Why Coins With a Black Man’s Face Were Valued

Image of the Week: While there’s no clear reason the Etruscans minted money featuring an African man’s profile, the decision may have been motivated by positive perceptions of blackness.

Profile head of a black man, Etruscan coin, late third century B.C. Bronze, 18 mm diameter. British Museum, London

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Struck from a set of hand-engraved dies in an ancient mint, a plain disc of heated bronze emerged as a stunning specimen of numismatic art. Within a space less than an inch in diameter, the rounded form of a black man’s head in profile appears in bold relief. On the other side stands an elephant wearing a bell suspended around its neck. The search for the meaning of these paired images ranges throughout the broadly contrasting mindsets of ancient Greece and Rome.

The coin was minted during the late third century B.C. in Etruria, an area located within the north-central part of Italy, then the heartland of the Etruscan civilization. In some ways forerunners of the Romans, the Etruscans created a distinctive, sophisticated culture the depths of which historians have only begun to plumb.

The two images on the coin could represent personal or clan devices, in a manner analogous to medieval heraldry, used to assert the prestige of the minter’s own family or city. The coin also serves as a kind of swan song for this unique people. This issue was one of the last coins minted by the Etruscans before their subjection by Rome. It may also to be the last appearance of a black head profile on ancient coinage anywhere.

This coin has been related to one of the most traumatic episodes in ancient Roman history. For several decades, Rome had been on an inevitable collision course with the great maritime power of its much older rival, Carthage. Situated on the coast of North Africa in present-day Tunisia, Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people instrumental in the development of exploration, trade and culture throughout the Mediterranean Sea.

Conflict between the two powers during the mid-third century B.C. had culminated in the First Punic War, so called after the civilization represented by Carthage and its extensive empire. Matters were not settled by this initial confrontation, however, and a generation later, Carthage sent its greatest general, Hannibal, to invade the Roman heartland. Spectacularly, he chose a route that took him from the Carthaginian stronghold of Spain through the high, snow-covered Alpine passes bordering the northern reaches of the Italian peninsula.

For more than a decade he seemed unstoppable, winning victory after victory over the armies of Rome and its allies. The best-known aspect of his military appanage was his corps of fighting elephants intended to be deployed as an ancient type of battle tank against the more conventional elements of the Roman army. Almost all of the exotic beasts were lost in the Alps, however, because of the rough terrain and debilitating effects of the frigid climate.

The imagery on the coin has been interpreted as representing one of Hannibal’s war elephants on one side and its black mahout, or driver, on the other. According to this theory, the coin was minted by an as-yet-unidentified Etruscan city as a sign of goodwill toward the Carthaginians who, under General Hasdrubal, were marching to join his brother Hannibal in a combined attack on the city of Rome itself. Hasdrubal, however, was defeated by Roman legions far to the north in 207 B.C. Etruscan hopes for aid vanished with him.

From this hypothetical association with Carthage has followed the suggestion that these coins were used by the Etruscans as payment to the invading Carthaginian mercenaries. Yet this account of the coin’s origin comes with some serious caveats. Sporadically produced, Etruscan coinage seems to have been intended solely for local barter or trade. Besides, by the time Hannibal approached Etruscan territory, the association of his army with elephants would only have been a distant memory.

The appearance of the elephant and black man’s head on the coin may more convincingly be accounted for by the Etruscans’ sustained contact with the sophisticated intellectual climate of Greece. The profile head of a black man occurs as part of the long-standing vocabulary of visual symbolism presented on Greek coins in the eastern Mediterranean.