A Coin of the Despots of the Morea


As early as the 1260's Michael VIII had recovered some of the the southern cities of the Peloponnese (the Morea) from the crusaders, and by the later 14th century most of the region was again in Byzantine hands. From c.1350 the Morea was ruled by the "Despots" - generally junior members of the ruling Palaeologan family in Constantinople - from their administrative capital at Mistra, near Sparta. It has generally been thought that the despots issued no coins locally, perhaps relying primarily on Frankish style coins such as the Venetian tornesello, the successer to the billon tornese, for petty coinage. However, following a new reassessment of some old finds it now seems quite likely that at least one type of coin, in modern terms a follaro, was issued by the despots some time during the reign of Manuel II.

In the 1900's, and particularly the 1920's, the British excavations at Sparta yielded, among other things, around 250 examples of a small flat coin, apparently of copper or bronze, weighing on average c.0.6g, with a legend in the name of Manuel. At the time it seems that these coins were dismissed as a variant type of the generally similar small tetarteron S.1981 of Manuel I Comnenus, and as a result they essentially disappeared from numismatic consciousness. (These types are virtually unknown outside Sparta, and only two or three other examples of the type - equally unnoticed - have turned up at other sites)*.

In 2006 Julian Baker published a review of these coins in Revue Numismatique**, in which he identified them, on the basis of their design and provenance, as separate issues of the Morea from the time of Manuel II. He assumed that they had probably been minted at Mistra, the administrative capital, or perhaps Monemvasia, the important Byzantine port and stronghold in the south-eastern Peloponnese.

The Type.

The size and design of the Sparta coins is basically quite similar to that of the "mandorla" type follaro S.2560 of Manuel II at Constantinople, but with some clear and consistent differences.

The obverse shows a bearded and nimbate Christ standing, raising his right hand in blessing and holding the gospels in his left. He stands.in front of what appears to be a large halo, which Baker calls a "gloriole"; this is similar to a mandorla, but is circular rather than oval, and is here located behind the figure of Christ, rather than around it. Sometimes IC-XC appears, always inside the gloriole (as opposed to outside the mandorla on S.2560). The gloriole also doubles as the innermost of two dotted borders, giving the effect of a double border. (In fact, in my opinion the "gloriole" may well be nothing more than a double border over which the figure of Christ is superimposed, but this is of no matter here). Sometimes dots or rosettes are found between the borders, and rosettes, triangles of dots, and various other symbols are sometimes also found at various locations in the field.

On the reverse the ruler, with a full and usually forked beard, stands wearing a simplified loros, holding a large sceptre cruciger in his right hand, while his left hand is held in front of the waist, holding perhaps a very small akakia(?). The reverse legend is usually M/N-H//\. Again, there are often symbols of various sorts in various locations in the field.

Stylistically, the Sparta types are generally quite different from their metropolitan equivalents. On the whole they are better drawn, although the emperor is usually shown as a rather squat and squarish figure with a large head. There is also more detail; the hair of Christ in particular is shown fully defined, as are the beards of both figures. In fact, the superior style of these types supports Baker's suggestion that the die-cutters were recruited from the west, most likely Italy.

I would like to show some pictures of the coins from the article, but this would possibly be infringing copyright; a picture of an example (the Despot coin mentioned in the footnotes of this article) can be accessed through Coin Archives (but not, it seems, acsearch), and two examples can also be found in the ANS collection, as also noted below.


The provenance of the Sparta coins, taken with the similarities (and differences) between them and their metropolitan counterparts, would seem to clearly justify Baker's assignments of these types to the Morea and the time of Manuel II.

One obvious question that arises is whether the identification of the Sparta type suggests that other issues of the Morea are still to be found. This is not impossible, but the main impression left by the present type is its obvious failure to make any mark outside Sparta, even though it would seem, from the numerous and varied styles of die evident in the find, to have been issued in quite large numbers, and possibly that there were several separate issues of the type. This failure to thrive was very possibly because, unlike its most direct Venetian counterpart, the billon tornesello, the Sparta type was a purely fiat coin containing (it would seem) no silver; but whatever the reason it raises a serious question over the long term viability of the type in the Morea in general.

This doubt is reinforced by another line of reasoning. It seems likely that the great bulk of the coins found at Sparta were ultimately from just one cache, which included only one other contemporary type (a tornesello); furthermore, it is noticable that the coins were struck from a large number of different dies, and Baker therefore suggests that these coins were part of a recall of the type. If this is so, it may have been (it occurs to me) because of the ultimate failure of the type to gain acceptance, in which case it may be that the Sparta type was a once off experiment that was never repeated.

*   There was an example of this type in the Despot sale, as LHS Numismatics Sale 97, Lot 363.5 (not illustrated). This coin was offered (but not sold) as Lot 496 in Elsen's Auction 90 and then sold as Lot 589 of Berk's BBS 156 (all listed as S.2560 of Manuel II). It seems to be a die match for coin No. 0017 from Sparta.

For two other apparent examples of the type (listed as standard issues of Constantinople) see ANS 1956.174.8 and ANS 1982.125.65. The last coin is possibly the one from Chalkis mentioned by Baker on p. 401 of his article.

**  Julian R. Baker, "A coinage for late Byzantine Morea under Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425)", Revue Numismatique, 2006, pp.395-416, Pl. XLI, XLII. This article is available on the Persee website at http://www.persee.fr/web/revues (the plates are listed separately from the text).

Note that Baker describes the Sparta coins, and the similar metropolitan types, as tornese, rather than follari (which in turn requires him to take the heavier "Ae tornese" types to be folles, i.e, follari). This is because he wants to argue that the Sparta types were intended to copy, and presumably be exchangeable with, the Venetian torneselli which circulated in Frankish Greece in this period, and in fact that they could have been the inspiration for the similar Constantinople follari of Manuel II, rather than the other way around.

This theory seems unlikely to me - the Ae tornese was surely the Byzantine replacement for the earlier billon tornese; whatever the Ae tornese was tariffed at domestically, it was worth, in real terms, perhaps a quarter of the billon type (which contained, in later times, c.0.1 gms of silver - not a great amount, but still equivalent to about 10 gms or so of copper), while the lighter Byzantine follaro was evidently a later(?) type with an even lower value. Thus the Spartan follaro type coins can hardly have ever been a serious competitor for the tornesello, a billon coin with a much higher real value. (Baker suggests that the Sparta type may have been silver coated, although he admits that there is no evidence of this on the available coins).

In any case, whether or not the Sparta type was intended to copy the tornesello, it's clear that the it never gained any real acceptance outside its local area.


Ross Glanfield

February 2009.


    22 Feb. '09:  Revised and expanded.  
    23 Feb. '09:  Baker's theory of tornesello equivalence questioned.  
    24 Feb. '09:  Despot coin noted.  
    30 Apr. '11:  ANS examples noted.


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