Changes in Coin Circulation in the Northern Balkans (6th-8th c.): Intersections of Economic and Scientific Evidence for the “Barbarian Invasions.”

The invasions of the Slavs, Avars, Antes, and Bulgars in the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine Empire during the 6th and 7th centuries have become the de facto explanation for the changes in coin circulation that we see in the Northern Balkans in this period. The increased hoarding and the decreased number of coins, both in excavations and stray finds, have been used by various scholars for demonstrating the depopulation of the Balkans,[1] tracing the paths of allegedly unknown invasions,[2] and proving the loss of Byzantine control over these provinces.[3] Traditional scholarship, rooted in and therefore strongly influenced by discourses of meta-narratives like communism and nationalism, has tried to look for arguments in favor either of continuities and discontinuities in the region to suit the dominant meta-narrative in a particular country.[4] However, more recent work by a number of scholars, notably Florin Curta, Andrei Gândilǎ, Alexander Sarantis, and many others, has problematized the methodological approaches that have been used to draw these conclusions, the lack of comparative perspectives with other regions of the Byzantine Empire, and the biases of different “national” schools of historiography and numismatics. Monocausality – the idea of using the “barbarian invasions” as both a cause and effect of the financial and political troubles that the Byzantine Empire encountered in the course of the 6th and 7th centuries – risks simplifying complex processes that involve issues of supply and demand, land and tax administration, fluid political and cultural identities on the Roman frontier, and land use change to a simple narrative of conflict, destruction, and cultural-economic decline.  Unfortunately, their focus on the late 6th century has left the changes of the 7th century and their effects in the 8th century outside of the scope of their works. This is why this paper attempt to qualify the impact of the barbarian invasions by putting the economic approach of Curta, the comparative framework of Gândilǎ, and the scientific analyses of Sarantis in conversation with the archaeological and numismatic evidence for the changes in the 7th and 8th century. It will argue that the “barbarian invasions” should not be used as the decisive reason for the observed disruption in coin circulation in the interior of the Northern Balkans. Instead, economic patterns of supply and demand (inflation, lack of metal, imports of annona) and societal changes (ruralization, evacuation or destruction of military garrisons) would have played a more important role and would help explain why coin circulation in the Northern Balkans did not recover from the invasions between 615 and 628 in the same way that it had recovered from previous invasions in the 550s and 570s-580s. This paper was conceived as a project for a graduate seminar with Professor Alan Stahl and was later expanded into a junior paper for the Medieval Studies certificate at Princeton University. It is the author’s hope that the results of this paper will be presented at an upcoming conference event in Medieval Studies and further refined for eventual publication.

[1] Cécile Morrisson, Vladislav Popović, and Vujadin Ivanišević, Les trésors monétaires byzantins des Balkans et d’Asie Mineure (491-713) (Paris: Lethielleux, 2006), 84, Vujadin Ivanišević and Pavle Popović, “Les Monnaies Protobyzantines en Pannonie Seconde,“ in Sirmium à l’époque des grandes migrations, ed. Ivana Popović, Michel Kazanski and Vujadin Ivanišević (Leuven : Peeters, 2017), 242, Stoyan Mihaylov, “Life-span of the Settlements in the Provinces of Moesia Secunda and Scythia as Evidenced by Coin Finds (Late 5th – Early 7th c. AD),” in The Lower Danube Roman Limes (1st – 6th C. AD), ed. Lyudmil Vagalinski, Nicolay Sharankov, and Sergey Torbatov (Sofia: National Archaeological Institute and Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 2012), 464.

[2] Vladislav Popović, “Aux origines de la slavisation des Balkans: la constitution des premières sklavinies macédoniennes vers la fin du VIe siècle,” Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 124, no. 1 (1980): 230-257, Morrisson, Popović, and Ivanišević, Les trésors monétaires, 133-134.

[3] Kamen Stanev,  “Coin Circulation in the Early Medieval Thrace, the Beginning of VII – Beginning of IX Centuries,” in Istorikii tom 4. Nauchni izsledvaniya v chest na Profesor DIN Ivan Karayotov po sluchay negovata 70-godishnina, ed. Ivan Yordanov, Rositsa Angelova, Konstantin Konstantinov, and Todor Todorov (Shumen: Universitetsko izdatelstvo „Episkop Konstantin Preslavski“, 2011), 115.

[4] For a discussion of these meta-narratives, see Andrei Gândilǎ, Cultural encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 4-6.