Mint of the Empire of Nicaea

1. Introduction

The mint of Nicaea was founded in the beginnings of the 13th century. With its seat at Nicaea in the first place and at Magnesia later on, it formed the official mint of the Empire of Nicaea.1 In contrast to the mints of all the other states which were founded after the capture of Constantinople by the Latins (1204), the mint of Nicaea issued a full series of those denominations that were circulating throughout the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century, continuing the monetary system introduced since 1092 by Alexios I Komnenos.2 Its products are discerned because of their wide circulation, beyond the limits of the Empire of Nicaea, testifying the economic well-being and the superiority of this state compared to the other successor states. The mint ceased its issues after the recapture of the capital by Michael VIII Palaiologos (1261).3

2. Starting of operation – Location

It is not known when exactly was the mint of Nicaea established, however, it is certain that this took place under Theodore I Laskaris (1205-1222), whose name bear the first known issues. Based on the numismatic evidence we can chronologically place the starting of minting within the period of 1205-1208, mainly between the proclamation of Theodore as emperor and his official coronation.4

As far as the mint’s seat is concerned, Nicaea, the capital city of the state, was believed for a long period of time to be the only candidate. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that, although the earlier issues were indeed struck there, soon the mint was transferred to Magnesia. Its protected geographical position far from the Seljuks and the Latins, the fact that the imperial treasury was there – at least under John III Vatatzes (1222-1254) and probably under Theodore II (1254-1258) –, as well as its proximity to Nymphaion, where the winter imperial residence was situated, make it as the most probable seat for the imperial mint.5 This transfer must have happened soon enough under the reign of Theodore I, probably in 1212, year of the start of the new indiction.6

3. Monetary production

As it has already been mentioned, the mint of Nicaea was the only mint during the period 1204-1261 that struck all the 12th-century denominations: the golden hyperpyron, the trikephalon made of electrum or billon, the bronze histamenon and the bronze tetarteron.7 By continuing the Komnenian monetary tradition, the Empire of Nicaea reinforced its prestige among the other successor states, while it emerged as the only capable claimer of the lost Byzantine throne.

4. Mint organization

The available evidence concerning the organization of the minting production in the mint of Nicaea is the slightest. Nevertheless, based on the numismatic evidence, as well as on some sporadic references on the written sources, we may conclude the following.

4.1. Annual issues

At least under the first decade of its mint activity, if not during the whole period of Theodore’s I reign, the mint of Nicaea continued the organization of the production based on the indiction’s fifteen-year cycle, following the model of the 12th-century imperial mints.8 It seems, however, that in 1227 it adapted the annual issues system for some denominations, which are characterized by the yearly change either of the iconographic type (as for example in the case of histamena), or of the sigla (privy marks) – as in the case of hyperpyra –, as well as by each type’s short period of production.9 The same model of organization is observed during almost the same period of time in the mints of Constantinople and Thessalonica.10

4.2. “Imperial” and “public” mint

Based as well on the model of the Constantinopolitan mint before 1204, the mint of Nicaea seems to have been formed by two different parts, at least as far as the production of gold coinage is concerned: the “imperial” mint, which was responsible for the issuing of coins of a metal coming from the official state revenues, as for example the taxation, and the “public” mint, where the citizens came to, bringing along bars of metal, exchanging them for struck coins.11 This finding is mainly based on a parallelism with the 12th century, on the existence of hyperpyra with or without sigla (privy marks) – products of these two different parts of the mint – and on the prohibition of exporting bullions, enforced on the Genoese by Michael VIII Palaiologos, which aimed at preserving the (“public”) mint its revenues stemming from the commission (seigneuriage) over the transformation of the bullions into coins.12

4.3. Sigla (privy marks)

Finally, the wide use of the sigla (privy marks) - dots, combinations of dots, asterisks, letters of the alphabet etc. [fig. 1, 2] - seems to be connected with the organization of the mint and the control of the production. Even though they have been used earlier by the Angeloi, in all probability in order to denote differences in the purity of the metals,13 and even though they were not unknown to the rest of the mints during the period 1204-1261, they were particularly used by the mint of Nicaea, mainly, but not exclusively, on the hyperpyra.14 Although at least in one case, that of Theodore’s II hyperpyra, the sigla (privy marks) corresponding to the first four letters of the alphabet were representing the four years of his reign [fig. 2],15 in most of the cases their interpretation is more complicated and still remains a point of dispute among various scholars.

5. Issues

5.1. Hyperpyra

In spite of some attempts of attributing hyperpyra to Theodore I,16 it is now certain that it was not until under John III Vatatzes that started the issue of gold coinage by the mint of Nicaea, probably in 1227, the year of the starting of a new indiction, after the occupation of the regions of north-eastern Asia Minor by the Latins.17 This emperor’s hyperpyra were produced in large quantities, especially after the famine that was inflicted upon the Seljuks during the decade of 1240: according to the written sources their whole wealth passed into the hands of the emperor of Nicaea in exchange of wheat and other food provisions.18 The circulation of John Vatatzes’ hyperpyra was not restricted to the imperial territories; they are found in large quantities in the Black Sea region and in the northern Balkans – especially in the Danube territories – even on hoards that were concealed during the second half of the 13th century.19 This wide spread is beyond any doubt related with their use as a coin for international commercial transactions.

Except their financial role, these hyperpyra served the imperial propaganda as well: the hyperpyron of John II Komnenos (1118-1143) was chosen as their model, made exactly the same, without even changing the title of Porphyrogennetos, upon which John Vatatzes had no right [fig. 1].20

This choice caused for many years confusion among the numismatologists, who faced difficulties at discerning the 12th-century hyperpyra from those of the 13th century.21 Although the existence of stylistic differences, the most safe way to discern them remains their metal composition: the hyperpyra of John Komnenos are of 20 karats, while those of John Vatatzes only of 17-18 karats.22 Nevertheless, besides the discernment among the hyperpyra of Komenos and of Vatatzes, problematic remains as well the discernment of the hyperpyra of Nicaea and of their imitations, products of the Latin mint of Constantinople, known from the sources as perperi latini.23 Although progress has been marked on this domain, the problem of the imitations of John Vatatzes’ hyperpyra in general still remains far from its final solution.24

The issuing of gold coins continued under the reign of Theodore II as well, but in a smaller scale [fig. 2].25 The last hyperpyra of Magnesia are dated to the reign of Michael VIII as emperor of Nicaea (1259-1261).26

5.2. Trikephala

The first trikephala were struck under Theodore I – first at Nicaea and later at Magnesia– and formed a unique denomination of a precious metal [fig. 3]. Initially of electrum (4 karats), at the end of his reign they ended up being composed of pure silver. This metal composition was adopted by his successors as well.27

The starting of gold coinage issues under John Vatatzes seems to have influenced the production of trikephala as well. At least 18 different types are attributed to this reign; many of them, however, are represented by only one example.28 For that reason it is believed that they constitute annual issues produced in small quantities.29 As in the case of hyperpyra of the same emperor, the production of trikephala was controlled by the use of sigla (privy marks).

The same phenomenon is observed in Theodore’s II trikephala, where the use of the first letters of the alphabet as sigla (privy marks) allows us to restore the sequence of issues.30

Under the reign of Michael VIII the issue of trikephala continued, the attribution, though, of these last issues remains problematic.31

5.3. Histamena

The histamena along with the trikephala formed the only numismatic denominations whose issue started right after the foundation of the Empire of Nicaea by Theodore I. Furthermore, the first issue of this emperor was produced in very large quantities, widely circulating beyond the limits of this state , while it became a subject of imitation by the Latins of Constantinople [fig. 5].32

The rest of the issues, of Theodore I as much as of his successors, were produced in small quantities. John Vatatzes introduced the annual issues and the use of sigla (privy marks) on histamena, but it is not certain whether this practice was maintained by the rest of the emperors.33 Also, the issue of histamena ceased after the recapture of Constantinople in 1261.

5.4. Tetartera

The production of tetartera by the mint of Nicaea started under John III Vatatzes [fig. 6] and, though it was continued under his successors as well, always remained of a very small scale. Given the fact that the non circulation of this denomination in the lands of Asia Minor, it seems that some of these issues had a more symbolic character, more than an economic or practical one.34 Although we can not exclude the possibility that their issuing was connected with the conquest of European territories by John Vatatzes, where the circulation of this small denomination had been established already since the 12th century, it is all the more possible that it aimed reinforcing the imperial propaganda: by striking the whole series of the 12th-century denominations, the Empire of Nicaea was self-presented as the only heir of the Byzantine legacy and as a consequence as the most worthy claimer of the Byzantine throne.35

6. Imagery

The mint of Nicaea, compared to the contemporaneous mint of Thessalonica, appeared to be conservative as far as the choice of the iconographic types is concerned.36 Generally speaking, the Komnenian iconographic tradition was being followed, which in many cases became the issue of accurate imitation.37 Besides Christ and Theotokos, who possess in every way an exceptional place in the imagery of Byzantine coinage, the depiction of military saints is very frequent as well (Theodore [fig. 3, 5], Demetrios, George). It was a trend that had already appeared in the 12th century, but received greater dimensions during the 13th century.38

It is only the depiction of Saint Tryphon that can be mentioned as a remarkable novelty of the mint of Nicaea. The martyr from Phrygia, unknown until then in the numismatic iconographic repertory, first appeared on the coins of John III Vatatzes, obviously because of his role as the patron saint of Nicaea. He was also depicted on the coins of the next emperors, often in combination with a lys, a new motive in the 13th-century coinage [fig. 4]. The combination of these two motives on the coins of Nicaea was not coincidental: according to the panegyric speech, which Theodore II wrote in praise of this saint, each year on the day of his celebration (1st February) a lys was blooming in the area where his relics were been kept.39

1. In spite of the change of seat from Nicaea to Magnesia and for reasons of convenience we will call the mint “mint of Nicaea”, a name under which it is also known in the bibliography.

2. For Alexios’ I monetary reform and the new system he introduced see Hendy, M. F., Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire, 1081-1261 (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 12, Washington, D.C. 1969) pp. 14-25, 39-49; Hendy, M.F., Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, vol. 4 (Washington D.C. 1999) (hereafter DOC IV) pp. 41-51.

3. Grierson, Ph., Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, vol. 5 (Washington D.C. 1999) (hereafter DOC V) p. 58.

4. DOC IV, pp. 133, 453-454.

5. Hendy, Coinage and Money, pp. 231-232. DOC IV, pp. 133-134. DOC V, pp. 57-58.

6. DOC IV, pp. 134, 453. For the organization of the mint and for its mint activity based on the indiction’s fifteen-year cycle, see below.

7. DOC IV, pp. 52-53. However, not all the denominations were being struck during the whole period 1204-1261. Under Theodore I, for example, the minting was reduced to issues of trikephala and histamena. DOC IV, p. 453.

8. As Μ. Hendy’s studies have shown, the 12th-century monetary production was following indiction’s fifteen-year cycle. This system defined the changes of the iconographic types, as well as other mint’s organizing issues. DOC IV, ff (12th century), pp. 453-454 (Nicaea).

9. DOC IV, p. 474.

10. DOC IV, p. 134.

11. The existence of these two different mints is attested for the 4th – 7th century (moneta auri and moneta publica or fiscalis respectively). The theory about the continuance of this practice during later periods belongs to Μ. Hendy. Hendy, M. F., “The administration of mints and treasuries, fourth to seventh centuries, with an appendix on the production of silver plate”, in Hendy, M. F., The Economy, Fiscal Administration and Coinage of Byzantium (Variorum Collected Studies 305, Northampton 1989) no. VI, p. 6-8. DOC IV, pp. 22-25, 108-111. Morrisson, C., «Moneta, Kharagè, Zecca : les ateliers byzantins et le palais imperial », in La Guardia, R. (ed.), I Luoghi della moneta. Le sedi delle zecche dall’antichità all’età moderna. Atti del convegno internazionale, 22-23 ottobre 1999, Milano (Milanο 2001) pp. 51-54.

12. DOC IV, pp. 119-120. Hendy, M.F., Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985) pp. 257-260. This term is included in the treaty of Nympaion, signed between Micahel VIII and the Genoese in 1261, before the recapture of Constantinople. Ζέπος, Ι. – Ζέπος, Π., Νεαραί και χρυσόβουλα των μετά τον Ιουστινιανόν βυζαντινών αυτοκρατόρων (Jus graecoromanum I, Athens 1930), p. 494.

13. DOC IV, p. 368.

14. DOC IV, pp. 111-119.

15. Hendy, Coinage and Money, p. 260. DOC IV, p. 516.

16. Besides the older attributions (e.g. Hendy, Coinage and Money, pp. 227-228, 235-236) which have been totally rejected (DOC IV, p. 453), Ι. Jordanov recently enough attributed to Theodore I Laskares a unique hyperpyron kept in the Museum of Grabovo in Bulgaria portraying Christ Emmanuel on the obverse and the emperor with Saint Theodore on the reverse. Jordanov, I., « Mise au jour d’un monnayage hyperpère byzantin de la première moitié du XIIIe siècle », Études balkaniques 4 (1989) pp. 107-109. However, thre authenticity of the coin, as much as its attribution remain uncertain.

17. DOC IV, p. 474.

18. Nicephori Gregorae, Historiae Byzantinae, vol. I-III, ed. I. Bekker – L. Schopen (Bonn 1829-1855) Ι, p. 43. See as well Ahrweiler, H., « L’histoire et la géographie de Smyrne entre les deux occupations turques (1081-1317) particulièrement au XIIIe siècle », Travaux et Mémoires 1 (1965) p. 8.

19. Morrisson, C. – Papadopoulou, P., « L’éclatement du monnayage dans le monde byzantin après 1204 : apparence ou réalité ? », in Villela-Petit, I. (ed.), 1204, la quatrième croisade : de Blois à Constantinople et éclats d’empires. Catalogue d’exposition (Musée Château de Blois et Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Musée du cabinet des Médailles, octobre 2005-janvier 2006), Revue Française d’héraldique et de sigillographie 73-75 (2003-2005) pp. 138-139. A full list of the hoards containing John III Vatazes’ υπέρπυρα is included in Lianta, E., “John II Comnenus (1118-43) or John III Vatatzes (1222-54)? (Distinguishing the Hyperpyra of John II from Those of John III)”, The Numismatic Chronicle7 166 (2006) pp. 272-274.

20. Even the shape of the emperor’s beard, which in all of John III Vatatzes’ issues has a forked shape, preserved its round shape according to the model of John II Komnenos’ hyperpyron. The choice of John Komnenos’ coins as a model was of course not coincidental. Beyond the obvious synonymy and the connection with the Komnenian dynasty, it created a parallelism between the emperor of Nicaea and John Komnenos, also known as Kaloyannes because of his wise rule. DOC IV, p. 467.

21. Metcalf, D.M., “John Vatatzes and John Comnenus. Questions of Style and Detail in Byzantine Numismatics”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 3 (1960) pp. 203-214. The confusion of course is not referring to those hyperpyra that bear signs, since they can be attributed with certainty to the 13th century.

22. DOC IV, p. 476.

23. These coins are mentioned for the first time by the Florentine merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, who describes them as imitations of John III Vatatzes’ hyperpyra, 16 ½ karats, bearing certain signs. Pegolotti, Francesco Balducci, La Pratica della mercatura, ed. A. Evans (Cambridge Mass. 1936) pp. 287-289. Different theories have been expressed as far as these hyperpyra are concerned; lately, however, Ε. Oberländer-Târnoveanu seems to have found the solution to this problem by defining those characteristics that discern the perperi latini from the original hyperpyra of John Vatatzes. Oberländer-Târnoveanu, E., « Les hyperpères de type de Jean III Vatatzès – classification, chronologie et évolution du titre (à la lumière du trésor d’Uzun Baïr, dép. De Tulcea) », in Iacob, M. – Oberländer-Târnoveanu, E. – Topoleanu, F. (ed.), Istro-Pontica. Museul Tulcean la a 50-a aniversare 1950-2000. Omagiu lui Simion Gavrilă la 45 de ani de activitate 1955-2000 (Tulcea 2000) pp. 499-561 (with the older theories in which we must add DOC IV, pp. 476-477). Cf. however the objections expressed by E. Lianta. Lianta, John II Comnenus or John III Vatatzes, pp. 280-281.

24. See more recently the articles of E. Lianta (Lianta, John II Comnenus or John III Vatatzes) and of Ι. Jordanov [Jordanov, I., “The perpyra of Tsar Kaloyan (1198-1207)?”, Archaeologia Bulgarica X (2006) pp. 53-99] suggesting new attributions for those hyperpyra that until now were attributed to John III Vatatzes and the mint of Nicaea.

25. DOC IV, pp. 515-516. There are no coins under the name of Theodore’s II successor, the under-aged John IV (1258-1259). DOC IV, p. 530.

26. Only one type of hyperpyron, known from a unique coin kept at Bucharest, can be attributed with certainty to Michael VIII and the mint of Nicaea. Iliescu, O., «Le dernier hyperpère de l’empire byzantin de Nicée», Byzantinoslavica 26 (1965) pp. 94-99. DOC IV, p. 530. Ph. Grierson, however, believes that part of Michael’s VIII second issue must be attributed as well to the mint of Nicaea. DOC V, p. 106.

27. Morrisson, C. – Barrandon, J.N. – Ivanišević, V., “Late Byzantine Silver and Billon Coinage: A Study of Its Composition”, in Oddy, W.A. – Cowell, M.R. (ed.), Metallurgy in Numismatics 4 (1998) p.p 52, 57. DOC IV, pp. 453, 478, 545.

28. In the already existing 17 types included in DOC IV one more was recently added, known from a coin stemming from northern Greece. Γεωργιάδης, Ν.Θ., «Ένα νέο από ήλεκτρο τραχύ του Ιωάννη Γ΄ Βατάτζη», Νομισματικά Χρονικά 21 (2002) pp. 105-106.

29. DOC IV, pp. 474-475, 478.

30. DOC IV, pp. 474-475, 478.

31. Different types are attributed to Magnesia by S. Bendall (Bendall S., “The silver coinage of Michael VIII, A.D. 1258-1282 “, Numismatic Circular 90 (1982) p. 121), by M. Hendy (DOC IV, p. 531) and by Ph. Grierson (DOC V, p. 112).

32. DOC IV, p. 454-455.

33. We know 27 issues of John III, which correspond exactly to the period between 1227, year of the annual issues’ starting, and the end of his reign (1254). DOC IV, pp. 474-475, 480. There are, however, only three issues – without signs – for a four-year reign of Theodore II, while during the three-year reign of Michael VIII two types are attributed to him with reserve. DOC IV, pp. 516-517, 531 (cf. as well DOC V, p. 124).

34. It has been indicated that with no exception the small 12th-century denominations did not circulate throughout the territories of the empire: the tetartera are totally absent from the numismatic material of Asia Minor, where the histamena were exclusively circulating. The opposite is observed for the Greek territory, characterized by the exclusive circulation of tetartera, while in the central Balkans a mixed circulation of histamena and tetartera is pointed out. Grierson, Ph., Byzantine Coins (London 1982) pp. 219-220. Hendy, Studies, pp. 435-439. Οικονομίδου, Α. – Τουράτσογλου, Ι. – Τσούρτη-Κούλη, Η. – Γαλάνη-Κρίκου Μ., «Ο θησαυρός «Κομοτηνής»/1979(;): Συμβολή στην κυκλοφορία των τεταρτηρών του ΙΒ΄ αι. μ.Χ.» in Bakirtzis, Ch. (ed.), First International Symposium for Thracian Studies « Byzantine Thrace ». Image and Character, Komotini (May 28th -31st 1987) (Amsterdam 1989), Byzantinische Forschungen 14 (1989) pp. 369-371.

35. DOC IV, pp. 475, 481, 580.

36. For the iconographic themes of the mint of Thessalonica see Morrisson, C., “The Emperor, the Saint and the City: Coinage and Money in Thessalonike from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Century”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 57 (2003) pp. 177-186.

37. The case of John III Vatatzes’ hyperpyra has already been mentioned as well as the reasons hidden behind this choice. For further examples, see DOC IV, p. 479.

38. Morrisson – Papadopoulou, «L’éclatement du monnayage», p. 139.

39. Laurent, V., «L’emblème du lis dans la numismatique byzantine : son origine. À propos d’une monnaie inédite de Michel VIII Paléologue», in Ingholt, H. (ed.), Centennial Volume of the American Numismatic Society (New York 1958) pp. 417-427. DOC V, p. 81. Morrisson – Papadopoulou, «L’éclatement du monnayage», p. 139.