When the doge’s coins ruled the world

Venice quietly grew into a regional hegemon in the High Middle Ages. It was a time of rapid growth and expansion. Massive population shifts following the collapse of the Roman Empire had finally settled down. Local identities were being developed among Franks, English, Serbs, Bulgarians, and others. Economic activity flourished and became more interconnected.

Venice’s position of relative safety on the northeast Italian coast – along with a few centuries of unique political evolution – let it take advantage of this changing environment in Europe. Money played a role. Only, it wasn’t just money in terms of wealth, but the type of money that more easily facilitated trade and gave the city-state success. Venetian coinage deserves recognition as one element – alongside its political structure, innovations in logistics, and more – that contributed to Venice’s expansive dominance in the Middle Ages.

The penny – or denarius – was the common type of coin in Europe under Charlemagne (800 AD). It was tiny. It also wasn’t well-suited for the type of commerce emerging by the 12th century. Venice was trading with the Byzantine lands and Islamic states in the eastern Mediterranean and preferred the larger coins found in those areas. When Venice introduced their own larger coin in the late 1100s, it quickly became a hit – but, first, a gonzo crusade helped it expand its footprint.

Venice, grosso of Doge Giovanni Soranzo 1320 (Biaggi 2814)
Venetian grosso of Doge Giovanni Soranzo, minted c1320. Biaggi 2814 (catalog reference).

The “denaro grosso” or big penny became known simply as the grosso. It was made from the highest purity of silver available at the time (98.5% fine) and featured the doge standing with St Mark on one side and Jesus enthroned on the other. This new coin appropriated key design elements from existing Byzantine coinage.

The simple iconography was powerful in how it modified the Byzantine style. It now asserted the Venetian mythology around St Mark, whose bones and relics were supposedly stolen from Alexandria centuries earlier and transported to Venice. It elevated the doge – Venetian for “duke” – to a place on coins typically reserved for emperors and kings. That claim to status would be important in Venice’s many clashes with the papacy in Rome. What’s more, it was stable. When a new doge assumed office, the name would change, but the coin would otherwise visually look almost entirely the same.

The Venetian grosso would be minted in this basic format for over 150 years. The grosso’s counterpart coin in gold – the ducat – would be minted until Napoleon conquered Italy and ended the Venetian Republic in 1797.

It’s important to remember that, while your uncle might holler about “fiat currency” and hoard gold, the value of a coin could change dramatically at the whim of issuing governments. An unstable government might change the formula of their 98% silver coins to as low as 2% silver, mixing in more copper or bronze. They could also simply say that one dollar from last year is now two dollars – by fiat! That was simply how fiscal policy was implemented before modern banking.

Debasement of coinage happened throughout history all around the world. Ancient Rome provided some especially egregious examples, where some “silver” coins contained around 2% silver (the rest being bronze) and a “silver wash” was applied, which Romans would flake off to keep for themselves! Needless to say, the stability and consistent high quality of Venetian coinage was a selling point.

Predecessors and imitators. From top left: Abbasid Caliphate, dinar of Harun al-Rashid (the caliph of the 1001 Nights and a contemporary of Charlemagne), minted 808; (greenish one) Byzantine billon trachy featuring a design that the Venetians imitated; (top middle) a denaro of Genoa used during the time when Venice used the grosso; a denaro of Verona, Venice's nearest influence, popular just before this period; an English penny of Henry III, halved.

The Fourth Crusade – the one where things just went off the rails and most Crusaders never even went to the Holy Lands, but sacked Constantinople instead – was the reason Venice started mass production of the grosso. It paid for the fleets and mercenaries heading out on the crusade. The sack of Constantinople led to Venice claiming more territory and gave rise to newly ascendant states like the Bulgarian Empire.

With Venice firming up their control of the Adriatic and establishing outposts like Chania in Crete, the grosso solidified its place as the dominant currency of the eastern Mediterranean. Soon, others copied it.

Byzantine basilikon of Andronicus II Palaeologus, with Michael IX, minted in Constantinople 1304-1320. Sear 2402.

As economic and political winds changed in the Byzantine Empire, a new coinage was introduced: the basilikon. This new coin was unabashedly a direct imitation of the now widely circulating Venetian grosso. In Greek, the grosso was called the “doukaton” or “the coin of the doge” – so this imitation would be called the “coin of the basileus” or basilikon, after the Byzantine monarch’s title. Both were commonly referred to as the “doukaton” in practice, though.

Like the grosso, first mass produced in Venice for a specific purpose to pay for the Fourth Crusade, the basilikon had a purpose as well: to pay mercenaries defending a shrinking empire. The basilikon was introduced in 1304 and mainly used as payment for the Catalan Company.

The Byzantines already lost most of what is now Turkey by the 1300s. The empire was reduced to mainly what is now Greece. In 1453, the Ottoman turks will finally defeat the Eastern Roman Empire, marking the end of the Middle Ages. First, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos will try fending off encroachment in Anatolia. There will only be eight more Byzantine emperors after him. The empire that Venice imitated for its own legitimacy was now imitating Venice.

Serbian dinar of Stefan Dragutin, minted 1276-1316. Jovanovic 5.

The Byzantine Empire was not only reduced in Anatolia. Areas north of Greece were impacted by population movements in the early Middle Ages. By the 1200s, those people were developing distinct cultural identities free of Greek or Roman influence.

The Serbian Kingdom was mainly focused on its immediate area. Hungary and Bulgaria were its main rivals, each as young kingdoms recently Christianized, but Venice was still the economic hegemon. Serbia’s first king even married a doge’s daughter.

As Serbia tried to assert itself, it developed a trade coinage imitating the Venetian grosso. Their dinar was practically identical to Venice’s model, swapping out the doge for the king and St Mark for Serbia’s then patron saint, St Stefan. Earlier Serbian coins featured only the king on one side before adopting this Venetian style paired with a saint.

Bulgarian grosh of Ivan Alexander, minted 1331-1371. This is an example of a harshly cleaned coin, likely by electrolysis, that removed the "skin" of the metal and left a pitted, shiny surface. Still, it is a fairly good example of the type as many are crudely off center or don't show the figures well.

Bulgaria claimed one of the larger land areas in southeast Europe. The instability around the Fourth Crusade allowed the Bulgarians to again break away from Byzantine control and establish the Second Bulgarian Empire. This time it would stick… until the Ottomans invade. In the interim, they would deepen their unique cultural identities much like the Serbs and Hungarians and others did at this time.

Still, the economic influence of Venice was hard to escape, even on the Black Sea. Bulgaria didn’t mint coinage as prolifically as others at this time, partly because Byzantine coinage remained in use, partly because of other economic factors limiting the use of coins. One of the more prevalent coinages issued by Bulgaria in the Middle Ages, though, was an especially crude Venetian imitation.

The grosh of Bulgaria took a more Byzantine approach to the coinage, using the diademed headdress and facial stylings more common in Greece. Some examples can be hard to distinguish as people.

The Venetian grosso’s success was copied elsewhere even when the design wasn’t copied. Sometimes it was spontaneous innovation, others more directly imitated what worked. German lands, for example, similarly moved away from the small penny to larger coins in the Middle Ages and called them “groschen” – a name inspired by “denaro grosso.” In France, it was the gros; England, the groat; Poland, the grosz; Turkey, the kuruş; in Arabic-speaking lands, the qirsh; even Ethiopia has the gersh. Not all of these places had a “large penny” coinage in the Middle Ages – or even existed as such then! – but the term became adopted into local languages across an expansive territory.

Groschen were still used in Germany up until unification in 1871 and the word stuck long after in vernacular, mainly in the north. In Austria, groschen were the small coins used up until introduction of the Euro. Grosz and kuruş are still used in Poland and Turkey respectively.