An exhibition just opened in Birmingham explores the golden age of Byzantium through its internationally accepted coinage, writes Terry Grimley.
As trade spread across the world in the Middle Ages money, naturally enough, accompanied it.
It took the form of miniature works of art, bearing images which reflected the cultural and religious allegiances of the trading nations, and the complicated and sometimes surprising exchanges between them.
The exhibition Encounters, just opened at the Barber Institute, is devoted to tracing some of these complexities, exploring the dominance of the Byzantine Empire from the late fifth century onwards. Because coins are a miniature medium, an exhibition spanning 1,000 years of history and a vast geographical canvas can be accommodated in the Barber's tiny coin gallery.
The exhibition is a collaboration with the British Museum, where it opened last summer to coincide with the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies. It draws on the Barber and BM collections, with additional material from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a few other collections including museums in Georgia, Serbia and Greece.
"The way forward for museums nowadays is collaboration," says Eurydice Georganteli, keeper of the Barber Institute's coin collection.
"This is the result of five years' work. When I first arrived here in 2000 my first idea was this exhibition. It took us a while because first we had to get the exhibition space refurbished.
"I think Encounters is so timely, because it's about cultural identity, inter-faith dialogue and what makes European identity. It's also about Europe, the Middle East and countries as far away as China. So it's all very relevant to the 21st century."
Thanks to a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council a small but lavishly produced book has been published to accompany the exhibition.
"It's a very appealing book for non-numismatists," says Dr Georganteli. "I mostly produced the narrative because it was very close to home. We began work on it at the end of February 2006 and it was ready for the congress in August 2006, so it was sometimes 18-hour day work."
The exhibition covers the centuries which followed the deposition of the last Western Roman emperor in 476, with the subsequent shift of power from Rome to Constantinople.
"It's a shift from the western to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and Constantinople becomes a crossroads of culture and faith," says Dr Georganteli.
"The Byzantines were great diplomats, so they tried to avoid war as far as possible.
"Large medals were given as gifts to barbarians. Icons and relics were offered as well, and Byzantine princesses were sent to the West to marry.
"Sometimes we think the medieval world was one where things were not controlled, but this was not the case. In the Byzantine empire everything was monitored. We have seals with which they marked goods at customs posts. If you cheated at customs you were in great, great trouble."
Along with its political influence, Byzantium's coins, particularly its gold solidus, spread right across Europe. In an era when the euro is seen by many people as a threat to Britain's way of life, it is remarkable to reflect that Byzantine coins were accepted currency here in the early medieval period.
The extent of connections between Britain and Byzantium is still coming to light, because the rate of discovery of coins and other objects lost or hoarded in the 6th and 7th century has begin to accelerate with the advent of metal detectors.
The finest collection of Byzantine silver plate ever unearthed in Western Europe was found at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, while of the nine surviving examples of Byzantine buckets – believed to be drinking vessels – three were found in Britain.
One of the most remarkable exhibits in Encounters is the so-called Wilton Cross, a piece of jewellery found in Wilton, Norfolk, which incorporates a gold solidus of Emperor Heraklios, issued at Constantinople in 613-30.
"Something people don't realise is that Britain was on the edge of the medieval world," says Dr Georganteli.
"It was in touch with Byzantium, and all sorts of luxury items found their way here. A flask with holy water or oil could travel all the way from Alexandria to Canterbury, which shows a mobility which is not something we associate with people in medieval times."
The exhibition also explores Byzantium's influence in Scandinavia – where warriors were recruited for the Emperor's Varangian Guard – Hungary and Serbia.
It shows how countries began to produce their own coinage in imitation of Byzantium's, with even early Islamic coins borrowing ready-made images, from which crosses were eliminated.
The era of Constantinople's ascendancy ended when it fell to the Crusaders in 1204. it is recorded that when one British crusader, Robert Marsh, set off in 1201 the property he took with him included 22 "bezants", as Byzantine coins had come to be known in Britain.
"After the fourth Crusade in 1204, it's interesting to see the Crusaders copying Byzantine and Islamic coins," says Dr Georganteli.
"For me the best part is the inter-faith exchange between the West and Middle East. Today we try to talk to each other but often it is on a superficial level and we don't understand.
"Faith dialogue is part of political dialogue. Unless we educate young people in the values of other religions it will be on a level that is not substantial."
Encounters: Travel and Money in the Byzantine World is at the Barber Institute, Birmingham University, until January 15 2008 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm).