Golden Coins and Golden Fleeces

This is the fifth in a series of guest posts by students attending the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics.

View of the Black Sea from the Batumi Botanical Gardens
View of the Black Sea from the Batumi Botanical Gardens

The Black Sea coast of Georgia is a wildly popular vacation destination, and its beaches are packed every summer with tourists. stalin-soviet-union-foreign-tourists-poster-4-1While perhaps not familiar to Americans, this stretch of coast has a special reputation in the Russophone world as a lush tropical paradise, and it became a popular vacation destination within the Soviet Union.

The history of ‘tourists’ to this region, though, started much earlier. It can be traced all the way back into the depths of Greek mythology in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, as the legend goes, came to these shores in search of the Golden Fleece. The narrative of his journey hints at the long history of interaction between the eastern reaches of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean world, a history that has also been substantiated by archaeological evidence.

ANS, 1944.100.78502
ANS, 1944.100.78502

This gold coin is a material example of the cross-cultural interaction that characterized the area. On its obverse is a non-naturalistic depiction of a head facing right. The reverse is a schematic frontal depiction of a winged Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The coin has a high hammered rim, which is typical of coins minted in the region.

While its findspot is unknown, the coin is a local Georgian imitation of an Alexander stater.  It was most likely minted in the territory of what is today Georgia between 100 BCE and 100 CE. A related type of imitation Lysimachus stater is also known from this region. Although Alexander the Great and his successors never directly controlled this part of the world, Hellenistic coinage circulated there, and it was thus a logical choice as a model for local issues.


During this period of history, the Black Sea coast (roughly corresponding to western Georgia) was a polity known as Colchis. Central and eastern Georgia was the seat of the polity of Iberia, known also by its Georgian name ‘Kartli.’ Traditionally, the imitation Alexander staters have been considered to have been produced in Kartli, while the imitation Lysimachus staters have been attributed to Colchis (see Kapanadze 1969). More recently, however, opinion has shifted away from this geographic interpretation, most notably in the work Tedo Dundua and others who manage the online catalog of Georgian numismatics, which is an invaluable resource.

The nature of the minting authority of these coins is unclear–we really do not even know whether they were ‘official’ issues of local authorities, emissions by private individuals, or something else entirely. Given the large gaps in our knowledge of local conditions during this era, it is difficult to place this coin within a more concrete political context. Hopefully ongoing archaeological work in Georgia can help to clarify the situation. The coins do appear in hoards alongside Hellenistic, Roman and Arsacid coins, so they were being used monetarily and were part of a much broader system of exchange.

Travelers, traders and tourists have long found themselves on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, and this enigmatic ANS coin represents just one material facet of the local response to this complex web of interactions.

Lara Fabian