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Byzantine Empire, Justinian II gold Solidus NGC CH MS

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Listed as #93 in the Top 100 Greatest Ancient Coins book by Harlan J. Berk

Byzantine Empire
Justinian II, AD 705-711
Gold Solidus, NGC CH MS
Second Reign
Christ/Just. II & Tiberius

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The introduction of the depiction of Jesus Christ on Byzantine coins takes place under Justinian II, whose rule is separated into two distinct periods, before and after his exile from Constantinople.  During Justinian’s “First Reign” Christ appears for the first time on coinage, shown as a older bearded man with the traits of a classical philosopher, accompanied by the legend “Rex Regnantium” (“King of Kings”).  The famous scholar Ernst Kitzinger, has described this first rendition of Christ as follows: “Majestic, serene and benignly paternal, it conveys in human terms the Christian emperor’s ‘image’ of his heavenly Overlord.  It is a ‘portrait’ in the Hellenic tradition, in which the likenesses of mortals had met and merged with those of the eternal gods on the level of the generically human and humane.”  The priority of figures also was reversed on the coin, with the front proclaiming “Jesus Christ, Lord, King of those Reigning,” while Justinian’s name appears only on the reverse, with the title of “Servant of Christ” rather than the usual designations of imperial power.

During his return to power following his exile (the “Second Reign”), Justinian II continues to employ the portraiture of Christ on coinage, but opts for an entirely new image – a youthful portrait of a distinct eastern physiognomic type, with curly short-cropped hair and a kind, welcoming, expression.  It is an image likely based on the iconographical traditions of Christian Syria, and some have even argued that it originates in an icon of the “historical” Christ, the Christ before the Crucifixion.  As the French numismatist Lacam has suggested, this younger portrait is Christ the Messiah, whereas the earlier bearded effigy of the “First Reign” represents the Lord as Christ of the Ascension and Redemption.