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Gold Histamenon

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The histamenon (lit. 'standard coin') was a name for the Byzantine solidus that was that was coined in 906 AD in order to differentiate it from a lighter gold coin then but recently introduced, known as the tetarteron. The histamenon (later called stamenon) was originally a Byzantine solidus which was modified into what would later become a thinner, wider, and more concave shape (scyphate) which would become a typical feature of many Byzantine gold coins. [1]

The origin of the histamenon began with Constantine I's replacement of the Roman aureus with a new standard coin known as the solidus in 309 AD. Bearing a standard weight of 4.55 grams and a gold content of exactly 24 carats, the solidus became the primary coinage of the latter Roman Empire as well as the Byzantian Empire. The standard solidi became the coin of the whole of the Byzantine Empire until a name-change was required due to the creation of a new type of gold coin known as tetarteron (lit. 'quarter coin') by the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. The tetarteron was two carats short of the original standard solidus, and the latter took on the name of histamenon which signified that it 'stood up' to the traditional standard gold content of the original Byzantine currency. This confusing change in coinage seems to have very little reason in the doing, although some historians have suggested that the emperor had decided on such a course of action for fiscal motives, as it was said that all the taxes he levied were collected with histamenon coins, while he paid back and circulated the tetarteron coins – a big boon on the emperor's part, who was two carats happier than the taxed citizens of Byzantine. Despite being two carats short of the original standard, the emperor rated its value as equal to that of the solidus / histamenon. [2]

Originally identical in every respect save its weight and its name, the tetarteron of Basil II came to be thicker and small compared to the histamenon, while the latter became thinner and wider. A further distinguishing aspect was its transformation from a flat coin into a scyphate – a concave coin with generous rims that curved into a cup-shape, acting as a border or margin to the face centered by the time of Michael IV the Paphlagonian (around 1035 – 1036). These drastic iconographic changes were conceived due to the need for more durability. Since the histamenon retained the standard gold content of 24 carats in comparison to the slightly lighter tetarteron, it needed to be reinforced to withstand daily wear and tear – with the concave shape resulting in a stronger coin that wasn't as easily bent as flat ones. These scyphate histamena came to be known as histamena trachea (lit. 'uneven') due to their weirdly irregular shape and became the standard 'look' of nearly all examples of histamena by the time of Isacc I Komnenos. [3]

The gold content of the histamemon didn't remain at a constant 24 carats throughout the whole span of the Byzantine Empire however, as, like the aureus before it, it too fell prey to the ravages of debasement. The debasement of the stamenon or histamenon (usually only referred to in some accounts as the debasement of the Byzantine solidus) began with the reign of Michael IV, a former money lender who began to slowly lower the gold content of Byzantine solidi (histamenon). Despite this minute debasement, the currency still remained strong, experiencing some stability alongside the now positively more debased tetarteron from 1055 – 1070, until further debasement struck as the years passed. The eventual gold content of the histamena was drastically reduced to a low 16 carat gold content by around 1075, until it lost all trace of gold by the time of Alexios I Komnenos (around 1085 – 1089). In 1092, Alexios I issued a new monetary system that would replace the histamenon / solidus with another gold coin which would become a standard gold coin in its own right before succumbing to debasement as well – the hyperpyron. [4] Today, histamena are collected as investment coins, although their relative rarity and valuable nature usually make them prized possessions that are rarely parted with. Some examples of histamena / solidi are even worn as protective amulets or pendants, while earlier histamena that were not yet highly debased are sometimes employed in much the same way as modern bullion coin owing to their high gold content.

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Content researched and created by Alexander Leonhart for © 2012

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