Armband with Coins of Phokas and Maurice Tiberius

Coin jewelry, worn by the elite of ancient Greece and Rome, enjoyed a revival in early Byzantine times. Some pieces were made of medallions (such as the marriage belt) or pseudo-coins, while others, such as the Dumbarton Oaks bracelets, were made of real coins. Each cluster consists of a solidus (a gold denomination struck seventy-two to the Roman pound) surrounded by four tremissi (one third of a solidus). The same composition can be seen on a necklace around the neck of a suitably adorned figure of the noble martyr Sergios in the British Museum. The use of money in jewelry expresses in literal terms what is always true of jewelry, that it operates as social currency, displaying and negotiating the wearer's position. The wearer of these bracelets, almost certainly male, was displaying his superior social status through the precious materials, and may even have been hinting at a certain relationship to the court of the emperors depicted on the coins.

The dating of Byzantine jewelry is difficult, but in this case there are two clues. One is the reigns of the emperors named on the coins, Maurice Tiberius (582-602), Phokas (602-10), and Heraclius (610-41), which indicate that the earliest possible date is 610, the accession of Herakleios. The other clue is technical. Both the construction of the hoops of tubular gold decorated with tiny rows of beading, as well as the use of trefoils to fill the gaps between the coins, are known from other seventh-century gold objects believed to have come from Antinoe in Egypt. If this is true, the bracelets probably date before 640, when Arab rule began asserting itself.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016