Princeton Alumni Weekly: "Princeton Houses the World’s Largest Trove of Byzantine Coins"
Love the history of important world coins.
Princeton Houses the World’s Largest Trove of Byzantine Coins
By David Marcus ’92
Published in the May 2023 Issue
The hole in this coin with an image of the Byzantine empress Irene suggests it may have been worn on a necklace.
Photo: Princeton University Numismatic Collection, Special Collections, Firestone Library
The gold coin is a forceful assertion of power despite being only three-quarters of an inch in diameter and a sixth of an ounce in weight. Struck around A.D. 800 in Constantinople, the Byzantine empress Irene appears on both sides wearing a crown topped with a cross and holding a crucifer in one hand and an orb and cross in the other.
A few years earlier, a similar image of Irene appeared on a gold coin whose other face showed her son and co-regent Constantine VI. But in 797, Irene had her son seized, blinded, and imprisoned in order to become the empire’s sole ruler, said Teresa Shawcross, an associate professor of history and Hellenic studies at Princeton.
The small hole on one edge of the later coin suggests another thread of Byzantine history. Constantine’s father, Leo IV, who married Irene in 768 and died in 780, opposed the veneration of icons in Christian worship, but Irene strongly supported the practice and helped firmly embed it into Orthodox Christianity, Shawcross said. The hole may have been made by a believer who wore the coin on a necklace and kissed the image of Irene as an icon.
With the coin that dates to around 800, Irene “is making a very clear statement: I am the empress,” said Grace Chung ’23, a student of Shawcross who is using the coin in her thesis research. “It’s a very strong image of power, authority, and Christian rule.”
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