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The Byzantine Emperors on Coins

One hundred twenty-seven coins, one for each Byzantine emperor, plus the few usurpers who struck coins are presented in this exhibition. All the objects have been selected from the Byzantine Coin Collection.

Coins were the most widespread medium for the dissemination of a ruler’s portrait to his or her subjects and beyond the Empire’s frontier. The emperors’ effigies on seals, produced in the same office of the imperial mint, are often similar to coins in their design.

The glory of Byzantium and its rulers were reflected on gold coins for one millennium. Such was their fame that the word bezant (Lat. bisantius) became a common term for gold coins beyond the Byzantine Empire, most notably the Muslim dinar. Unlike silver and copper, which were also used in the variegated and hierarchical Byzantine monetary system, gold does not tarnish; therefore, most of the coins selected for this project are gold.

The exhibition enables the viewer to follow the development from the realistic portrait type, characteristic of Roman art and coinage, to a more idealized and highly stylized representation of the ruler. The specimens illustrated here suggest other major changes that affected the Byzantine coinage over eleven centuries. The most important change was the growing evidence of Christian themes and symbols; first the cross and cross-bearing insignia became more and more ubiquitous, while later on religious figures—initially Christ himself, then the Virgin and saints—dominated the iconography. By the tenth century, religious subjects had taken precedence over the ruler's image. Coins thus exemplify the religious character of Byzantine culture.

The coins are divided into six sections that observe the chronological unfolding of imperial rule and the various governing dynasties. They are placed in a slider and are accompanied with information about their issuing and properties. Clicking on a coin image allows for multiple zoom into the high-resolution images.

Bibliographic References

Note: All references are to the Dumbarton Oaks publications of the items, except for BZC.2009.013.

  • A. R. Bellinger et al, "Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins at Dumbarton Oaks: Diocletian to Eugenius," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 18 (1964): 161-236 (DOP 1964)
  • S. Bendall, A Private Collection of Palaeologan Coins, Wolverhampton, 1988 (PCPC)
  • P. Grierson, M. Mays, Catalogue of Late Roman Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Washington, 1992 (LRC)
  • P. Grierson, A.R. Bellinger, M.F. Hendy, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, 1–5, Washington, 1966–1999, 5 vols (DOC)

Exhibit Sections