Coin Jewelry Part V: The Good, Bad, and Deceptive

In an earlier blog, we had discussed the issues of fakes and forgeries which emerged with the growing popularity of coin currency.  While it is reprehensible, it’s almost expected that unscrupulous people would try to deceive and distribute fake coins. But what happens when it’s the government itself pulling a fast one?

Unfortunately, the Byzantine Empire (for a brief time, at least) was subject to one such bureaucratic conspiracy.  During the short rule of Nicephorus II Phocas (963-969), gold coins were divided into two types: the “histamenon” (or “standard”) coin retained its original, standard weight while the “tetarteron” (or “quarter”) coin was much thinner and had a lighter weight.

During his controversial rule, Nicephorus declared that taxes were to be paid in hisamena and disbursements were made in tetartera.  Obviously, this was not received well: the coins paid out to the government were more valuable than the ones received in return.  It wasn’t until 1092 that Alexius I finally reformed coinage weights and standards.

(Need to catch up on our Coin Jewelry blog series? Discover our coin pendants and learn about the history of coinage in Part I: From Cattle to Coinage, Part II: Fakes and Forgeries, Part III: Heads or Tails, Part IV: Hammer Time, Part VI: Spreading Rumors, and Part VII: The Son Also Rises.)

Not-so “Nice”-phorus

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Considering his coin deception, it thus comes as a surprise that Nicephorus was considered a rather good ruler and his reign was determined to be a glorious one (for a while anyhow).  Most likely, it helped that he followed the unremarkable rule of Romanus II  (in a bold move, he also married Romanus’ widow, Theophano).

Nicephorus was the son of Byzantine general Bardas Phocas and distinguished himself at his father’s side, reinforcing discipline and working to improve recruitment.

He was named commander of an expedition to liberate Crete by his predecessor Romanus II.  Not only did he liberate the island (a feat at which many failed), Nicephorus also helped to reestablish Christianity with the aid the island’s monks (one of whom was Athansius, Nicephorus’ spiritual director and founder of the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos).

Nicephorus’ looks and relationship with Athansius made many assume that he too would take to a monastic life (yes, for some reason his looks, or lack thereof, played a role in said assumption).  He wasn’t the most attractive of men, so it came as a surprise when the beautiful young empress Theophano, widow of Romanus, seduced the soldier.  The two were married, placing Nicephorus on the throne.  Many believed that this was a coup made by the empress who was unhappy with the eunuch Bringas who was put in charge of empire after Romanus’ death (until sons Basil, aged 3, and Constantine, aged 6, came of age).

An able military commander and successful in his eastern campaigns (regaining Cyprus and Antioch), Nicephorus was something of a warmonger.  However, while the high expenses of his military endeavors did not endear him to his subjects, Nicephorus’ victories in the East were lauded for further expanding the Byzantine Empire. “Nicephorus II’s policies, seen in their entirety, indicate that his purpose was to assure Byzantium of its place as international arbiter, which he accomplished through the use of arms.” 

During all of this, Theophano (ever supportive of her husband’s military) was carrying on an affair with general John Tzimisches.  As Nicephorus’ popularity waned with the expenses of his military ventures and unpopular coinage scheme, the two lovers had the ruler killed in 969 and Tzimisches seized the throne (and the queen) for himself. Their rule was an especially successful as the marriage of Tzimische’s neice (also named Theophano) to Otto II united the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires (a marriage we had discussed in a previous blog post exploring the life of the young Princess Theophano, who introduced western Europe to the fork and good hygiene through daily bathing).

After his assassination, Nicephorus was “[s]urnamed Kallinikos, the artisan of good victories, by the Romans of Constantinople [and] the stories of his exploits and tragic death became legend. He was venerated as their benefactor and founder by the monks of Mount Athos and is remembered as a saint, commemorated on December 11.”

In a cheeky (but quite hilarious) move, however, the life of Nicephorus was “summed up in the phrase inscribed on his sarcophagus: “You conquered all but a woman.””

coin, coin jewelry, christ pantocratorChrist Pantocrator Coin

Our Christ Pantocrator coin is a from a Constantinople mint and dates between 963-969.  This coin, originally a tetartera, features the bust of Christ Pantocrator; “pantocrator” deriving from the Greek word for “ruler of all.”  It is one of the first images of Christ in the Early Christian Church. The typical Western Christ in Majesty is a full-length icon. In the early Middle Ages, it usually presented Christ in a geometric frame, surrounded by the Four Evangelists or their symbols.  “Christ Pantocrator is an icon of Christ represented full or half-length and full-faced. He holds the book of the Gospels in his left hand and blesses with his right hand.”

Christ is depicted wearing nimbus cruciger, or “cross-bearing halo.”  Inscribed on the coin is the phrase “Ihs XΓS REX REGNANTInm,” which translates to “Jesus Christ, King of Kings.”

The reverse side of the coin depicts Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II and the Virgin Mary.  Nicephorus is shown with a short beard, wearing loros and crown with cross.  Next to him is the Virgin Mary (with a halo) wearing a head covering.  The two of them hold a patriarchal cross.  Above the pair is inscribed “+ΘOTOC’ bHΘ’ hIEHF dESP’,” or “God-bearer help ruler Nicephorus.”

Pantocrator –
Nicephorus II Phocas –
Nicephorus II Phocas –
Wildwinds: Coinage of Nicephorus II –
Forum Ancient Coins: Nicephous II Phocas –


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categorized in: