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First Byzantine Coin to Depict the Virgin Mary


Leo VI the Wise. 886-912. AVSolidus (20mm, 4.30 g, 6h). Constantinople mint. Struck 886-908. LЄOҺ ЄҺ X • ω ЬASILЄЧS ROMωҺ, crowned bust facing, wearing jeweled loros, holding globus cruciger in right hand / + MARIA +, facing bust of the Virgin Mary, orans; (MHR)-ΘЧ across field. DOC 1a; Füeg 1; SB 1723. Near EF, a few light scratches. Extremely rare.

Ex “An Important Collection of Byzantine Coins” (Sincona 3, 25 October 2011), lot 3501; Leu 77 (12 May 2000), lot 876; Peus 268 (24 April 1968), lot 392.

Leo VI was born to Eudokia Ingerina in 866 and was either the illegitimate son of Michael III “the Drunkard” or the second son of Basil I. Although Leo was made direct heir to Basil in 879, the relationship between the two had long been strained by their marked differences in personality; Basil being ambitious in political affairs while Leo was inclined to a life of scholarship. While on his deathbed following a hunting accident in 886, Basil directly implicated Leo in conspiring to have him assassinated.

Surnamed “the Wise” or “the Philosopher,” Leo authored works on various political and theological subjects, but his best known scholarly achievements were his legal treatises and his commission to update and codify Byzantine laws. The result of these efforts was a 60-book work titled the Basilika (“Royal Laws”), which provided a timely reinterpretation of Justininian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, published over three centuries earlier. The Basilika would serve as the foundation for medieval law in the east.

Leo’s academic endeavors, however, were pursued at the expense of military matters, and the Empire suffered military defeats against the Bulgarians in the Balkans and the Arabs in Sicily and the Aegean.

The obverse marks the first appearance of the Virgin Mary on a Byzantine coin, while the reverse portrait of Constantine, with gaunt face and lengthy beard, perfectly captures the essence of the scholar consumed by his work.