Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Byzantine and Armenian coins acquired by Princeton University

Princeton University has made an important acquisition of ancient and medieval coins from Byzantium and Armenia, including a rare seventh century Byzantine coin that bears the image of Jesus Christ.

The Byzantine coin was issued by Emperor Justinian II from the late seventh century. It bears the first use on a coin of the face of Christ, one that according to Princeton's Curator of Numismatics, Alan Stahl, is also one of the most beautiful and historically important examples of the image.

Until the reign of Justinian II, which went from 685 to 711 with the interruption of two usurpers, the image on the obverse, or front, of the coins had been the head of the emperor, usually in military dress, with symbolic religious images relegated to the coin's reverse. Early in his reign, Justinian introduced this revolutionary new coin which put Christ on the front and moved his own depiction to the reverse. Moreover, the image of Christ on these coins, especially on the superb example just acquired by Princeton, is in a bold naturalistic style dramatically unlike the stylized linear portraiture of Byzantine coins, which was maintained for that of the emperor on the reverse. The legends also reversed the priority of figures, with the obverse proclaiming "Jesus Christ, Lord, King of those Reigning," while Justinian's name appears only on the reverse, with the title of "Servant of Christ" rather than the usual designations of imperial power.

According to Stahl, the issue of this coin, dated to 692 by current numismatic scholarship, had major political repercussions throughout the Mediterranean world. Within two years, the Islamic caliph Abd el-Malik introduced a reform that removed all imagery from Islamic gold and silver coins, a tradition that would last a millennium. In the West, the bold appearance of Christ on the coinage of Constantinople strengthened the opposition of the Roman church to what it viewed as idolatry in Byzantium and contributed to the developing schism between the churches. It is significant that the two usurpers whose reigns interrupted that of Justinian II in 695, Leontius and Tiberius III, returned the emperor to the obverse of their issues and put a simple cross on their reverses; when Justinian regained the throne in 705 he returned Christ to the obverse of his solidi, but with a much simplified, more linear rendering. Soon thereafter, iconoclasm became the dominant ideology of the ruling emperors, and religious imagery on Byzantine coinage was again reduced to simple, often small crosses.

The coin was acquired from a collection of Armenian coins assembled over several decades by an expert collector, who sought to represent the various periods in the pre-modern age when Armenia produced its own coinage or made substantial contributions to the coinage of other powers.

"The collection includes coins of three distinct periods, all of interest to the academic concerns of the University," Stahl said.

Stahl said the acquisition will provide scholars with access to significant materials to study early Armenian civilization, as well as provide new opportunities at Princeton to research ancient and medieval societies.

The earliest coins in the Armenian Heritage Collection are those of the Artaxiad dynasty, which became the largest political power east of Rome in the first century B.C. The coins of most relevance to Princeton's existing holdings are those minted in the reign of Tigranes the Great, who ruled from the Seleucid capital of Antioch-on-the-Orontes from 95 to 55 B.C.

"The coins of Tigranes from Antioch hold special interest for Princeton because University scholars led the excavations of the site in the 20th century and the University holds more than 30,000 coins found there in our collection," Stahl said. "One of the great mysteries of the coins from these excavations is the lack of any in the name of Tigranes and the dearth of local municipal coins for the period of his reign."

Included in the collection are two large silver pieces of Tigranes the Great and 19 bronze coins in his name, as well as examples of rare coins featuring his successors. All of these coins follow the models of the Hellenistic world, with the portrait of the ruler on the front of the coin and a local deity on the back. The writing on the coins is in Greek.

"The acquisition of this interesting and uncommon collection will significantly broaden Princeton's resources for the study of both the history and the imagery of the classical world," said Michael Koortbojian, Princeton professor of art and archaeology. "Moreover, this new collection will not only allow students and faculty direct access to primary historical material, but, in the context of Princeton's broader numismatic holdings, it will provide an important body of material for research into the interactions between the various cultures and societies that comprised the ancient and medieval world."

The second group of coins in the Armenian Heritage Collection comprises gold solidi of the Byzantine Empire from the sixth through the 11th century.

"Armenians figured prominently in the government of Byzantium, including in the ranks of its important emperors. The addition of these magnificent gold solidi greatly strengthens our holdings of Byzantine coinage, which has constituted a major focus of acquisition in recent years," Stahl said.

The third component of the collection comprises coins of the medieval kingdom of Cilician Armenia, on the south coast of what is now Turkey. The kingdom, ruled by Roupenid family, had strong ties to its surrounding powers, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader. These connections are illustrated by a large silver coin in the collection, equivalent to the European groat or the Islamic dirhem. The coin bears on its front an image of the king on horseback in European style, surrounded by a legend in Armenian characters, while on the back it bears writing in Arabic.

"The coins of Cilician Armenia in the new collection complement the Latin Orient Collection of Crusader Coinage that we acquired two years ago, giving us a fuller picture of the interplay of coinages in the medieval eastern Mediterranean," Stahl said.

The coins were acquired by the Princeton University Numismatic Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, with matching funds provided by the Program in Hellenic Studies with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Program; it was purchased from an important American numismatic collection.

The acquisition of this coin is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Princeton University Numismatic Collection and the Program in Hellenic Studies to build and utilize a collection of coins of the eastern Mediterranean in the medieval period, as a corollary to the existing significant collections of ancient Greek, Roman and Near Eastern coinage.

Among the highlights of this effort have been a series of purchases of issues of late Byzantine coins of Balkan mints and the acquisition in 2007 of the Latin Orient Collection, whose rich holdings of coins of European rulers of the eastern Mediterranean has already served as the basis of an exhibit and international colloquium on Coinage in the Age of the Crusades.