byzantine coin

That’s my hand, and in it is my Byzantine coin. It’s less than an inch in diameter and weighs about the same as a quarter. It was presented to me as a gift by a member of my family who I believe bought it off Ebay–I have no idea what she paid for it. Near as I can tell, it’s a little more than 1,500 years old.

You can’t really see it well in this picture because the surface of the coin is so pitted, but there is a face on the coin as well as Latin lettering. Not all of it can be made out, but I believe the emperor depicted is Anastasius I, who reigned from 491 to 518 A.D.

These sorts of coins are not uncommon. Just doing a search on Ebay, I found a lot of Byzantine coins for sale, ranging in price from a few dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on their composition and how good shape they’re in. I doubt my Anastasius coin, which is bronze, is one of the more prized relics to survive from Byzantium, but this coin clearly has a fascinating life story.

Think about this for a moment. Let’s just assume the coin was minted in Constantinople in 513 A.D., 1500 years ago. That’s 37 and a half times the amount of time I’ve been alive and six and a half times longer than the United States has been in existence. In 513 A.D., Britain may have been ruled by King Arthur, if he existed. In Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization was not yet at its peak. China was split into two kingdoms, north and south. Islam did not yet exist, as Mohammed wasn’t yet born. Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t be born for another thousand years. Gunpowder, mechanical clocks and the printing press were centuries in the future.

Yet somehow this tiny chunk of metal survived all that time. It survived the Plague of Justinian, countless sieges by the Persians, Bulgarians, Saracens and Turks, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the Cold War and computer revolution. Imagine how many countless people have handled this coin over the course of its life, and how 99.9% of them are dead, most of them for centuries. This coin was on a shelf, in a box, or somebody’s pocket on the day of the Declaration of Independence, the night Lincoln was shot, the moment the Titanic slipped beneath the waves, and the instant the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Think of the people whose entire lives from birth to death were lived while this coin has continued to exist: Genghis Khan, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Adolf Hitler, and John F. Kennedy.

Staggering as it is, this coin may just be beginning its life. It will almost certainly still be in existence on the day I die. It will probably outlast your children, your grandchildren, and their grandchildren. It’s existed for 1500 years; what’s a few more? It may be in somebody’s pocket on the day humanity makes contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, or, if we’re unfortunate, the day human civilization ends. This coin might outlast the human race.

That’s a profound thought.