Coins of the Reapers’ War

It is often said that the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 created Spain as a unified country. This is, like most historical generalizations, an oversimplification. It is even a historical accident that the crowns of Castile and Aragon remained together, simply because Ferdinand had no surviving son by his second wife. For more than two centuries after Isabella and Ferdinand, the Spanish kingdoms—Castile, Navarre, the several realms held by the kings of Aragon, and also Portugal after 1580—continued to have separate parliaments, administrations, legal systems, and monetary systems.

The separate institutions caused friction in times of stress, when the crown could more easily extract taxes and soldiers from Castile than from regions with stronger local governments and more legal restrictions on royal power. The pressure of simultaneous wars against France, Sweden, and the Netherlands in the 1630s induced King Philip IV’s (Castilian) chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, to try to impose new obligations on the other regions. This provoked open revolt in Catalonia, the region with the strongest tradition of local self-government and limitations on royal authority, and in Portugal, which had a long history of separate independence.

The uprising in Catalonia resulted in a long war, sometimes called the Reapers’ War (Guerra dels Segadors). Like a number of other wars of the seventeenth century, this conflict presaged the developing supersession of medieval-style political localism by large nation-states.

The original theoretical basis of the revolt lay in the traditional rights claimed by the Catalan counties and cities relative to their overlords. Their goal was to protect their rights and privileges against the centralizing wishes of the royal government in Madrid. However, when political dissent turned into warfare, it became necessary to subordinate some of this autonomy for the sake of military effectiveness. The difficulty of balancing these goals can be seen in the Catalan coins of the war.

In theory, all of Catalonia used the same monetary system—the lliura, sou, and diner of Barcelona—and most of the circulating coins for this system were issued by Barcelona. However, many other localities had the right to strike their own minor coins on the standards of Barcelona, and in Perpignan the local coinage diverged somewhat from that of Barcelona.

When they suddenly faced the large costs of recruiting, supplying, and paying an army to fight the king, many localities started to issue their own coins. At first, retaining some hope that resistance would force the king’s government to settle the dispute by confirming their rights, these coins named Philip IV as sovereign.

Billon sisè of Barcelona issued by authority of the Generalitat de Catalunya but in the name of Philip IV, 1641 (ANS 2015.30.144, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

However, there was never much chance that Olivares would compromise, and a much larger number of coins were issued in 1641 and 1642 in the name of the Principality of Catalonia, effectively declaring itself to be an independent state.

Billon sisè of Terrassa in the name of the Principality of Catalonia, 1642 (ANS 2015.30.313, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Although regional coalitions of towns and nobles often challenged kings in the Middle Ages, by the seventeenth century this was becoming more difficult. The Catalans on their own could not defeat Castile if the royal forces were concentrated against them. Therefore, one of the first priorities of their regime was to obtain assistance from France, a similarly powerful neighbor already at war with Philip IV.

The price for French assistance was recognition of the French king as Count of Barcelona (and thus ruler of Catalonia), along with installation of a French viceroy to lead the war effort in Barcelona. Before long, punches with images of the French king were sent from Paris to be used on the Catalan coins.

Billon sisè of Girona in the name of Louis XIII of France as Count of Barcelona, 1642 (ANS 2015.30.246, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Thus, in the end, the Catalans were faced with a choice between two centralizing monarchies. The autonomous localities of Catalonia were an impediment to French power, and the authorities in Barcelona wished to monopolize profitable aspects of administration such as minting. Most of the local mints in Catalonia were closed soon after 1642, eventually leaving only Barcelona and Perpignan.

Copper diner of Barcelona in the name of Louis XIV of France as Count of Barcelona, 1648 (ANS 2015.30.163, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

In the end, control of Catalonia seemed more vital to the administration in Madrid than to the one in Paris. Despite being overstretched by multiple crises, the government concentrated as much force as it could on this front. In 1652, Philip IV’s armies captured Barcelona and, with it, most of Catalonia. In the final peace settlement of 1659, Louis XIV retained the portion of Catalonia north of the Pyrenees, and promptly abolished many of its local privileges.

These coins show the rise of modernity not only in the changing practicalities of political scale. Technologically as well, they straddle the division between medieval and modern methods. Although most Spanish mints in the 1640s still struck coins by hand using a hammer, roller presses were used at the royal mint of Segovia (in Castile) and at the mint of Barcelona (in Catalonia). The small roller presses in Catalonia, operated by muscle power, were unable to strike large coins, with the result that the large silver coins (5 rals) of the Catalans were all struck by hand, while their low-denomination billon or copper coins (sisens or diners) were made on the roller presses.

Silver 5 rals of a minor Catalan locality, possibly Manresa, Balaguer, or Cervera, struck by hand (ANS 2015.30.327, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).
Billon sisè of Besalú, mistakenly cut off-center, showing how it was struck on a strip of alloy using a roller press (ANS 2015.30.215, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

Thus, the coins of the Reapers’ War can be seen as standing on the threshold of modernity, in more than one way.

Further reading: for more on the historical background, see J. H. Elliott, The Revolt of the Catalans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963); for the coins discussed here, see M. Crusafont, Història de la moneda de la Guerra dels Segadors (Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans, 2001).

Images of Egyptian Gods on Coins

With its range of hawk-headed and half-mummified deities, the Egyptian pantheon has inspired devotion and intrigue for millennia. Egyptians were drawing, painting, and carving images of their gods well before the first pharaohs, over five thousand years ago. While coined money was not a regular part of the Egyptian economy until the third century BCE, Egyptian religious symbols featured on even the earliest coins. The gods of Egypt and their associated iconographies continued to be seen on the coins of Hellenistic kingdoms and throughout the Roman empire, until as late as the fourth century CE.

The Egyptian god Khepri, for instance, features on some of the earliest coinage, albeit in an indirect way. Khepri is represented as a scarab, or dung beetle. The ancients projected the image of this dung-rolling insect onto the heavens and imagined Khepri as a divine beetle pushing the orb of the sun across the daytime sky. Amulets, seals, and signet rings were therefore often made in the shape of scarabs, sanctified by this holy conveyor of the sun (fig. 1).

Figure 1

The significance and popularity of scarab amulets across the Mediterranean were such that the Lydians and Ionian Greeks in the archaic period (7th–5th centuries BCE) were familiar with both genuine Egyptian scarabs and Egyptianizing “imitations” (Hogarth, p. 205-207). The scarab form translated naturally to the novel medium of coinage and scarabs are found on the obverses of several types of early electrum coins. These include a 1/48 stater in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (fig. 2) and a larger denomination now at the British Museum (fig. 3).

Figure 2
Figure 3

With the spread of Alexander the Great’s empire into Egypt and subsequent Ptolemic rulership, Egyptian religious symbols began to appear on Hellenistic royal coin issues. A ram’s head wearing a headdress is featured on gold staters and silver tetradrachms minted at Memphis, Price type numbers 3963 and 3964, respectively. A beautiful example of one of these staters in the collection of the ANS was discovered in a hoard outside of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, far from its origins in Egypt (fig. 4). 

Figure 4

The ram symbol is either Amun-Re, a principal sun god, or Khnum, a ram-headed creator and protector god, seen here in objects now at the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 5) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 6).

Figure 5
Figure 6

The headdress with corkscrew ram’s horns, a double feather, and central sun disk are common attributes of several gods, including the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who had an important cult at Memphis (fig. 7). The headdress evoked divine kingship and pharaonic authority and Hellenistic kings sought to imbue themselves with this kind of power. Much later, an image of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris holding a scepter is shown on Roman Hadrianic coinage, perhaps invoking a similar claim to a divine right to rule (fig. 8).

Figure 7
Figure 8

Religious practices around the Mediterranean were dynamic. They reacted to and reflected shifting political realities. Different gods worshipped in different polities were occasionally equated and then worshiped as a unit. This process of merging—called syncretism—gave Egyptian gods new, multivalent qualities.

The gods Isis and Osiris are prime examples of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religious syncretism. Egyptian mythology had it that Osiris was a primordial pharaoh who had been murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother. His wife, Isis, reassembled his body parts, which had been strewn along the Nile, and revived him. Thereafter, Osiris ruled over the underworld as king, further informing why Ptah-Sokar-Osiris is shown partially mummified on the coin above (fig. 8). After Isis resurrected Osiris, they had a son called Horus. After challenging his fratricidal uncle, Horus became the god of the living pharaoh and a sky god, usually shown as a hawk-headed man. These stories tied Osiris to kingship and death, and Isis to magic and motherhood.

When merged with Greco-Roman deities, Osiris and Isis became stock representatives of a host of “Egyptian” concepts: healing, mystical language, the afterlife, astrology, and the Nile, among others. The god Sarapis—a unique amalgam of Osiris, Greek Zeus and Hades, and a number of Egyptian solar deities—was consistently depicted on Roman coins (fig. 9). A bust of Serapis features on the reverse of a bronze AE2 of Constantine (fig. 10), a continuation of the same reverse type issued under Maximinus Daia at Alexandria (fig. 11). The related cults of Isis and Serapis became so popular that temples were dedicated to them on the Campus Martius in Rome.

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

Instead of his avian iteration, Horus is often shown on Roman coins in his incarnation as a human child, a figure called Harpocrates. Harpocrates, as a god of children and secrecy, is shown making a shushing gesture on the reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius (fig. 12). Isis holds Harpocrates on denarii of Septimius Severus (fig. 13) and they stand flanking two busts of other Egyptian divinities in bronze drachms of Trajan (fig 14).

Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 14

Another Egyptian god of death showcased on Roman coins was the psychopomp Anubis. Anubis, who was shown in Egyptian art as a jackal-headed god, led the souls of the dead through the underworld and was invoked during the ritual preparation of physical bodies for burial. He is shown on a bronze AE4 of Constantine (fig. 15).

Figure 15

He is holding a caduceus—a symbol of Hermes, a psychopomp from the Greek tradition—and a sacred rattle from Egyptian rituals, called a sistrum. While the instrument was originally tied to the Egyptian fertility goddess Hathor, Hathor was frequently assimilated to Isis, even in Egypt (fig. 16). Ultimately, sistra became catch-all visual cues for the land of Egypt itself and a symbol of the personification of Egypt, Aegyptos. Aegyptos is shown resembling Isis on a denarius of Hadrian, reclined and shaking a sistrum (fig. 17).

Figure 16
Figure 17

The thousand years of Egyptian religious imagery on coins continued an already thousands-of-years old artistic tradition. Over the centuries, these symbols bore various meanings for different communities at different times. They were used by issuing authorities to display piety and power, as well as to simply reflect popular forms. From Khepri to Isis to Aegyptos herself, there is a lot more to learn about Egypt’s myths and symbols and how they were engaged with at different points in antiquity. The gods of Egypt, on these coins and elsewhere, continue to raise interesting and important questions about how symbolism and syncretism function in religion and in art.

The Reign of Peter the Great as Represented in the ANS Collection

Among the many interesting pieces in the Society’s collections are a group of Russian specimens that relate the transformation of insular Muscovy into a major European power by Peter the Great (1672–1725, fig. 1). This process started when the young Tsar Peter I first journeyed to Europe in 1697–1698.

Figure 1. Portrait of Peter I, Tsar of Russia (1672–1725), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689. Painted in London. Gift to King William III of England

He traveled incognito, as a member of a “Grand Embassy”, but this was not a diplomatic mission. His main goal was to study new developments in European technology, especially shipbuilding. As a result, during Peter’s reign, Russian industry and armed forces were completely reorganized, and the formerly archaic country became a successful new maritime power. Russian victory in the Great Northern War (1700–1721) destroyed Swedish military hegemony in northern Europe and let Russia expand to the Baltic Sea, where in 1703 Peter founded his new capital, Saint Petersburg. This exquisite city became Russian’s “window to Europe”.

Peter decided to commemorate the military success in the Great Northern War by issuing a special medallic series, which was designed and executed by the famous German medalist Philipp Heinrich Müller (1654–1719). The ANS has seven of the twenty-eight medals of this series. Two of these beautiful pieces, the silver medals commemorating the capture of Nöteborg (Schlisselburg) in 1702 (fig. 2) and the Battle of Lesnaya in 1709 (fig. 3) are originals.

Other medals of this series in our collection, like a bronze medal dedicated to the foundation of St. Petersburg (Fig. 4.), are struck from later copies of Müller’s dies, made at the St. Petersburg mint during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–1791).

Figure 4. ANS 1887.7.1.

Peter’s extensive reforms required substantial funds, and one of his great achievements was a reform of the Russian monetary system. He started with a devaluation, replacing silver “wire” kopeks, made by striking an irregular snippet of silver with hammered dies (fig. 5), with less expensive copper coins, which were made with new technology (fig. 6). He introduced European minting practices into Russia and had minting machinery installed at the Moscow mint. In 1725 he also opened a new mint in his new capital of St. Petersburg. The old and new coins circulated simultaneously for almost twenty years, which accustomed people to the equality of these coins and to the idea of copper money. The obverse depicts a rider with a spear copper as in silver, showing continuity with the earlier coins. Only in 1717 were the issues of the silver wire kopeks ended.

Figure 5. ANS 1914.265.47.
Figure 6. ANS 1964.121.1.

To coordinate his coinage with western Europe, Peter cut the value of the kopek so that the ruble of 100 kopeks, which he issued in 1704, was equivalent to a silver thaler. This made Russian coinage also the first decimal monetary system. This coin bears a bust of the tsar on the obverse and the double-headed eagle emblem of Muscovy on the reverse, which became a Russian national symbol for many centuries ahead (fig. 7).

Figure 7. ANS 1935.15.2.

Another monetary innovation during Peter’s reign was the introduction in 1701 of a gold coin, the chervonets, which corresponded in value to the European ducat. The weight of this coin was around 3.458 grams of .986 fine gold. Coins of 2 chervontsy (around 6.94 g) were minted as well. These coins were mostly used only for foreign trade. Both of these denominations bear a laureate profile bust of Peter on the obverse with the inscription “Tsar Petr Alekseevich”. On the reverse there is a double-headed eagle, the date of minting, and the inscription “Vse Rosiskiy Samoderzhets” (autocrat of all Russia). For domestic trade, gold coins valued at 2 rubles were preferred. This denomination featured the tsar’s bust on the obverse and an image of Saint Andrew with his X-shaped cross on the reverse (fig. 8).

Figure 8. ANS 1893.14.1099.

Peter’s modernization measures sped up Russia’s acculturation to western Europe; however, they met opposition from the country’s aristocracy and the Orthodox Church, which preferred to continue following medieval tradition. Among the tsar’s new measures was a decree requiring men to shave their beards. Most Russian men of that time took great pride in their beards and resisted this innovation. Eventually, the law was relaxed somewhat, allowing men to pay a tax to keep their beards, the amount being from 30 to 100 rubles, depending on the individual’s social status. A special beard-tax token was given as proof that the tax had been paid. This token-receipt depicted a mustache and beard with Russian words that translate as “money paid” on one side and a two-headed eagle with the date on the reverse. Collected from 1699, this beard tax probably yielded a large income for the state, because it was not canceled until long after Peter’s death in 1725 (fig. 9).

Figure 9. ANS 1914.265.55.

Seeking European allies against Sweden as well as new trade agreements, Peter traveled around western Europe again, nineteen years after his first western voyage. On April 21, 1717, Peter arrived in France, where he stayed for two months and was welcomed with great ceremony. His portrait was painted by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766, fig. 10), one of the leading portrait painters of the reign of Louis XV.

Figure 10. Portrait of Peter I, 1717, by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766). Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

During this travel, Peter sought out developments in France that he could adapt as reforms for his own state. In Paris he visited the Academy of Sciences and became an honorary member. He also visited the Paris Observatory and the Gobelins manufactory, which inspired the creation of a tapestry workshop in his new capital. The tsar also visited the Paris Mint. This visit to the mint was commemorated by a medal engraved by the famous Jean Duvivier (1687–1761), who later became the official medalist of Louis XV. The image of Peter on the obverse is accompanied by an inscription that describes him as emperor: PETRUS ALEXIEWITZ TZAR MAG. RUSS: IMP (Peter Alexeevich, Great Tsar, Russian Emperor, fig. 11).

Figure 11. ANS 1951.109.1.

Four years later, soon after the end of the war with Sweden, in October 1721 Peter officially adopted the western title “emperor” in addition to his traditional Byzantine-style titles “tsar” and “autocrat”. It was a statement that he achieved his goal of making Russia into a European empire.

The World’s Most Perfect Man

In 2018 the ANS acquired the inventory—medals, dies, galvanos, plaques, and paper and digital archives—of the Medallic Art Company (MACO), an historically important but defunct private mint. The Society’s relationship with MACO goes right back to the company’s founding at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, MACO used to regularly supply the ANS with its medals, as long as the Society obtained permission from the artists or organizations responsible for making them. So in the ANS Archives we have permission letters from numismatic artists like Adolph WeinmanJohn Sinnock, and Paul Manship.

But it wasn’t just artists. One letter that caught my eye, with its striking letterhead, was written by the legendary Charles Atlas. Generations of comic book readers, me included, will be familiar with that name. Who can forget 97-pound weakling who, after getting sand kicked in his face by a boorish bully, bulks up with Atlas’s bodybuilding program and returns to the beach to deck the goon, prompting his girlfriend to decide that he’s “a real man after all”? 

Atlas always said that the 97-pound weakling was him and that the beach was at Coney Island. Born Angelo Sicilano in 1893 in Italy, he settled in Brooklyn with his parents 10 years later. In 1922 he took his new name and was soon selling his program of bodybuilding and fitness.

Charles Atlas (née Angelo Sicilano), ca. 1920

In his letter to the ANS, written four years later, Atlas sounded excited that his medal, identifying him as the “World’s Most Perfect Man,” might be displayed at the museum. “May I have more particulars? Are there any tickets necessary for entrance, price, etc.? I should like to see this display.” ANS secretary Sydney Noe told him he could stop by anytime.

Atlas’s medal, awarded “for physical perfection,” was an early component of a program that would be sold for decades to come. There is a place for the recipient’s name on the reverse. On those I have seen online, the lettering can be quite crude

Charles Atlas died at 79 at a hospital on Long Beach, Long Island, in 1972. The company is apparently still in operation.