Ancient Armenian Coins: The Cilician Kingdom

A brief history of Cilician Armenian coinage:

January 6, 1198 AD--the Royal period of Armenian kings came to be. Then-prince Levon II was crowned Levon I, King of Cilician Armenia, and the Golden Age had begun. Cilician Armenian coins were minted in copper, bronze, silver, and--in a few very rare occurrances--gold. Their styles were quite unique, comprising stylized busts, Armenian text, and sometimes incorporating contemporaneous European Crusader crosses and iconography, which lasted until the end of the kingdom in 1375 AD.

Coinage of king Levon I ("the lion") set the standard for that of following Cilician rulers, comprising silver trams and fractions thereof, and the large copper tank. Silver trams of Levon follow obverse design elements found on the coinage of King Henry VI of the Holy Roman Empire, from whom he received his crown. He is shown seated, facing front, on an ornamented throne, holding a cross and fleur-de-lis. The reverse depicts a pair of lions flanking a tall cross.

Upon the death of Levon on May 2, 1219 AD, the throne was left to his young daughter, Zabel. Hetoum, son of Catholico constable Constantine, married Zabel in 1226 AD, which linked the two most powerful families of the realm. Upon this union, the new king and queen Hetoum and Zabel issued a joint-portrait tram, and Hetoum issued a new, smaller-denomination copper kardez in addition to his own large copper tank series.

The tanks of Hetoum I follow the design standard set by the silver trams of his predecessor, Levon I. All of his coins bear only his name, although his tram issues bear the likeness of both him and his royal queen, Zabel. He issued two types of kardez, one depicting himself seated on a bench-like throne, whereas the other "equestrian" issue shows him on horseback. On the reverse of all Cilician issues, however, can be found one standard design element: The patriarchal or Crusader-type cross, in various forms.

In the year 1269, Hetoum retired to a monastery, and his son Levon II was crowned king shortly thereafter. Due to economic decline during this period, the silver trams of Levon II became smaller and lighter in size, becoming an altogether new type of denomination, the "new tram" or takvorin. The silver coins of Levon II depicted the king on horseback with his namesake, a lion, on the reverse. He abandoned the large copper tank issue and focused on the smaller copper kardez issues depicting a single lion on the obverse and a tall cross on the reverse.

Upon the death of King Levon II on February 6, 1289 AD, his eleven children fought for control of the kingdom, and three of his sons managed to obtain the throne, mostly for relatively brief periods at a time. First to emerge as king was his son Hetoum II, who struck two types of crudely-minted kardez issues, and abandoned the silver tram and takvorin completely. His first kardez type depicts his facing, crowned bust facing front ans his second shows him seated upon a pillow on the floor. Both depict a cross and Armenian inscription on the reverse.

In 1296, Hetoum departed on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, and in his absence his brother Smpad seized the throne. Smpad issued his own silver and even smaller bronze coins, called poghs which incorporated elements reminiscent of the first Cilician coins of Levon I.

Only two years later, Hetoum II returned from his travels and had Smpad imprisoned for his treachery, and appointed his other brother Gosdantin to temporarily assume the throne. Gosdantin struck his own highly decorative silver takvorin and copper pogh issues, but after only a year in command, he was removed and Hetoum II once again took full control of the kingdom.

Feeling deeply wronged, Gosdantin then released his brother Smpad from prison and they fought their brother Hetoum II to regain the throne. Hetoum II, with support from the Knights Hospitallers and Knights Templar, defeated the duo and ultimately banished them to Constantinople where they died in captivity. For the third and final time in his life, Hetoum ruled Armenia from 1301 until 1305, when he retired to monastic life, passing the throne to his son Levon III.

Levon III was crowned king of Cilician Armenia on July 30, 1306 AD, but may have began his coin issue as many as 4 years earlier. Silver takvorin coinage of Levon III assumed the more traditional style, depicting him on horseback, and a walking lion on the reverse. His copper poghs, smaller than those of his predecessors, depicted him seated in Oriental fashion, upon a throne or a seat of pillows on the floor.

Following Levon III, his other brother Oshin assumed the throne in 1308 AD. Oshin's reign saw Armenia return to a more stable economic state, and his coinage reflects this improvement. His silver coins are heavier, higher quality and more diverse than those of his predecessor, but retained the design of king on horseback with walking lion reverse. His poghs, however, were yet smaller than earlier issues, but brought back the imperial portrait of the king seated upon a throne, holding a cross and fleur-de-lis.

Upon the death of Oshin in 1320, his ten year-old son Levon IV gained command of the empire. The youthful king, however, was not adept at handling the turmoil and threats brought about by neighboring Mamluk forces, and rejected terms of a treaty that would have provided protection and support by former Western allies. This mistake would ultimately get him assassinated on 1342. His coinage reflected the political and economic crises... his silver coins were issued in yet lesser quality and workmanship, and very much mimicked the designs implemented by Oshin.

Such large amounts of tribute were being paid to the overlord Mamluks that many of his coins can be found overstruck in Arabic, and were traded all over the Arab world. Like his silver coinage, his small copper poghs also mirrored the design of those of Oshin, although he did begin to strike slightly larger issues, in a possible attempt to bring back the long-defunct kardez.

When Levon IV died heirless, his reign was passed to his closest relation, Guy Lusignan of France. Guy used his French name, for the first time replacing the Armenian equivalent on Cilician coinage. Guy even phased-out most of the Armenians in his court, replacing them with other Europeans, which swiftly got him assassinated at the hands of irate Armenian nobility. His coins were minted for a very short span of time, and his silver takvorins and small copper poghs kept with the design used by the previous rulers, showing the king upon a throne with a cross on the reverse.

Following the assassination of Guy in 1344, Gosdantin III was crowned king of Armania. Gosdantin III was not from the official royal lineage but had enough ties with the royal family to be deemed worthy of rule. The political and economic state of the kingdom had deteriorated even further since the reigns of Oshin and Levon IV, which is evident in the shoddy quality of his coinage. His silver coins follow the design standard of the time, depicting him on horseback with a lion on the reverse, and his copper poghs depicted the king enthroned, much like the previous kings' issues.

When Gosdantin III died in 1363, Levon "the Usurper" seized control of the kingdom. This king Levon's story is mostly lost to history and the origin of his un-flattering title is unaccounted-for in ancient documents, although he is believed to be one of Gosdantin III's sons. He minted coins in a very similar fashion to those of previous kings, but changed the spelling of Levon just enough to show his individuality. His coins are extremely rare... mostly copper coins struck on silver takvorin dies, and small variances in the lion reverse were also made.

Just as mysteriously as Levon "the Usurper" entered the scene, so did he depart. Historical evidence does show that the next king, Gosdantin IV, took control of the kingdom in 1365. Most of his reign was spent keeping the crumbling Armenian empire in order and his coinage remained relatively constant with that of his predecessors'. Strangely, his copper coins were struck on a silver takvorin die, and showed even further deterioration in quality and craftsmanship.

Upon the death of Gosdantin IV, the last Cilcician king--Catholic Levon V "Lusignan" of Cyprus--was crowned in September of 1374 AD. His small silver and copper coins were very similar to those of the Latin Crusaders. The silver coins of Levon V depict the king's bust, with a cross on the reverse, and his copper coins depict a walking lion, with a Cypriot cross on the reverse. Like the previous foreign king Guy, Levon V had filled his court with non-Armenians, cutting off his support of the rest of the Armenian kingdom. He was captured by the Mamluks in 1375 and deported from Armenia, thus ending the Cilician Armenian period of rule.

--Gabriel Vandervort

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