Michael T. Orr

Shortly after being acclaimed by the army as Augustus in A.D. 306, Constantine the Great (A.D. 306-337) reformed the Roman coinage. He replaced the fundamental gold denomination of the Roman period, the aureus, with a new and slightly lighter gold coin, the solidus. Although the introduction of the solidus did not result immediately in coin designs significantly different from those of the second and third centuries, over the course of the following two centuries the solidus gradually evolved into a coinage with an appearance and identity of its own. By the time of Anastasius I (A.D. 491-518), the solidus can be clearly distinguished from the coins of the late Roman empire. On the obverse of the coin, unlike the individualized profile busts typical of Roman coins, the ruler portrait is presented in a frontal pose without any attempt at characterization. On the reverse, pagan subjects popular at the time of Constantine, such as the winged Victory, are transformed by the incorporation of Christian symbols. The use of the impersonal frontal ruler portrait and an expanded repertoire of Christian symbols and subjects feature prominently in the development of Byzantine coin design.

Despite being replaced by the tetarteron and histamenon in the tenth century under Nicephorus II Phocas (A.D. 963-969), the solidus illustrates many of the most significant developments that occurred in coin design during the Byzantine period. Features such as the stiff, impersonal ruler-type staring impassively out at the viewer, the employment of either the civilian chlamys or bejewelled loros for the imperial costume of the ruler portrait, the adoption of the globus cruciger and akakia as central elements of imperial insignia, and the use of the bust-length Pantokrator image of Christ as an obverse type, were all developed initially on the solidus and retained as central elements of Byzantine coin design after the demise of the coin type. As a result the solidus can be considered the most important and characteristic denomination of the Byzantine period.


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The coin depicted on this page is No. 146 in the catalogue, histamenon of Nicephorus II Phocas and Basil II, A.D. 963-69. Obverse: facing bust of Christ.

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