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Heraclius & a Sicilian Countermark

Although countermarked Byzantine coins are not usually something I seek out, I couldn't resist this one. It was described in the auction listing as "a glorious mess". It started out as a coin of Heraclius and his eldest son, Heraclius Constantine. Heraclius Constantine holds the Byzantine record for shortest reign (3 months). The underlying coin is clear, including date (X/X/I - year 21 == AD 630/1) , mint (CON - Constantinople) and officina (Γ). The countermark is nicely placed and nearly uncirculated. A coin of Heraclius reauthorized by Heraclius

Undertype: Heraclius, with Heraclius Constantine, AD 610-641, Æ Follis (26.5mm, 6.42g, 7h). Constantinople mint, 3rd (Γ) officina, Dated RY 21 (AD 630/1) Obv: Heraclius, on left, wearing crown and military dress, holding long cross, and Heraclius Constantine, on right, wearing crown and chlamys, holding globus-cruciger; cross above, [monogram] to left, K to right Rev: Large M; cross above, [A]/[N]/N/O X/X/I across fields; Γ//CON Ref: DOC 106c; MIB 170; SB 810 Note: Both sides show a Sicilian countermark - with the argument made that dies were from Catanian engravers, applied centrally on coins from Constantinople - perhaps in Syracuse?. This countermark is described by Whiting (1952) : "The twin-bust countermark (B.M. Series ii "after 630") is always found over folles of Heraclius, showing the Emperor in military dress and his son Heraclius Constantine in long civilian robes. This type of follis was first issued in 629 and was continued for ten years, though the flans after 631 became lighter and smaller. Sicilian countermarks are most usually found over year 21 (630/1) issues and the dies were placed so that the reverse SCLs obscures the legs and feet of Heraclius, while the obverse lies near the top of the M follis sign." -Whitting (1952) DOC refers to this as 7th Century countermark "Class B"

There are three types of countermarked Sicilian coins identified by Heraclius, and this is called Type II by Grierson (1982) and referred to in Dumbarton Oaks as "Group (b)". Grierson notes :

  • these countermarks are unusual for having a rev and obv countermark that is always in the same die axis - made by a pincer like instrument similar to a bullotira used to make lead bullae

  • the countermarks are always found on heavy "reformed" folles (c.9-11 g) [however, my coin at 6.42g seems to deviate from that norm]

  • by 630 Heraclius would be typically have a long beard, and he highlights this as a "slowness of Sicily in following the East"

  • based on the style, the countermarks were likely made by workmen trained in Catania and applied in either Catania or Syracuse, reinforced by the description in DOC

Here are three examples of this countermark from DOC Plate XX.

Why did Heraclius countermark his own coins?

The weight of the follis mostly declined during his reign from ~11g to about 5g with a bit of bump up in weight (close to 11g) as he centralized minting at Constantinople at the end of the Persian War (RY 20, AD 628). There would be incentive to demonetizing older, heavier coins, and reauthorizing the lighter ones with a countermark, while reminting with the metal from the heavier ones. Flans could also be trimmed to recover metal and then reauthorized with a countermark.

Here's an illustration of the change in intrinsic value of a coin from Justinian to Heraclius. Both coins are Æ Follis or 40 Nummi. One could mint 3 of the OP Heraclius from the one Justinian (AD 541 RY 15: 21g v. AD 630 RY 21: 6.42g).

Heraclius, Khushro & the True Cross

Sasanian Kings, Husrav II Aparviz (Khosrau II), AD 591-628, AR Drachm (32mm, 4.14g), AHM (Hamadan) mint, RY 23 == AD 614].

Obv: Crowned bust right

Rev: Fire altar with ribbons; flanked by attendants; star and crescent flanking flames

How to read this coin.

Husrav took the True Cross from Jerulalem in 614, relocating it to Khuzistan. By 620 AD, Heraclius was almost driven from Constantinople by Sasanian offensives, but he regrouped and counter-attacked in 622. Fortune turned against the Sasanians who lost Anatolia and ultimately removed Husrav from control in 628.

This coin of Khosrau from AD 628:

Sasanian Kings, Husrav (Khosrau) II, AD 591-628, AR Drachm (31mm, 4.04g, 9h), YZ (Yazd) mint, dated RY 38 (AD 628 last year he reigned)

Obv: Bust right, wearing mural crown, korymbos set on crescent

Rev: Fire altar with ribbons; flanked by two attendants; star and crescent flanking flames

Ref: SC Tehran 4026-8; Sunrise –

Piero della Francesca in the mid-15th century painted a series of frescoes depicting the legend of the True Cross from the time the tree was planted to a depiction of the Annunciation. "The True Cross became famous over the centuries as it performed miracle after miracle. According to the legend, the Sassanian king Chosroes II (590-628; Khosrau in Persian [a.k.a. Husrav]) coveting its power, stole the relic and used it to subjugate his citizens. Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium, in A.D. 628 came with his troops to rescue the cross by force.", Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca, Battaglia di Eraclio e Cosroè, affresco, 356 x 747 cm, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are some questions around the recovery by Heraclius. (see Zuckerman cited in the references). There are pieces/fragments around the world, including one that the Guardian reports was saved from the fire in Notre Dame, Paris.

Attractive provenance: this coin of Heraclius is ex Doug Smith, well known contributor to CoinTalk, photographer, and author of a collection of educational articles that can be today found on forvm (apologies in advance to Doug Smith for what is certainly an understated and inadequately described bio). I enjoy his writing & insights on ancient coins and more broadly. A comment from Doug Smith connected with this coin on CoinTalk:

"I deny collecting them [Byzantine coins] but quite a few have followed me home."

This sounds familiar. References

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1 Comment

Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Jul 30, 2021

Sulla, Congrats on scoring this exceptional Byzantine coin with unusually fine counterstamps 😎. I've been on the lookout for a good example of a Heraclius bronze with an attractive counterstamp for a long time, & missed a good one at a recent CNG auction 😒. Excellent article with added research 😉.

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