On the obverse of this Byzantine coin, the upper-bodies of Emperor Constantine VII and his mother Zoë are depicted side-by-side. Constantine VII is on the viewer’s left, wearing the emperor’s traditional garment, a loros, and a crown with a cross. Zoë is on the right, wearing another traditional imperial garment, a chlamys, and a crown with a cross and pendilia or decorative beading. The two also hold a patriarchal cross between them. Above their heads is a Greek inscription that translates “Constantine and Zoë, Emperors.” On the reverse is another Greek inscription that translates “Constantine and Zoë, Emperors of the Romans” (Grierson 1973, p. 558).
As suggested by Micheal Yonan, it is important to consider how the material of an object, not just its iconography, affects its meaning (Yonan 2019). This approach is particularly important with coins as their main function is not as art, but as a practical object with monetary value. This coin is a copper follis. With 288 folles equalling one gold solidus or nomisma, this is the smallest denomination minted during Constantine VII’s rule (Morrisson 2001, p. 922). To get a sense for the modern value of a follis, we look at the cost of goods: cattle cost 3 nomismata or 864 folles while horses cost up to 15 nomismata or 4320 folles (Morrisson and Cheynet 2001, pp. 860–864). Due to its copper material and thereby low denomination, this coin was used by all peoples. In considering materiality, we see that this coin’s imagery must be carefully considered as it would convey imperial messaging across the empire.
This follis is particularly interesting because it was minted at the beginning of Constantine VII’s rule from 914–919 when his mother Zoë acted as regent, or temporary ruler (Grierson 1973, pp. 526–529). In many ways, the two are placed as equals on the coin: they both face front, hold the patriarchal cross, and wear traditional imperial costume. But, a few key details give more insight into their power dynamic. Zoë is larger than Constantine which — contrary to conventional uses of scale to represent power — shows that Zoë is older than Constantine. The differences between their costumes and hand placement on the patriarchal cross are also important for inferring the power dynamic this coin wishes to convery. The loros Constantine wears is reserved for the most senior officials while the chlamys worn by Zoë is for the junior officials. To add more nuance, Constantine’s hand that holds the patriarchal cross is above Zoë’s hand, a typical Byzantine signal of greater power.
However, these dress and holding protocols were not always followed (Grierson 1973, p. 530). The solidus of Constantine VII and Zoë minted during the same period gives Zoë the loros and Constantine the chlamys, and places Zoë’s hand above Constantine’s (Dumbarton Oaks, BZC.1957.59). Wondering about this discrepancy in imagery brings us back to our consideration of materiality. Being gold, the solidus would have been seen only by elite members of Byzantine society while the copper follis was seen by all; these two coins have very different audiences. Perhaps the solidus gives Zoë more power because — at the time — she was running the empire and would have wanted the elite to know who was truly in charge. Conversely, the imagery on the follis suggests that Constantine VII is the true emperor, but since he is still a child, his mother Zoë acts as regent and shares his divine power.
Grierson, Philip. 1973. Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, vol. 3, Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717–1081. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Morrisson, Cécile. 2001. “Byzantine Money: Its Production and Circulation.” In The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou, 909–966. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Morrisson, Cécile, and Jean-Claude Cheynet. 2001. “Prices and Wages in the Byzantine World.” In The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou, 815–878. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Yonan, Michael. 2019. “Materiality as Periphery.” Visual Resources 35, nos. 3-4: 200–216.
Annie Specker (’26) for ARHS 110 (Fall 2022)