This miliaresion of Basil II and Constantine VIII is ornate in imagery and meaning. The obverse shows two busts separated by a cross with crossed ends, a globus (a sphere representing the world), and a stepped base (Dumbarton Oaks, n.d.). Basil II, on the left, wears the loros, an imperial golden scarf, and is bearded to indicate seniority (Galavaris 1958, p. 111). Constantine VIII wears a chlamys, a robe given to the emperor on his coronation (Galavaris 1958, p. 109). Both rulers are adorned with the imperial crown topped by a cross and adorned with pendilia (gemmed pendants hanging from the sides) (Kazhdan 1991, s.v. “crown”). The inscription encircling the image reads “By this conquer, Emperor Constantine” (Grierson 1973, p. 628). The five-line inscription on the reverse reads: “Basil / and Constantine / born in the purple / faithful emperors / of the Romans” (Grierson 1973, p. 628).
The coin was minted in Constantinople sometime between 977 and 989 (Grierson 1973, p. 628). The miliaresion was valued at 12 to the solidus, making it valuable to the middle class (Grierson 1999, p. 5). It could be used to buy one item of moderate value, such as the skin of a lamb for parchment, or utilized as a subdivision of gold coins, allowing for incremental tax increases (Oikonomides 2001, p. 589). It is referred to as ‘intermediary coinage,’ making possible tax transactions not requiring full solidi.
This depiction of Basil II and Constantine VIII together may be compared to that found in the Bari Exultet Roll, at the Museo Diocesano di Bari, which records a hymn sung on Easter (Ladner 1942, p.181). Importantly, more explicit religious imagery is used in the Exultet Roll, as it was only used in Christian contexts. The two emperors are shown wearing halos, ascending their status to that of angels or saints. This reveals that Byzantine rulership considered proximity to Jesus as the major indicator of legitimate power. This corroborates with the coin’s inclusion of the cross image and the loros costume — a garment associated specifically with Easter celebrations, as well as reserved for one holding the position of emperor — to indicate an allegiance to God, the emperor serving as an extension of his authority.
Using Erwin Panofsky’s 3-tier method of iconographic analysis, one can pre-iconographically observe the religious conventions (crosses and loros costume) depicted on the coin, and iconographically understand these as powerful symbols representing allegiance to Christ; in this context, the emperorship and divine power are represented by the same things (Panofsky 1955). Finally, iconological analysis allows the viewer to understand the direct proximity of Basil II and Constantine VIII to such icons correlate and blend both monarchical and godly power, legitimizing the ultimate power of the Byzantine rulers.
Dumbarton Oaks. n.d. “Glossary of Numismatic Terms.” Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Accessed November 26, 2022. https://www.doaks.org/resources/coins/glossary.
Galavaris, George P. 1958. “The Symbolism of the Imperial Costume as Displayed on Byzantine Coins.” American Numismatic Society Museum Notes 8: 99–117.
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.
Grierson, Philip. 1999. Byzantine Coinage. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Kazhdan, Alexander P., ed. 1991. Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ladner, Gerard Burian. 1942. “The ‘Portraits’ of Emperors in Southern Italian Exultet Rolls and the Liturgical Commemoration of the Emperor.” Speculum 17: 181–200.
Maguire, Henry. 1997. “Magic and Money in the Early Middle Ages.” Speculum 72: 1037–1054.
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.
Oikonomides, Nicolas. 2001. “Writing materials, Documents, and Books.” In The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh Through the Fifteenth Century, ed. Angeliki E. Laiou, 589–592. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Panofsky, Erwin. 1955. “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art.” In Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History, 26–54. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press.
About the author
Sonia Suben ’25 is an anthropology major and classics minor from Mamaroneck, New York.