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

His distinctive visage is often paired with a key religious symbol of the city-state that issued them. For example, in a coin from Delphi minted in the early fifth century B.C., the head of a black man essentially like this one occurs on one side, while on the other is a three-part symbol alluding to the pre-eminent local sanctuary of Apollo, god of wisdom and prophecy. The black man seems to represent Delphos, the legendary founder of the city whose mother’s name, Melaina, literally means “black woman.” Derived from this etymological association with dark-skinned ethnicity, the image of Delphos as a black man serves as the visual epitome of the city.

In the coin from Delphi, as in other examples of the black head on Greek coins, the intention seems to have been to conjure an ideal image of humanity, of the sort famously attributed to the Ethiopian by the renowned Greek authors Homer and Hesiod.

Living on the southern fringes of the known world, the Ethiopian was held to be the handsomest of men, especially beloved by the gods. The projection of such superlative qualities on these exotic lands and their inhabitants is typical of the ancient Greek mind, and a similar intention for the presence of the black man on the Etruscan coin could apply as well. As with the example from Delphi, he may also personify some local attribute, such as the authority by whom the coin was minted. The elephant on the other side may represent the virtue of wisdom and strength, also associated with Turms, the Etruscan equivalent of the Greek god Hermes. What meaning this could have had in an Etruscan context remains unclear, but it undoubtedly carried a positive meaning of the highest order.

Both this Greek orientation and the mahout characterization of the black head on the coin are instructive, reflecting two very different yet complementary experiences with the African presence in the ancient world. In the art of this period, the black man could be abstracted into a symbol of ideal nobility, while on a more concrete level he could be shown as a real man playing a very real role in the history of ancient Rome. Either way, he was to leave an indelible imprint on western civilization during its most formative period.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.