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Research Coins: Electronic Auction

 
3130473

Three Rare Issues of the Usurper Isaac Comnenus, Tyrant of Cyprus

313, Lot: 473. Estimate $100.
Sold for $950. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Isaac Comnenus. Usurper in Cyprus, 1185-1191. Æ Tetarteron (20mm, 3.02 g, 6h). Primary mint (Nicosia?). Struck 1187-1191(?). Facing bust of Christ Pantokrator / Crowned facing bust of Isaac, holding cruciform scepter and akakia. DOC 7; SB 1994; CLBC 6.3.3 (R4). VF, earthen green patina. Very rare.


Not a great deal is known about the usurper Isaac Comnenus, although the contemporary historical sources are in agreement that he was a tyrant. He served as governor of Cilicia under Manuel I, during which time he was captured and imprisoned by the Armenians. Eventually ransomed by the Knights Templar (by this time Andronicus I was emperor), Isaac soon afterward made his way to Cyprus, where he employed forged imperial documents to take control of the island as governor. Once established, he proclaimed himself emperor.

While our knowledge of the events of Isaac’s reign is poor, our understanding of his downfall – not by imperial forces, but at the hands of an unlikely source – is clearer. As recounted in DOC (pp. 354–355):

At the end of April 1191, a number of ships separated by a storm from the main fleet of Richard I of England, then participating in the Third Crusade, appeared off the island [i.e., Cyprus], and several were indeed wrecked upon its shores near Limassol. Survivors from these latter ships were robbed (the plundering of wrecks was something that Andronicus had legislated against), and some were imprisoned, although others seem to have managed to defend themselves.

On 6 May Richard himself and the remainder of the fleet arrived, demanding restitution of the goods taken from men and ships. Isaac refused, and a preliminary battle took place on the shore, resulting in the flight of the Byzantines. The following day Richard and his army made a surprise early attack on Isaac’s camp, and gained all its contents (Isaac was behaving in imperial fashion, so the wealth involved was considerable), with the usurper fleeing naked. A more extensive campaign followed, punctuated by a meeting at which Isaac did homage and promised tribute, and ending with his surrender and imprisonment. On 5 June Richard and his fleet sailed for Acre, leaving a small garrison on the island.