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PEUCE, S.N. II (XV), Tulcea, 2004, p. 285 - 296





THE COINAGE OF THE GENOESE SETTLEMENTS

OF THE WESTERN BLACK SEA SHORE AND ON THE DANUBE


Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu




During the 13th-15th centuries the historical sources frequently mention the presence of the
Genoese in the area of the Western Black Sea shore, on the present territories of Bulgaria,
Romania and south-western Ukraine (Bessarabia). The deeds so far published show that the ports
of Messembria, Anchialos, Varna, Kaliakra, Vicina, Chilia, Licostomo and Moncastro were the
main places which focused the attention of the Genoese merchants, but it is quite reasonable to
suppose that some other towns, as those located at Nufăru, Isaccea, Hârşova, Cernavoda (in
Romania) or Silistra (in Bulgaria), near the Danubian Delta, were visited as well. Certainly, the
huge economic potential of the Black Sea region was known to the Genoese since the second half
of the 12th century, but they could play an important role only after 1261, when the Byzantine
Empire recovered Constantinople and opened the Bosphorus. Soon, from the 1280’s, the Genoese
established permanent prosperous and powerful commercial communities in the main centres of
the area, which were granted by the local authorities with the right to establish their own quarters,
legal, financial and religious institutions. Often, these communities were large enough to be lead
by consuls or vice-consuls1.

It was a long way, however, from the economic penetration to achieving the political
control, to which the right to struck their own coinage was directly connected. Judging by the
formal prohibition contained in their “Statuti” for the local Genoese authorities of the main
Eastern establishments of Pera and Caffa to engage in any kind of activities related to the
coinage, provisions reinforced several times over the next decades, it should be hard enough to
conceive that the new Overseas communities were always ready to launch themselves in such
enterprises. On the other hand, because the largest part of the international trade of the Genoese
merchants undertaken in the Aegean or the Black Sea regions was carried-out using the local
coinages: Byzantine hyperpera, Golden Horde, Trapezuntine or various Turkish aspers, cast
silver ingots (sommi), or Venetian gold ducats2, there was little pressure to strike their own
coinage, as long as the local or foreign currency was sufficiently available and stable enough to
cover the needs of the commercial traffic. Due to the fact that the right to strike its own coinage
was during the Middle Ages a mark of full autonomy or sovereignty, if such a right was not the
result of a unilateral grant of an overlord toward a vassal ruler, it could only be achieved or
imposed by the use of force.

Or for quite a long while, the balance of the military power between the local rulers and
the Genoese in the Western Black Sea area was utterly unequal, so they were content to limit
their actions and to enjoy only the granted economic advantages. During the last decades of the
13th century, at the very moment of the foundation of the first Genoese trade colonies, the
region of the Black Sea and Danubian shores from Messembria to Vicina was more or less
under the Byzantine rule. In some cases, such as the region of the Mouths of the Danube, the
present day Dobrudja, some local Christian lordships of Byzantine tradition existed under the
overlordship of the Mongol ruler Noghay. All the territories northward of the Danube till the

1 Balard 1978 (I), 143-150; Iliescu 1989, 26-29; Papacostea 1985, 29-42; Papacostea 1997, 277-283.
2 Balard 1978 (II), 643-672.

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286 ERNEST OBERLÄNDER-TÂRNOVEANU

Dnester, where the town of Moncastro was located, and beyond it, were under the direct
control of the Golden Horde. Later, starting with 1285-6, the Mongols gradually extended their
domination over the territories situated south of the Danube, over Dobrudja and Northeastern
parts of Bulgaria, till Varna3. During the first half of the 14th century the region situated
between Varna and Messembria was the theatre of the struggle between the Byzantine Empire
and Bulgaria for its control (IB 1982 302-43). For the largest part of the period the region
remained under the Imperial rule, although starting with the 1320’s a local Christian lordship
emerged in the area between Kaliakra, Karbona and Varna, in the “Land of Karbona”, which
kept strong contacts with the Constantinopolitan authorities4.

The first opportunities for the Genoese authorities from the region of the Western Black
Sea shore to create fully autonomous political constructions appeared during the troubled times
from the beginnings of the 14th century, and especially after 1361, when the Golden Horde
entered a period of continuous civil wars for almost two decades. Although in the new
circumstances the political and military power fell for a while into the hands of the Mongol
warlords from the border areas, their authority was far less overwhelming than that of the
former Khans of the Golden Horde. On the other hand, in the ever shifting political
environment the Genoese communities, now strong enough, had better chances to impose their
aims and to establish their complete control over some restricted areas, although displaying few
formal external marks of the local rulers (the payment of the tributes and the display of their
tamghas on the coins).

Unlike the Aegean region or Crimea, where the coinage related to the local Genoese
political structures was studied since the 19th century, the coinage of the area of the Western
Black Sea became known quite recently, only after the mid 1950’s, thanks to the researches of
Octavian Iliescu. He first published two bronze follari or puls, bearing on one side the
representations of what he considered to be the tamgha of the Mongol khans of the Golden
Horde. According to Iliescu some of the coins were struck in A.H. 810 = 8.06.1407 -
28.04.14085. Later, the same author did not mention anymore that the coins belong, actually, to
two very distinct types. But on those occasions Iliescu corrected some of his own wrong
suppositions concerning the chronology of these issues. He largely dated them in the 14th
century, and considered that they have been struck by a Genoese colony from the area of the
Mouths of the Danube, located somewhere in the modern Northern Dobrudja6.

This later work of Iliescu was the main source of information on the local coinage used
by G. Lunardi in his standard work on the coinage of the Genoese establishments from Levant.
Unfortunately, Lunardi, in spite of the lack of any further evidences, asserted that these coins
must have been issued by a supposed Genoese colony in Vicina, a famous and elusive 13th-14th
century commercial centre in the area of the Mouths of the Danube, often mentioned by the
Genoese, Venetian and Byzantine sources7. Quite recently Konstantin Khromov, who seems to
ignore the later researches on this topic, had accepted this attribution8.


3 Oberländer-Târnoveanu 1987, 245-258; Oberländer-Târnoveanu 1993, 291-304; Oberländer-

Târnoveanu 1997B, 93-120.
4 Alexandrescu-Dersca Bulgaru 1976, 13-20; Oberländer-Târnoveanu 1988, 108-117.
5 Iliescu 1958, 456, no 21, pl. 2, no 2-3.
6 Iliescu 1971, 261-266; Iliescu 1977a, 163.
7 Lunardi 1980, 139-141, LR 1.
8 Khromov 1999, 17.

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290 ERNEST OBERLÄNDER-TÂRNOVEANU

1370’s, when the civil war ravaged the Golden Horde and led the once mighty Empire to the
brink of the disintegration and at the mercy of its neighbours: Lithuania, Poland, Hungary,
Wallachia, Moldavia and the Genoese of Caffa. This period, which begins after the death of
Birdibek (1359-1361), represents precisely the time when the historical sources started to
mention the names of some border area Tartar lords, who tried to stop only with their own forces
the attacks of the neighbouring states, or to establish diplomatic and commercial agreements with
them as fully autonomous rulers. Such secessionist trends must have been developed even more
quickly in the area of the Mouths of the Danube, which always had a strong tendency toward
independence, being always a periphery situated too far from the main centres of the Mongol
power established in the steppes along the Lower Volga and having a mixed population, the
largest part of them being Christians, settled farmers or urban inhabitants.

Corroborating any so far available information the existence of an autonomous local
political structure of Tartar tradition could be dated around 1362-late 1370’s or early 1380’s,
just before the extension of the Wallachian and Moldavian control over northern Dobrudja and
southern Bessarabia. O. Iliescu thought that the tamgha could have belonged to “Demetrius,
Princeps Tartarorum”, mentioned during the 1360’s as being involved in the events underwent
in the Lower Danubian area22.

During this period there is attested for the first time the direct Genoese rule over some
settlements of the Western shores of the Black Sea. One of them was located in the region of the
Mouths of the Danube, at Licostomo. Unlike other Genoese communities from the Black Sea
area, which were led only by consuls, the contemporary sources mention that the “isle and the
stronghold of Licostomo” were under the jurisdiction of the consuls and “governors”,
representing a Mahona organised to finance the defence of the place and its economic
exploitation. These officials had under command a garrison consisting in mercenaries and some
ships, a military force large enough to deter the threats posed either by the local or regional
enemies and to protect the economic interest of the local trading community and its autonomy.
The Genoese rule over Licostomo will continue at least until the first years of the 15th century23.
Licostomo was not the only settlement occupied by the Genoese in Dobrudja, during the last
decades of the 14th century. Recent studies proved that during 1396-1402 Kaliakra, on the Black
Sea shore was controlled by a Genoese “capitaneus”, and Salagruso di Negro, a Genoese citizen
seized the fortress of Galata, located to the south of Varna in 1403-140424.

The Genoese lordship responsible for the issue of the bronze coinage bearing on the obverse
the tamgha of that unknown local ruler was hypothetically located at Chilia (comm. of Chilia
Veche, Tulcea County)25, or at Enisala (comm. of Sarichioi, Tulcea County), on the shores of the
Razim Lake26. These attributions were based on the distribution of the coin finds. The largest part of
the coins were found at Enisala, where is located an impressive Western style fortress. Other finds
are reported at Chilia and Isaccea. But I consider that the distribution of the coin finds so far
published is not an entirely reliable criterion to locate the mint. The fact that the largest part of the
coins of this type so far published came from Enisala (about 13 specimens), could be explained
because they were found during the archaeological diggings in the fortress. Meanwhile, such
researches are not undergone so far at Chilia. At Chilia the situation is more complicated because

22 Brătianu 1965, 39-46; Iliescu 1977, 166-170.
23 Balard 1978 (I), 146-147; Papacostea 1985, 29-42.
24 Papacostea 1997, 277-283.
25 Oberländer-Târnoveanu and Oberländer-Târnoveanu 1981, 102.
26 Iliescu 1997, 161-167.

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The coinage of the Genoese settlements of the western Black Sea shore and on the Danube 291

even the possibility to access the stray finds is severely limited by the thick layers of mud carried by
the Danube since the late 15th century, when the “Old” Byzantine and Genoese town was
demolished, abandoned and covered by the deltaic deposits and vegetation.

So, until more accurate data will be available, is it quite difficult to locate the mint,
which issued the Genoese-Tartar follari of the 2nd type. Chilia and Enisala should be the best
placed candidates, but Licostomo could also be another suitable candidate.

The style of these coins is very peculiar, being totally different compared to any other
14th century issue not only struck in the Mouths of Danube region, but also from the entire
Black Sea basin. It is obvious that these issues had no connections with the previous local
minting traditions. I think that this peculiarity is due to the fact that the personal of the mint
were Westerners, probably Genoese and they were certainly highly skilled.

The medium weight of 12 coins, 0.77 g, is far lower that the weight of any other
previous bronze issues from the region of the Mouths of the Danube. It is also clearly different
of the metrological standards used for the contemporary issues of the Golden Horde puls, but
surprisingly quite near to the medium weight of the Byzantine bronze coinage struck during the
last quarter of the 14th century.

Judging by the scarcity of the preserved specimens (only about 15 are known so far), the
mint only worked for a very short period and the amount of the issue was limited to some tenth of
thousands specimens, although several pairs of dies were used. The issue was conceived to cover
only the needs of small change for a quite little community, in a time when the normal supply of
such currency was no longer available, due to the reduction of influxes from abroad (especially
from the Golden Horde and Byzantium, the former main provider of bronze coins in this area).

As I said above, some scholars thought that during the second half of the 14th century
two Genoese mints were active at Chilia and Licostomo27. According to them the “asperi de
Chili” or “asperi argenti de Licostomo” were imitations of the aspers or dirhams of the Golden
Horde. In spite of the mention included in some deeds from 1360-1 that the “asperi de Chili”
should be “boni argenti et spendibiles”, there are no reasons to accept the idea that such coins
were real ones. According to me, in this case, the practical meaning of the terms “boni et
spendibiles” was that the salesman required to be paid only in good quality coins, which were
accepted on the local market.

Nowadays we have strong enough information available to consider that the previous
hypotheses on the imitative character of the Genoese coinage in Chilia and Licostomo were
based on some fake presumptions. First of all, a more detailed analysis that I undertook on the
imitations of the Golden Horde dirhams found in several hoards and stray finds in Romania (in
Dobrudja, Wallachia and Moldavia) led me to the conclusion that these imitations were struck
only during the last years of the 13th century. All the imitated coins so far known had as
prototypes the issues of Toqta Khan, struck in the mint of Qirim in A.H. 695-698. There are
clearly missing any copies after later issues of this ruler or of the subsequent Khans of the
Golden Horde. Several die links proved that the imitations were struck in the same mints as the
issues of Noghay and Chaka - Saqčy and “Ordu”. It seems that the imitations of the silver coins
of the Golden Horde, most of them struck in a debased alloy or just plated, were produced by
the Noghaides authorities for financing the growing expenditures of the civil war.


27 Iliescu 1971, 261-266; Iliescu 1975, 451-456; Lunardi 1980, 129-130.

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The coinage of the Genoese settlements of the western Black Sea shore and on the Danube 295

Iliescu, O., Dinu, M. 1957, Tezaurul monetar din secolul al XV-lea de la Cârpiţi (raionul Iaşi), Studii

şi Comunicări Ştiinţifice, Filiala Academiei R.P.R Iaşi, Seria Istorie, 8, 2, 342-345.
Ivanov, N.I. 1996, Klad dzhuchidskih monet, najdennyj v Krymu v 1964 godu, Materialy po

arheologij, istorii i etnografii Tavrii 8, Moskow, 454-484.
Khromov, K. 1999, The rare Tartar-Genoese copper coin, ONS NL (162), 17.
Kocievskij, A.S. 1990, Nadčekanka tatarskih monet v srednovekovom Belgorode, in

Numizmatičeskie issledovannija po istorii Jugo-Vostočnoj Evropy, eds. V. L.
Janin, A. A. Nudel’man, L. L. Polevoj and T. F. Rjaboj, Kishinev, 156-165.

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Lunardi, G. 1980, Le monete delle colonie genovesi, ASLSP N.S. (94), fasc. 1.
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(VII), Pontica 33-34, 659-678.
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de la Dobrudja méridionale au XIVe-XVe siécles, RRH 27, 1-2, 108-117.
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zone des Bouches du Danube (Note préliminaire), Numizmatičar 15, 69-89.
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Pl. no I. 1-4 – The Genoese Lordship of Saqčy – Bilingual follari; 5 – Unprecised Genoese
mint in the area of the Mouths of the Danube – Anonymous follaro; 6 – Asprokastron –
Follaro; 7-11 – Asprokastron – Countermarked Golden Horde dirhams with the coat of the
arms of the town, the Greek cross with bezants in each quarter

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