The Lower Case B in Eastern Roman Coins: Or How to Fall Down the Numismatic Rabbit Hole in just a Few Short Tweets…
It all started so innocently.
I was just showing a Twitter follower, @lightspeedkwc, the latest addition to my coin collection that had arrived in the post that more morning. (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.1614865888783241.1073741841.1451452015124630&type=1&l=1857b58065)
As inquisitive types, we were both struck by what appeared to be the peculiarities of sixth century legend engravers…
Six hours later, I was stuck trying to find the Unicodes for a capital “U” with a tail, a backwards capital “U” with a tail, and what looks like a Graeco-Latin version of what would later become the Cyrillic letter Ч (che)…
Just how the hell did I get here?!?
In the right light, I was able to identify DN MA[VRI?] TIbER PP A and match it to a few similar types with a brief internet search. However, the various legends and seeming lack of consistency raised a query.
If you cannot quite make it out, we have DN MAVR* TIb PP AV
And then the rabbit hole-opening questions came out…
“This will just take a quick search on the Internet,” I thought. It will probably be a choice from a single mint or even engraver and of course, the letter “B” is not that frequently used in the Latin language, if the “B” section in my Latin dictionary is anything to go by.
What a fool I was…
After visiting my usual online numismatic sources of information –
I found out to my horror that “B” is used far more on Roman imperial coinage than you might expect…
Upwards of two dozen emperors, empresses and usurpers have made use of “B” in their coinage – Tiberius, Galba, Sabina, wife of Hadrian, Zenobia, Probus, Bonosus to name but six.
And that is before you start looking at another twenty abstract concepts like Abundantia, Libertas, or Reipublicae, places like Britain, Orbis or Urbs, or even in a preposition like ob…
Fortunately for my sanity, virtually none of these fell into the category of using the lower case “b.”
Starting with Mauricius, a cursory search showed that my new coin is not some kind of anomaly. The lower case “b” was used quite frequently on those issues using Mauricius Tiberius’ full name. Furthermore, from the examples below, you can see that this lower case “b” was issued from more than one mint, somewhat undermining the idea that it might have been the work of a specific workshop or engraver.
Mauricius Tiberius, Solidus. Thessalonica. DN MAVRC (or MAVRIC) TIb PP AVG, SB 502; MIB 21; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/byz/maurice/i.html
Mauricius Tiberius, Solidus, Constantinople, D N MAVRC TIb P P AVC, DOC I 2c; SB 474; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/byz/maurice/i.html
Given that Mauricius got his Tiberian name from his imperial father-in-law, it was then appropriate to see if Tiberius II used the lower case. And again we find “TIb” appearing on issues from various mints – Constantinople, Nicomedia, Cyzicus, Antioch, Carthage, Ravenna. Clearly this lower case “b” was an established practice for Tiberius II’s reign in 578-582.
Tiberius II Constantine, Solidus, Constantinople, VICTOR TI-bERI AVG
Berk 75; DO 2; MIB 2; Sear 420; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/byz/tiberius_II/i.html
Tiberius II Constantine, AE Three-quarter follis, Cyzicus, DM TIb CONSTANT PP AVI
SB 445; DOC 37; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/byz/tiberius_II/i.html
But what about before Tiberius II?
Unfortunately, there had been no emperor with a “b” in their name for a century before Tiberius II, the imperial throne having been held by Justins, Justinians, Anastasiuses and Zenos,. To find another imperial “B” you have to look back to the brief reign of the usurper Basiliscus in 475-476. And low and behold, his coinage frequently used the lower case “b” even as the initial letter of his name from more than one mint.
Basiliscus, Solidus, Thessalonica, D N bASILIS-CVS P F AVG
RIC X 1012; Sear 21478; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/basiliscus/i.html
Basiliscus, Solidus, Constantinople, D N bASILIS-CVS P P AVG
RIC X 1003; Sear 21477; http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/basiliscus/i.html
Finally, resorting to the Roman Imperial Coinage (which I should probably have gone to much… much sooner…), I learned that the lower case “b” first appeared on coins “the miniscule b is first found on solidi of Theodosius II (Feliciter Nubtiis of Theodosius II (RIC X.61, 260 n.267, a marriage issue, celebrating the wedding of Valentinian III and Licinia Eudoxia in 437).
The continuing problem though is why were engravers suddenly resort to a lower case? Was it as @lightspeedkwc stated from the off that it was linked to the creeping influence of Greek in the hierarchies of the Eastern Roman Empire? Was it a conscious choice made by imperial officials or the individual workshop or engraver? Or was it that “the exact forms of letters often depended on the skill of the engraver”? (RIC X.61)
Such “mindless compliance… with little understanding of what was intended” (RIC X.114) could also lead to the rather spectacular mixture of “b” and “B” in RIC X.304 n.1027 which contains the legend bASILISCI ET MABS P AVG and the mint mark CONOB.
And it was with the name of Basiliscus that I ended up in the world of unicodes and Cyrillic-looking letters. Distracting me from the lower case “b” was the various forms of the Roman “u” and “V” used in imperial legends. The aforementioned capital “U” with a tail, backwards capital “U” with a tail, and the somewhat Cyrillic looking Ч being used to signify various things within the name itself so the “Ч” in bASILISCЧS might signify both “U” and Virtus i.e. virtue, valour, manliness etc (RIC X.62).
This “wild-goose chase through the internet” uncovered plenty of other strange occurrences such as more lower case letters being used seemingly at random but I am going to leave those to the side before I go anymore cross-eyed…