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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.