By the time Rome fell in 476 AD, after a hundred years of struggle against Goths, Huns and other barbarians, the nucleus of the empire had long since moved east to Constantinople, today Istanbul.
The emperor Constantine I had declared it a ‘New Rome’ in 330 AD, and this ‘Eastern Roman Empire’ would survive another thousand years, a trading hub and military buffer between Europe and Asia, before it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
We may call it the ‘Byzantine Empire’ today, but its citizens called themselves Romans and their empire was, to them at least, the Roman Empire. Its zenith came during the reign of Justinian I, who ruled during 527–565, when much of North Africa, as well as Italy and Rome itself, had fallen under its authority.
War with the Sasanians to the east in the early 7th century, however, exhausted the empire’s resources, and paved the way for the Muslim invaders to take many of its richest provinces from Egypt to Syria.
Byzantine money, meanwhile, followed the trajectory of the money of most empires: it started sound, and ended worthless.
Diocletian had introduced the solidus in 301 AD to Rome to replace the aureus, and under Constantine I use of the solidus became widespread. Constantine I, or Constantine the Great as he is known, must be one of the more capable individuals who ever lived. Despite being of low birth, he fought and won battles as far afield as Persia and Britain, emerged victorious from the Roman civil wars, relocated Rome to Byzantium, founded an empire that lasted 1,000 years and eradicated the rampant inflation that had infiltrated the empire with the implementation of the solidus, the gold coin that became the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for hundreds of years.
The solidus was 4.5 grams of gold, and it remained essentially unaltered in weight, dimensions and purity, until the 10th century. Most were minted in Constantinople itself, but other cities of the empire such as Thessalonica, Rome, Syracuse, Alexandria, Carthage, and Jerusalem would also mint coins. In medieval Europe, one solidus was worth 12 silver pennies, and the Italian word for money, ‘soldi’, has its roots there. In Western Europe, the valued Byzantine solidus also became known as the “bezant”, although legally solidi were not supposed to be exported beyond the empire – else how would the emperor get his taxes?
Smaller denomination money tended to be bronze. Silver was not as widespread as it had been under the Greeks or Romans.
It was in the 11th century that the debasement began in earnest. The debasement was gradual at first then accelerated rapidly – heard that one before? The carats were reduced from 24, to 21 then to 18; to 16, to 14 to 8 and eventually below. That process took 50 years. The solidus was then abandoned and replaced with another coin, the hyperpyron. By the time Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, Byzantium had stopped issuing gold coins altogether. The silver stavraton was the currency.
Constantinople may have fallen, the Byzantine empire may have gone, but the golden constant had not. It lived on elsewhere.
Thanks to victory in battle, exhausted Byzantine and Sasanian empires, astute occupation of trade routes and promises of equal treatment for all, within three decades of the death of Mohammad in 632AD, the Islamic empire had become one of the largest in the world. Arabian solidi, minted from the captured gold supplies of the upper Nile, were soon circulating.
The Islamic armies swept across North Africa and eventually into Spain. All fell before them. Conquered lands put up little resistance. Heavily burdened with taxes as they were under their previous regimes, they had neither the means nor the inclination. “In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate”, exhorted a conquering general, “become Muslim and be saved. If not, accept protection from us and pay the poll tax. If not, I shall come against you with men who love death as you love wine”. Death, taxes or Islam – that was the choice. Many chose Islam. Even those who did not convert were often glad of the relief the Islamic invaders brought. The largest body of converts were Christians.
Islamic money soon followed, and, just as they would leave existing tax structures in place, the Islamic conquerors mimicked the money of their predecessors. Even the word dinar comes from the Latin denarius. But the denarius was a silver coin, the Arabic dinar was 4.4 grams of gold, similar in weight to the solidus. However, the overtly Christian symbolism inscribed on the solidus would, first, become religiously innocuous pillars on the Arabic equivalent and, eventually, simple inscriptions, expressing the ruler’s faith.
The silver dirham – about 3 grams of silver – also came into widespread use. Like the Roman denarius, and the Greek tetradrachm before it, these tended to be minted wherever soldiers would be receiving their pay – from Andalusia in Spain, through North Africa to Georgia, as far as Pakistan and India.
Islamic gold coinage became one of the senior currencies of the medieval world, especially across the Mediterranean. Silver dirhams even reached Scandinavia, probably as a result of the fur trade.
The word dirhem derives from the Greek drachma, meaning handful, although, like the dinar, the dirhem was a measure of weight. Both the dinar and the dirhem predate Mohammed, even if they were embraced by his successors. Currencies of the same name are widely used throughout the Arab world today, from the Moroccan dirham to the Kuwaiti dinar, although sadly, like their western counterparts, which have also kept their names, none have kept their underlying gold or silver.
* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.