Admit One: Sprague & Blodgett's Georgia Minstrels

One of the most popular and complicated cultural forms that enlivened popular entertainment in the nineteenth-century United States was the minstrel show.

University of Virginia
University of Virginia

While musicologist Dale Cockrell has usefully detailed the longer historical trajectory of blackface performance in the United States, the immediate origins of the minstrel show rested on the spectacular success of Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s performance of “Jump Jim Crow” in the late 1820s and 1830s. This was a ribald song-and-dance routine that Rice, a white actor, performed dressed as a ‘black’ man in tattered clothes with his face blackened with burnt cork. His success opened the floodgates of blackface entertainment as white performers and musicians all over the country began ‘blacking up.’ By the 1840s, groups like the Virginia Minstrels and Ethiopian Serenaders were offering full evenings of entertainment know as minstrel shows that featured a mix of songs, dances, and skits.

Blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, but the racial elements that it embodied and transgressed have made it a source of continuing controversy. Many early scholars looked at the minstrel show as an honest representation of black folk culture, which was a perspective that echoed the claims of contemporaries. Other scholars have argued that the minstrel show was a caricature of black life that effectively denigrated blacks and legitimized white supremacy. Part of the problem with trying to understand minstrelsy is that it proved so durable over time, and found such a broad audience, that it makes any overarching interpretations about its meaning problematic.

Library of Congress

One particularly difficult thing for many people to understand is how and why African-American performers began to appear in minstrel shows in the decades after the Civil War. The reasons were of course manifold and complex, but essentially there was an opportunity because minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that already featured ‘black’ performers. African-Americans were able to capitalize on white fascination with black life by playing up their novelty as “genuine Negroes” and offering ostensibly authentic performances of plantation life in contrast to the “counterfeits” of white minstrels.  Because of its association with the South and slavery, the moniker “Georgia” came to signify that a minstrel troupe was made up of African-American performers. The formula proved strikingly successful, and by the 1870s there were a number of black minstrel troupes touring the United States, despite what was often an acrimonious relationship with the white theatrical establishment.

New York Clipper
New York Clipper

It was in this context that the Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels known to numismatists came about. Z. W. Sprague was a longtime manager of white minstrel troupes associated with the city of Chicago. Wash Blodgett was an agent for assorted traveling entertainers, most notably working for the magician and ventriloquist DeCastro. During the summer of 1876, Sprague took out an ad in the New York Clipper, the semi-official organ of the American show trade, looking for black performers. Although listed as co-proprietors, it seems that Sprague financed and organized the troupe while Blodgett was the agent who actually traveled with it. The manager of this initial iteration of Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels was the notable African-American performer Charles B. Hicks.

ANS, 1949.22.1

Hicks had been one of the originators of African-American minstrelsy and was able to put an impressive array of talent together for the ongoing tour. In late December, the troupe took out an advertisement in the New York Clipper that trumpeted its success and reproduced fawning press notices.

Clip-12-7-76Although Hicks soon left the troupe, many of the most celebrated black entertainers of that era, including James Bland and Sam Lucas, performed with Sprague’s show. Sprague’s association with Blodgett was likewise short-lived, and by June 1878 the latter’s name was dropped from the advertising. The countermarked coins associated with Sprague & Blodgett were thus produced sometime between the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1878. 1949.22.1.revIn Gregory Brunk’s comprehensive catalog of countermarked American currency, he lists ten specimens of the countermark on Liberty Seated half dollars, with a date range from 1862 to 1877. The ANS specimen is an 1877 half dollar minted in Carson City, Nevada.

It is not clear precisely how these countermarked coins were used. While they obviously served as a kind of admission check for the show, the denomination of the host coin was actually the same price (50¢) as a ticket for the performance. In this context it seems likely that they were distributed by an agent of the Georgia Minstrels to get favorable publicity from the press or to ensure the goodwill of the local community by giving away some free ‘tickets’ to the show. Although a few circus countermarks are known, this seems to have been the only minstrel troupe to use them.

Sprague sold out his interest in the Georgia Minstrels to Richards & Pringle in 1880, but the show continued under that title into the twentieth century. Over time, black performers undermined and eventually exploded many of the impoverished white-controlled representations of African-Americans that minstrelsy had introduced into American culture. This countermarked coin is a material reminder of the complex legacy of the minstrel show, and the dynamic but often painful interactions between white and black Americans that have animated U.S. popular culture.

The best history of the minstrel show in the United States is Robert Toll’s Blacking Up (1974), but perhaps the most compelling work on the subject is W. T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (2000). On African-American minstrelsy, see Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff’s Out of Sight : The Rise of African-American Popular Music (2009).

Matthew Wittmann

Bastille Day, Lafayette, and Numismatics

Happy Bastille Day! The ANS was energized a week or so ago by the arrival of the Hermione, a replica of the ship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette back to these shores in 1780 with the news that desperately needed military and financial support from the French government was on its way to the rebellious colonists.

L'Hermione arrives in NYC, © Alan Roche
L’Hermione arrives in NYC, © Alan Roche

The travels of the Hermione along the Eastern seaboard have been accompanied by commemorations and exhibitions devoted to the entwined histories of France and the United States. Although I have not yet had the chance to view the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, I was able to attend the opening of the Boston Athenæum’s wonderful Lafayette: An American Icon, which runs through September 27.

Marquis de Lafayette, 1825. Oil on canvas by Rembrandt Peale. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marquis de Lafayette by Rembrandt Peale, 1825. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curator David Dearinger has assembled a fabulous collection of materials that celebrate the role that the Marquis de Lafayette played in the founding of the United States. The checklist seems to have every important portrait of Lafayette in a wide variety of media, including sculptures by Jean-Antoine Houdon and Paul Wayland Bartlett, paintings by Rembrandt Peale (left) and Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, and a number of drawings and prints. This ample visual material is supplemented by contemporary documents and manuscripts, and the whole is neatly displayed in the Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery.

Most notably in the context of this blog is that the exhibition includes several items on loan from the American Numismatic Society. Given the predilection for medal-making in the United States and France, it should hardly be surprising that so many medals celebrating the achievements of Lafayette, his good friend George Washington, and the cause of liberty more generally were struck. Among these was a bronze plaque by Henry Augustus Lukeman (1872-1935), which is modeled on Daniel Chester French’s sculpture in Prospect Park…which was in turn modeled on the Le Paon painting on view in the exhibition.

ANS, 1940.100.50
ANS, 1940.100.50

Numismatic representations of Lafayette were not of course limited to medals. According to John Muscalus’ Index of State Bank Notes that Illustrate Characters and Events (1938), Lafayette was second only to Washington and Franklin as a personage on early American paper money.

ANS, 1945.42.273

The figure of Lafayette at right was engraved by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) after a famous 1819 portrait by Ary Scheffer for an obsolete note issued by the Chemical Bank of New York in the 1830s.

ANS, 1906.98.4
ANS, 1906.98.4

Lafayette even  at one point made an appearance on circulating US federal currency. What has come to be known as the Lafayette dollar was minted in 1899 to finance a gift by the United States to France for the Paris Exposition of 1900. The fifty thousand coins were all minted in a single day, December 14, 1899, and it was the first coin to depict an American citizen–George Washington. These “commemoratives” were sold for $2 each to raise funds, the end result of which was a statue of Lafayette by Paul Bartlett that now stands in the Parisian park Cours-la-Reine.

My favorite Lafayette-related object in the ANS collection, which is also part of the Athenæum’s exhibition, is an 1823 large cent that has been overstruck with dies representing George Washington and General Lafayette.

ANS, 1944.56.1

The 1824 date on Lafayette’s counterstamp indicates that it was made to commemorate his 1824-25 return tour of the United States, which saw him honored wherever he visited. The celebrations that have greeted the Hermione this summer suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Matthew Wittmann

Diplomacy and Display in Commagenian Coinage

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

During the late 2nd century BCE, the region of Commagene, located in south-central Anatolia, became an independent kingdom during a period of high geopolitical tensions. By the first century BCE, the Seleucid Empire was waning, the Romans and Parthians were actively working to consolidate their own empires, and the Armenian kingdom continued to expand its territory under the leadership of Tigranes the Great. While these major powers dominated the political and physical landscape, Commagene was the setting for cross-cultural interaction brought about by trade and military activity. Commagene’s multifaceted political and cultural position is particularly evident in the bronze coinage of Mithradates I Callinicus (r. 96-70 BCE), who ruled the area under the sovereignty of Tigranes.


What does the numismatic record tell us about how the Commagenian dynasts saw themselves in relation to the other assorted regional powers? The American Numismatic Society possesses four examples of coins issued under Mithradates, but one in particular is unique:

ANS, 1944.100.65150
ANS, 1944.100.65150

This coin is a rare type with an image of an eagle with a palm leaf under its wings on the obverse, instead of the more typical profile of a diademed king. A caduceus, a rod with intertwining snakes that is associated with the Greek god of commerce Hermes, is represented on the reverse, accompanied by the inscription ‘BASILEWS MITHRADATOU KALLINIKOU (‘of the king Mithradates Callinicus’).

The depiction of animals instead of rulers was common in the Greek world, where the eagle usually referenced Zeus. Yet if we consider the imagery of the eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coins within the context of first century Anatolia, the imagery may also express political alliance or allegiance to Tigranes. Specifically, the eagle commonly appears as an emblem of kingship in Tigranes’ coinage. In the example below, two eagles flank a rosette on his crown.

ANS, 1944.100.62299
ANS, 1944.100.62299

The eagle and palm branch on Mithradates’ coinage may thus be read as a conscious appropriation of kingship imagery that was associated with the dominant power in the region. It was a political act that acknowledged Armenian sovereignty on the one hand, and the Commagenian right to rule on the other. Moreover, the difference in the inscriptions on each coin is striking, and contributes to the present interpretation. While Mithradates carefully refers to himself as basilews or ‘king,’ Tigranes calls himself basilews basilewn or the ‘king of all kings.’ Understood in this context, coinage illuminates negotiations of political identity and expressions of kingship in antiquity.


The legacy of Mithradates’ imagery and the impact of Armenian expressions are also manifest in later numismatic and sculptural projects. For instance, Antiochus I Theoshierothesion (sacred tomb) at Mount Nemrud is an innovative fusion of various aesthetic and symbolic traditions, displaying the self-consciousness of the Commagenian dynasts in relation to past and contemporaneous power relations.

For more information on the Commagenian kingdom, see this recent volume edited by Herman Brijder.

Patricia Kim

Medallic Art of the ANS

Medallic Art of the ANS

The American Numismatic Society is proud to now offer a new and much anticipated publication for sale, Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014, by Scott H. Miller. This is the second volume in our Studies in Medallic Art series, and it looks at the history of medals issued by and for the ANS. The hardcover book features full-color photography and comprehensive histories of 60 medals, and includes discussions of additional  medals that have been both rightly or wrongly attributed to the ANS.

Treaty of Versailles medal in bronze (ANS 1985.81.7)
Treaty of Versailles medal (1919) in bronze (ANS 1985.81.7)

The entries are supplemented with artist sketches, archival photos, and contemporary sources that bring the stories behind these medals to life. Four appendixes note the recipients of many of the medals, and provide a list of dies, hubs, galvanos, and casts of the medals in the ANS’s own collection.

Commenting on the new book, Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, said “The ANS has been a leader in the publication of art medals in the U.S. for the past 150 years. The issuance of medals has been at the forefront of out mission since its inception, and they are as important as coinage in terms of history and beauty. Working with Scott Miller to produce the book was a rewarding experience, and we are all very happy that it is now available to the public.”

Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014, is available for purchase on the ANS website or by calling Catherine DiTuri at 212-571-4470, ext. 117. List price is $100; ANS member may purchase it for $70.

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

Deutschland in Amerika: July 9, 1916

postcard 6

As the First World War raged in Europe, neutrality in the United States was fraught with growing tensions as supporters of both sides of the conflict began to draw lines in the sand. Almost three years were to pass from the beginning of the war in August 1914 until the United States finally entered the conflict on April 6, 1917. During this time, commerce between the United States and both the Entente (Russia, France, Britain) and Central Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungary) continued. One of the more usual episodes in the ongoing trade with the belligerents took place in 1916. The Entente, spearheaded by the British Navy, had set up a blockade of Germany’s northern ports in the hopes of starving the country into submission. It was a tactic that proved effective, but not decisively so. While normal surface ships had little chance of running the blockade, the Germans realized that they could potentially employ their superior submarine technology to circumvent it.


The Deutschland was a nominally private German cargo submarine operated by the North German Lloyd line, which was built specifically to run the blockade. On its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, the Deutschland sailed mostly empty, but with tons of pig iron as ballast. It arrived and docked safely in Baltimore, on July 9, 1916. The pig  iron was subsequently unloaded and turned into souvenirs, which were sold to support German-American charities.

ANS, 1917.53.1 (click to enlarge)
ANS, 1917.53.1 (click to enlarge)

The submarine was loaded with mostly raw materials for its return trip home and Captain Paul König and his crew were feted as heroes all along the eastern seaboard that summer. The German Historical Society in New York City hosted an event for the crew at which the medal below was given.

ANS, 0000.999.56834
ANS, 0000.999.56834

Deutschland made another trip to the United States in the fall of 1916, this time landing in New London, Connecticut. A third planned trip in early 1917 was cancelled due to rising tensions in the aftermath of Germany’s renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare. Deutschland was soon thereafter militarized with torpedoes and guns, reemerging as U-155. The submarine went on to have a successful military career, sinking forty-two Allied ships and earning enmity of many Americans who had previously celebrated its blockade-running.

Peter van Alfen

Cartridges as Coins: Ethiopia, 1928

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

1930.5.6.bottomTucked away among a host of oddities and commodity currencies in the “traditional” cabinet at the ANS are two corroding gun cartridges, with jackets intact and presumably filled with powder. The bullets are 9mm and were produced in France, as indicated by the stamp S. F. M. (Société Française des Munitions) on the bottom of the casing. They served as ammunition for the Fusil Gras, a popular and fast-firing French service rifle that was manufactured in volume during the late nineteenth century.


The cartridges were donated to the Society in 1930 by Gordon MacCreagh (1886-1953), a Scottish pulp-fiction author and adventurer. Born in Perth, Indiana, MacCreagh’s adventuring life began after an academic fencing duel with a fellow student at Heidelberg University. Under the false impression that he had killed his opponent, he fled to India. MacCreagh served in World War I, and traveled to South America in 1922, but it was not until 1927 that he made his first trip to the African continent.

This expedition to Ethiopia was sponsored by the American pulp magazine Adventure and its ostensible purpose was to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant. MacCreagh spent most of the year fruitlessly searching, though he did gain an audience with Haile Selassie I (then Ras Teferi Mekonnen), who had recently been granted the title of negus (king) of Shoa by the Empress Zewditu. After his return, MacCreagh published an account of the expedition as the The Last of Free Africa (1928). It was also at this time that he made a donation to the ANS that included the cartridges, two blocks of salt (amole), and an assortment of coins that he picked up in Ethiopia.

ANS, 1930.5.10
ANS, 1930.5.10

The cartridges and amole were examples of then popular forms of commodity currency in Ethiopia. The history of firearms there began with the introduction of matchlock muskets in the 16th century by Portuguese mercenaries, who were hired by the beleaguered Christian Ethiopian monarchy as auxiliary forces in their fight against Muslim invaders. Firearms were not a common sight until the 19th century when French and Italian suppliers sold arms and ammunition to an Ethiopian monarchy looking to modernize its antiquated military systems.

Pitt Rivers Museum
Pitt Rivers Museum

By the first Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-96), the quality of armaments had been improved by European arms dealers, but not by much. Emperor Menelik II accommodated the hodgepodge of armaments in his army by dividing his men into 3 groups based on their rate of fire: those with muzzle-loaded guns (neftenya | fusiliers), those armed with flintlock rifles (temenja yaji | “one who bears a musket”) and those who carried breech-loaded rifles (snayder yaji | “one who bears a Snayder”). Snayder became the colloquial word for breech-loading rifles with the arrival of the .557 Snider-Enfield, which was used by British forces in Ethiopia at the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

ANS, 130.5.6
ANS, 130.5.6

By the time that Gordon MacCreagh arrived in Ethiopia, most Ethiopian infantrymen were using the by then very obsolete French Fusil Gras rifles. As with all relatively scarce goods in the mostly unregulated Ethiopian market, bullets soon became a commodity currency, and bullets bearing the S.F.M. stamp were highly sought after. When making his donation, MacCreagh mentioned that a single bullet was equivalent to 1/5th of a Maria Theresa thaler, the thaler still being a popular currency in that part of Africa. However, its value seems to have collapsed in relatively short order as arms and ammunition flooded into the country during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1941). within 10 years its value as a commodity seems to have collapsed. At the time that ANS curator Howland Wood published The Coinage of Ethiopia (1937), he observed that a single thaler could then fetch between 10-20 S.F.M. rounds.

Felege-Selam Yirga

Denari Provisini of the Roman Commune

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

The denaro provisino was one of the most widespread issues in Central Italy during the Late Middle Ages. Minted by Rome between 1186 and 1398, these small silver coins were characterized by a comb surmounted by an ‘S’ and symbols on the obverse. The reverse featured a cross surrounded by symbols in combinations that varied over time. Since the provisino is one of the very few informative artifacts from the Roman Middle, and they give us a better understanding of the economic history of Rome in this period.


The design of the provisino was based on the type minted in Provins for the Counts of Champagne (NE France), which was known as denier provinois.  The wool comb on the reverse of this denier showed a wool comb, a reference to one of the main industries in Provins. It was circulating widely in Central Italy by the mid-12th century and the Roman mint simply copied it because it was an established type.

Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300, Archivio de Stato
Pilgrims arriving in Rome for the first Jubilee in 1300,
Archivio de Stato

Although the Roman provisino never changed its basic type, the shape of the comb and other elements changed over the years. These changes in design allow us to reconstruct a relative chronology for the issue. The ANS collection holds two examples of provisini. The first  was minted between the very last years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. This dating of the coin comes courtesy of metallurgical analysis carried out by Angelo Finetti in the Istituto di Scienza della Terra of Perugia University in 2000. Many examples of the type were also found in excavations conducted by the École Française de Rome at the fortified settlement of Caprignano (Casperia, prov. Rieti) in strata immediately antedating the destruction of the place in 1307.

ANS, 1939.156.5
ANS, 1939.156.5

In this period the obverse of the provisino showed a wool comb surmounted by an ‘S’, a clear reference to the Roman Senate, between a star and crescent. The legend reads +SENAT’P.Q.R. (Senat[us] P[opolus]q[ue] R[omanus]). The reverse has the legend +ROMA.CAPVD.M’ (Roma Capud M[undi]) with a cross surrounded by symbols. Three variants have been recognized, based around the different symbols in the quarters around the cross:

  • Cross with two pellets in the 1st and 4th quarters
  • Cross with misshapened omega and star in 2nd and 3rd quarters
  • Plain cross

The coin above is of the second variant. The metrological evidence indicates that these were struck in large quantities over a relatively short period of time. The most likely occasion was the First Jubilee of 1300, which was accompanied by a massive building program. This, together with the presence of numerous pilgrims and others into Rome, would certainly have created a great need for petty cash. While these coins are hardly attractive to modern eyes, they offer a window into a forgotten era of the history of Rome.

For more examples of provisini held by Italian museums, see the online database of the Capitoline Museum.

Mariele Valci

Minting Multiculturalism in Alexander's Wake

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

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great crossed from Europe into Asia Minor and began his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Centered in Persia, it was the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from from Egypt and Bulgaria in the west to Pakistan and Western China in the east. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, the expansive empire was thought to have ruled over half of the world’s population at its height. The Achaemenid Empire is perhaps best known today for the series of wars it fought with the Greek city states, most notably Athens and Sparta. Although the Achaemenid kings were unsuccessful in their attempts to invade Greece proper, they did control a large Greek population living in modern day Turkey, and the repeated Persian invasions inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks.

Achaemenid Empire
Achaemenid Empire

The Persians thus loomed in Greek minds as their powerful enemy, and one which Alexander was determined to crush as his armies began their march into Achaemenid territory. Classical sources cite revenge as one of Alexander’s goals, and, whether or not this was true, his forces swiftly conquered Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt. The Persian king  Darius III massed his forces at Gaugamela, near present-day Mosul in Iraq, but suffered a devastating defeat owing to Alexander’s superior soldiers and tactics.


Darius fled west into the mountains, leaving one of his chief courtiers, Mazday (also known as Mazaeus or Mazaios), in charge of the city of Babylon. When Alexander’s army arrived at the gates, Mazday immediately surrendered the city and ceded control of the the strategically important region around Babylon to the Greeks. But Mazday did not simply surrender because he feared Alexander and his army, he was also motivated by self-interest. Alexander made Mazday satrap (or governor) of Babylon, which suggests he might have struck a deal to surrender the city. This position gave him responsibility for producing coinage:

ANS, 1944.100.72088
ANS, 1944.100.72088

This is a silver stater that weighs 17 grams, which is fairly heavy for an ancient silver coin, and it was minted in Bablyon under Mazday’s authority (331-328 BCE). On the obverse, the Semitic god Baal, who was worshipped throughout the Middle East, sits enthroned with a scepter in hand. Although mostly illegible, an Aramaic inscription on the right side of the obverse reads, “Baaltars,” a local variant of the god. This image of Baal later came to represent Zeus for coins minted throughout Alexander’s territory, as both were the chief gods of their respective pantheons. The reverse shows a lion, a popular image for millenia in the Middle East, and an Aramaic inscription reading Mazday.

The coin shows something of the cross-cultural influences that followed Alexander’s conquests . The Aramaic language, along with the iconography of Baal and the lion, is deeply Middle Eastern, yet Baal’s image eventually transmorgified into Zeus. The coin was minted at a Greek, rather than Persic, weight standard, and Greek inscription later displaced the Aramaic script. The coin can be viewed as a material symbol of the melding of Greek and Middle Eastern culture in the Hellenistic period.

Rhyne King

Trajan's Triumph

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

From 101 to 106 CE, the Roman Emperor Caesar Traianus Divi Nervae Filius Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, more commonly known as the emperor Trajan, waged back to back wars in the ancient territory of Dacia, a region covering modern Romania, Moldova, and surrounding area. Trajan’s victory in these wars was a source of prestige and provided the Roman Empire with a supply of wealth in the form of imported slaves and newly accessible gold mines.

Trajan decreed one hundred and twenty-three days of celebration following the final conquest of Dacia and its conversion into a province. In the years that followed, the benefits of these campaigns reached Rome in the form of plunder brought back by the returning army. Precious metal objects were paraded in triumphant processions through the city before they were melted down and minted into imperial denarii. The coins from this period, which were produced in a variety of types and variations,  commemorated the victory and celebrated the might of Rome.

ANS, 1956.127.1592
ANS, 1956.127.1592

This silver denarius has a typical obverse showing Trajan’s portrait, identifying him by name (IMP TRAIANO), including his titles denoting his military victories in Germany and Dacia, and recording the year it was struck in the form of the number of his consulships. The reverse shows Nike, the goddess of victory, inscribing DACICA on a shield, which hangs on a palm tree (yet another symbol of victory). The legend S P Q R OPTIMO PRINCIPI indicated that the coin was struck at the behest of the Senate and the Roman people for Trajan.


Like many Roman coins, the imagery and meanings duplicate and reinforce each other, presenting Rome as an invincible force almost predestined to add territory and expand. These images, together with the legend, follow patterns of inscriptions and iconography that were utilized in the construction of his forum and the famous Trajan’s column, which celebrated the discipline and strength of the Roman legions. The free-standing column wreathed in an elegant spiral bas relief was  completed in 113 CE and is about 100 feet in height. It’s dedication reads:

The Senate and people of Rome to the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of Nerva of blessed memory, conqueror in Germany and Dacia, High Priest, vested with the tribunician power 17 times, proclaimed Imperator 6 times, elected consul 6 times, Father of the Nation: as an illustration of the height which this hill and place attained, now removed for such great works as these.

Interestingly, both the coin and the inscription on the column recognize the agency of the Roman Senate and people (Senatus Populusque Romanus), and acclaim their triumph alongside that of Trajan’s. As with other Roman emperors, the right to strike coinage was one that was technically granted by the Senate as representatives of the people. Moreover, the erection of the column, though organized by Trajan and his favored architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, was technically a Senatorial project, not an imperial one. The coin was struck five years after the wars, but predated the completion of the column and thus helped to keep the memory of the Dacian Wars alive until the grand monuments could be completed.

Jane Sancinito

A blog of the American Numismatic Society