibits the emperor and his son enthroned aspect by aspect. A cross on steps seems on the reverse with a hopeful Latin inscription: DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIS, (“God Help the Romans.”) Properly-centered and absolutely-struck examples command a premium[10].

Some of the rarest, most enigmatic Byzantine cash are so-referred to as “ceremonial silver” items, bearing a cross between two palm branches. These are sometimes pierced for put on as ornaments. One principle is that they have been thrown to the gang on holidays. A very elaborate instance, dated to c.632 – 636, exhibits on the obverse the emperor standing in army garb, topped by a tiny determine of Victory, whereas his son stands beside him in courtroom robes. It might commemorate the victories of Heraclius over the Persians. This uncommon coin, “nearly as struck”, introduced virtually $1,700 in a current public sale[11].

The solely “portrait” of the unpopular Martina that seems on the coinage is a crude, unlabeled picture on the reverse of a silver half-siliqua of Carthage, identifiable as feminine solely by particulars of clothes and the shortage of a beard. An distinctive instance introduced over $1,000 just lately[12].

Bronze coinage of Heraclius is usually crudely designed, carelessly overstruck on earlier cash, or countermarked to vary the denomination. Properly-preserved examples with full inscriptions and clear portraits are onerous to seek out.

There have been 4 fundamental denominations: the follis of 40 nummi (marked with “M”, the Greek numeral for 40); the half-follis (“K” for 20); the decanummion (“I” for 10) and the pentanummion (“E” for five). Inflation steadily worn out the worth of the smaller cash they usually ceased being issued. The cash bore the yr of reign, making them straightforward up to now. Early examples of the follis weigh as much as 13 grams; this falls to 5 grams or much less in later years. The most respected follis of Heraclius was struck at Jerusalem, probably through the Persian siege in 614. An instance introduced over $three,800 in 2011[13].

* * *

Heraclius died on 11 February 641, aged 66. He had lived to see his sensible conquests swept away by the inexorable advance of the Arab Muslims. His eldest son, unwell, reigned for less than about 100 days, and the throne quickly handed to a 10 yr-previous grandson, Constans II.

“The life and reign of Heraclius raise issues concerning just how much one can expect an individual, even one of exceptional talents and effort, to accomplish in the face of adverse circumstances and trends. Heraclius managed to do a lot, but he could not prevent his Late Roman world and empire from imploding… Controversy in different forms has plagued his reputation and significance, even in the twentieth century, and very likely will in the twenty-first (Kaegi, 322).”

* * *


[1] Gibbon, 1776, Ch. 46.

[2] CNG Public sale 106, 10 Might 2017, Lot 1035.

[3] Roma Numismatics Public sale XII, 29 September 2016, Lot 1122. Realized £6,500.

[4] CNG Triton VII, 12 January 2004, Lot 1094. Realized $5,750 USD.

[5] Gemini Public sale V, 6 January 2009, Lot 869. Realized $2,400 USD.

[6] CNG Public sale 94, 18 September 2013, Lot 1342. Realized $475 USD.

[7] Sincona Public sale 37, 16 Might 2017, Lot 188. Realized $5,318 USD.

[8] CNG Sale 61, 25 September 2002, Lot 2233. Realized $210 USD.

[9] Numismatica Ars Classica Public sale 29, 11 Might 2005, Lot 691. Realized $564 USD.

[10] CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 879. Realized $1,500 USD.

[11] Roma Numismatics E-sale 21, 31 October 2015, Lot 945. Realized $1,699 USD.

[12] CNG Digital Public sale 412, 17 January 2018, Lot 728. Realized $1,100 USD.

[13] Numismatica Ars Classica Public sale 69, four April 2011, Lot 1213. Realized $three,805 USD.


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Bijovsky, Gabriela. “The First Half of the Seventh Century”, Polymnia: Numismatica antica e medievale 2. Trieste (2012)

Bijovsky, Gabriela. “A Single Die Solidi Hoard From Jerusalem”, Melanges Cecile Morrisson. Paris (2010)

Crawford, Peter. The Struggle of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam. New York (2013)

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Grierson, Philip. Byzantine Cash. Berkeley, CA (1982)

Hahn, Wolfgang and Michael Mettlich. Cash of the Incipient Byzantine Empire, Continued (Justin II – Revolt of the Heraclii 565-610). Vienna (2009)

Kaegi, Walter. Heraclius: Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge (2003)

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Regan, Geoffrey. First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars. New York (2003)

Sear, David. Byzantine Cash and Their Values. London (1987)

Treadgold, Warren. A Historical past of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford (1997)

Yannopoulos, Panayotis. L’Hexagramme. Louvain (1978)