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The So-Called "Dollar of the Middle Ages": The Hyperpyron of Manuel I Komnenos (1143–1180)

The So-Called "Dollar of the Middle Ages": The Hyperpyron of Manuel I Komnenos (1143–1180)

Reverse of the hyperpyron of Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143–1180), Constantinople mint, first issue (BZC 1960.125.78).

Cécile Morrisson

This large coin (31mm diameter; i.e., 25% larger than a quarter) shows the emperor wearing the ceremonial costume (an ornate chlamys with tablion and conspicuous border of dots, probably actual precious stones or glass pearls inserted into the silk mantle), holding a labarum scepter in his right hand and a globe with patriarchal cross in the left. (A similar globe is found on the Dumbarton Oaks marble roundel representing his father John II Komnenos.) The columnar legend, spread on several lines left and right, proclaims proudly “Manuel despot (= emperor) the porphyrogennitos,” stressing the legitimacy of the ruler. After his father John II, Manuel was the second of the dynasty to have been “born in the purple,” meaning the porphyry chamber of the Great Palace.

The inscription uses the dative case because it follows that on the obverse side of the coin, which invokes the protection of Christ for the emperor: “+Kyrie boethei.” The image of the youthful Christ, designated “Ho Emmanouel” on electrum coins of the reign, is a clear allusion to the name of the emperor—whom the encomiasts dared compare to Christ himself – and to his young age on this first issue of the reign. Born in 1118, Manuel was 24 at his accession.

Manuel I Komnenos, hyperpyron, obverse
Obverse of the hyperpyron of Manuel I Komnenos.

Hyperpyron needs some explanation: a ready-made, popular etymology derived from “hyperpure” is pure fancy but not far off the mark. In fact, hyperpyron derives from “hyper” (above) and “pyr(on)” (fire), denoting that the coin’s metal has been refined over the fire. This method had been used for over two millenia, according to the technique of cupellation that the Romans and Byzantines had brought to near-perfection in the fourth century, attaining 99.9% purity, a degree that was only surpassed in the twentieth century. After the eleventh-century crisis, Alexios I—Manuel’s grandfather—had restored the debased nomisma to a standard of 20 ½ carats (85.5%). It was not of the purity of the earlier Byzantine gold, but still appreciable and comparable to several other Mediterranean currencies of the time, such as the morabitini and their Castillan imitations, the anfusini, or the earliest imitative dinars struck by the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem.

So, in the twelfth century, Byzantium’s gold money was still one of the “dollars of the Middle Ages,” to use the phrase coined by the great economic historian Robert Sabatino Lopez and further commented upon by Carlo Cipolla. Though perhaps not as widely distributed as previously supposed—since the name of bezant, bisantius, the Byzantine coin, had become a generic name in the eleventh century, and often designated the Almoravid gold dinar in documents—the hyperpyron dominated eastern Mediterranean long-distance trade and competed successfully with the Egyptian Fatimid issues. When going on Crusade, western princes assembled quantities of Byzantine gold in their war chests up until the thirteenth century.

Manuel’s issues were abundant and an instrument of his munificence. Sources abound in references to the emperor’s considerable gifts to westerners and Turks alike, following the long tradition of a diplomacy of the bezant, and supported by the development of Byzantium’s commerce and industry in the twelfth century. “Moved by the desire of glory . . . he aimed at emulating the ancient emperors, whose territories stretched not only from one sea to the other but from the limits of the East to the columns of the West (Gibraltar)” (Nicetas Choniates).

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