Dumbarton Oaks Museum
The Two-pound Weight of Megas
Owing to the close relation between coins and weights, it is no surprise that many great numismatic collections in the world (the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna among others) house large series of commercial weights, and many of these collections still await publication. Their total numbers are in the order of several thousand. Until a few years ago, the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection had only a few weights; from these ca. twenty specimens, the collection has now grown to some two hundred items—mostly in copper or bronze, but some in glass—covering a large range of types and denominations, from one pound (72 solidi) down to the solidus/nomisma and its fractions of 12 or 8 carats (semissis and tremissis).
In March 2013, Dumbarton Oaks acquired an exceptional two-pound Byzantine weight. Originating from a Belgian collection formed in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 1960s, it is unpublished and of great historical interest.
Coins may be defined as small discs of metal of definite composition and weight, guaranteed by the official imprint of the issuing authority. In Byzantine law, as asserted in Novel 56 of Emperor Leo VI the Wise: “every kind of nomisma possessing an unaltered imprint, unadulterated material, and good weight…. is to be both equally valued and current.”
But this guarantee did not always suffice, and on many occasions of exchanges in daily life, or of the payment of taxes, the weight of the gold or silver coins was verified on balances against standard weights that were also in turn checked and controlled by the imperial officials. The large number of balances and weights found on excavation sites throughout the former territory of the Late Roman and Byzantine Empire and parts of the neighboring Barbaricum attest to their general usage.
The Dumbarton Oaks weight is a bronze cylinder of 20 mm thickness and 75 mm in diameter. On the obverse is the bust of an unnamed nimbed emperor; below this imperial half-figure are two Greek letters indicating “two pounds.” Its weight (648 g) conforms to this mark of value and would have corresponded to 144 solidi.
This high weight and value as well as the peculiar iconography are not the only points of interest. What is even more striking is the inscription that runs around the edge:
ἐπὶ Μεγάλου τοῦ ἐνδοξοτάτου κομητοῦ τῶν θείων λαργιτιωνῶν
"under Megas, the most glorious Count of Sacred Largesses"
Megas, known from other sources as a high-ranking official in Constantinople in 587, is now proven to have also held the position of the "Count of the Sacred Largesses," charged with the supervision of part of the imperial finances, namely indirect taxes like custom duties, and with the administration of mines and imperial workshops for arms and textiles, including silk.