By the early 5th Century, the once dominant Roman Empire was a fragmented collection of on-again, off-again allied or warring regions. Divided roughly between the western and eastern halves of the empire, the glory of Rome was no longer. Out of the ashes of this once great society rose the empire that would dominate European culture, economics and warfare for close to a millennium: The Eastern Roman, or Christian Byzantine Empire.
It is from this mighty Christian empire, surrounded by non-christian kingdoms, that this regal bronze follis comes. Bearing a portrait of Jesus Christ on one side, and the Cross of Jerusalem on the other, the large lettered abbreviation declares: May Jesus Christ Conquer.
The Byzantine Empire was firmly rooted in its Greek past. Byzantines were mainly Greek-speakers throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Their capital city was Constantinople, which was also known historically as Byzantium. After the 5th century collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire continued to thrive and grow in influence, and while we refer to the “Byzantine Empire” or “Eastern Roman Empire,” they referred to their country as simply the “Roman Empire.”
Byzantine money – the money used in the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the West – was made up of two very different types of coins: the gold solidus and a variety of bronze coins with clearly defined values. By the end of the empire, coins were issued in silver and bronze only.
Early Byzantine coins are familiar to those who are used to Roman Empire coins. On the obverse, or front, is the bust of the Emperor, with one significant change. Now, the Emperor is portrayed full face rather than in profile. On the reverse, or back, of Byzantine coins is usually a Christian symbol. Crosses and angels (based on the winged Roman goddess Victory) were often used.
By the rule of Emperor Justinian II (685–695), Byzantine coins were becoming more distinctly “Byzantine” in both art and symbolism. Justinian was the first to picture Jesus Christ on the obverse of his coinage, with a half, or full-length depiction of the Emperor on the reverse.
Throughout the centuries, Byzantine coins were a staple of trade throughout Europe and the orient. These coins are found throughout Europe, the middle east, the Orient and North Africa to this day. Each is a snapshot into the past, when a once-great empire ruled the Eastern world.
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