Coinage

The introduction of coinage to Celtic Europe was almost certainly a by-product of the expansion of Celts, raiders, traders or mercenaries, into Southern and South-Eastern Europe in the period of the historical migrations. Nash (1987) has summarized the case for regarding Celtic coinage, both in its appearance across north-alpine Europe generally, and in Britain specifically, as having relatively little to do with trade, and much more to do with payments for mercenary service. Celtic mercenaries were evidently recruited throughout the Mediterranean world, but on an especially large scale by Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great, whose prized coinage thus became the model for many Celtic mints. Nash cites Livy (History, 44, 26) and Perseus of Macedon's offer to the chief of the Danubian Bastarnae of five gold staters apiece for infantry, ten for cavalry and a thousand for himself as the 'relevant rates of pay' (Nash Briggs, 1995, 246). What we can infer of Celtic society suggests that the deal would have been with the paramount chieftain, who would subsequently have controlled the distribution of rewards. This is not to say that Fenian bands or their equivalent might not have hired out their services independently, but Livy's report related to negotiations with the tribal hierarchy. The same principle applied in intra-Celtic negotiations, as between the Insubres and Boii and the Alpine Gauls from whom they recruited Gaesatae, according to Polybius (Histories, II, 22). Even so, the paucity of evidence for imported coinage itself is surprising, and can lead only to the conclusion that bullion was promptly re-processed, and possibly alloyed, before re-distribution.

Celtic adoption of coinage from Greek or Roman models, however, displays not so much an inclination to emulate the naturalistic classical style, but wilfully to deconstruct the originals and to re-assemble the component elements into a distinctively Celtic iconography. It should certainly not be assumed that the process of 'deconstruction' was simply a consequence of the Celtic artist's ineptitude for competent imitation. Instead it may be compared to the conscious exercise in deconstruction and re-assembly that early La Tene craftsmen had engaged upon in their use of classical models in the Early Styles of the fifth century bc. Where in some later regional mintings there is a reversion to more naturalistic representation, this may equally be regarded as a conscious decision to emulate the classical style.

Minting of coins implies a political power whose authority lends it legitimacy. Gold or silver coins will, of course, have an intrinsic value, but in base metals, as with paper money, the authority of political endorsement is all important. Accordingly, studies of Celtic coinage have conventionally inferred a correlation between coin distributions and tribal territories, and this may be reflected in the design and choice of motifs of a coin series. There are nevertheless certain motifs or symbols, such as the human-headed horse (not fully a centaur) and the boar image, that recur across a much wider distribution area, and which we may infer had pan-Celtic significance. The purpose of coinage in the Celtic world, at least initially, is unlikely to have been for day-to-day subsistence transactions. High denominations would have necessitated small change for regular use in a market economy, and though smaller coins in gold and silver together with bronze alloy coins are known from an early stage, it seems probable that coinage was used primarily for major social needs such as tribute, dowries and even votive offerings rather than as currency.

Europe can be divided broadly into two principal zones of Celtic coinage: a zone that used silver as its currency standard, extending from the Atlantic west of southern France through the Alps to the middle Danube and the Carpathians, and a zone to the north, from south-eastern Britain to Bohemia, that used gold. The earliest Celtic coinage was the middle Danubian, dating probably from the late fourth century, and using as its model the silver tetradrachms of Philip II of Macedon (ruled 359-336 bc). Celtic coinage in northern Italy using Massilian models probably dates from the third century. Of the gold belt, the western series, of which the earliest were based upon staters of Philip II (coins that continued to be struck after his death), could be earlier than the eastern, where the model was the gold stater of his successor, Alexander III (ruled 336-323 bc). The end of minting of independent coinage came abruptly with the Roman conquest of Gaul, and the subsequent expansion of the Roman Empire east of the Rhine and across the Channel into Britain.

In terms of this chronology, therefore, the earliest coinage in the east would have been co-eval with the developed Sword and Plastic Styles, and in the west might equally be expected to reflect some of the simpler, Waldalgesheim-derived motifs of the later styles in their composition. To some extent this is true, in spite of Allen's sceptical assertion (Allen, 1976, 265) that 'in the history of Celtic art as a whole, coins stand apart'. Duval's study of the coins of the Parisii especially (Duval, 1976, 253, Fig. 3, etc; 1977, Fig. 443) shows the repeated use of S-motifs, pseudo-triskeles, lyre-palmettes and even split-palmette derivatives (Figure 10.1). The manner of employment of these motifs is highly stylized, of course, in consequence of the highly specialized nature of the medium, but the motifs themselves should not be disaggregated from their wider application in Celtic art. As to manufacture, it is probable that, from an early stage, coin minting was discharged by specialists working under the patronage of their aristocratic and political masters, but it is quite unclear whether specialists would have been engaged in the production of other items of precious metals as well as coins (Duval and Hawkes, 1976, 278-9).

By contrast with earlier La Tene representations of the human head, the representations on the obverse of Celtic coins, based upon their classical models, are almost invariably in profile rather than full-face. One of the few issues with full-face representation comes from the late first century bc among the Taurisci on the middle Danube; its faces are clean-shaven, but depict oval eyes, nose and mouth, with a corrugated hair-style not unlike that of the stone sculpture from Msecke Zehrovice or the faces on the early first century phalerae from Manerbio sul Mella from northern Italy (Allen and Nash, 1980, 58; Duval, 1977, 386). Perhaps significantly, the head seems complete and quite independent of the out-sized head-dress, underlining its separate pedigree.

Parisii Coins Art
Figure 10.1 Designs on Gaulish coins. 1, stater of Parisii; 2, Parisii stater, composite of several coins from same die; 3, stater of Veneti; 4, stater of Osismii. Adapted from Duval (1976) and Allen and Nash (1980).

Profile heads on coins are mostly but not exclusively male, generally clean-shaven in the tradition of classical deities rather than following the reputed Celtic fashion of sporting moustache or beard, and occasionally bear appendages resembling horns or the symbolic leaf-crown of earlier imagery. There are also coins bearing Janus-heads, notably a second-century group among the Vindelici, but also examples from the Rhine, and one from Britain minted in the name of Cunobelin. Though Danubian and cisalpine coins may retain a semblance of portraiture, in much of the Gaulish and British coinage the head rapidly disintegrates into a series of stylized components in which only the eyes and laurel wreath, the latter reduced to a band of pellets, may be residually recognizable. Particularly bizarre is the Armorican depiction of miniature heads, seemingly dancing on the ends of tendrils attached to a still-recognizable principal head (Figure 10.1, 4). Torcs, with their connotations of high status or divinity, are commonly depicted, either around the neck or as independent accessories, though their archaeological typology is seldom assured.

On the reverse, human figures occur in several roles, as charioteer, as a rider on horseback or as a foot-soldier. In all these representations we are dealing essentially with Celticized renderings of classical models, though the accessories and associated symbols are commonly those of Celtic iconography, such as torcs, carnyxes or boar images. In more than one Gaulish example a naked female figure riding a horse is armed with the Celtic warrior's equipment of spear and shield, a graphic parallel to Polybius' account of the Gaesatae.

The Celtic zoo is represented on coins in a variety of ways, both naturalistic and fantastic. The horse is predominant, initially as part of the chariot team, or carrying a rider, but later as an independent representation. Its mane may be braided, and its tail tripled, like a cartoon representation of swishing movement. The horse with human head is quite common in Gaul, and is obviously related to the sphinx and centaur, which are both also represented. On one coin of Tasciovanus (Mack, 1975, no. 192; Allen and Nash, 1980, 520), a centaur is depicted playing pipes. Winged horses are not easily distinguished from griffons, and sometimes are associated with raven-like birds on their backs. Birds are relatively common, notably eagles and ravens, but also ducks among recognizable species, sometimes with snakes in their claws or beaks. But among the most potent of Celtic animal symbolism are images of bulls and boars, and these two occur in widespread regional groups on coins. Boars (Figure 10.1, 4), found especially in Gaul and parts of Germany rather than in the middle Danube, are represented either as the beasts themselves, or on boar standards, underlining their importance as a symbol in battle.

Because of the pedigree of Celtic coinage, and the obvious borrowing of myth and imagery from the classical world and beyond, it would be arguable how much one might infer of the everyday life of the Celts from images depicted on coins. The fact that a laurel wreath might be translated into an ear of corn hardly affords a profound insight into Celtic economy. Among the wardrobe of clothed figures on Celtic coinage, the use of breast armour has archaeological support, but the absence of trousers is surprising. Buildings or domestic structures one would hardly expect to find represented on coins. Allen's (1973) interpretation of a series of representations of buildings on Gaulish coins of the later first century bc as shrines or temples might be regarded as fairly speculative, but is nevertheless worth considering in the context of archaeological evidence for Romano-Celtic temples, and perhaps especially the sacred sites of Picardy. On the other hand, Allen also (1971b) drew attention to a dozen coins, principally from Normandy and probably of late second-century date, depicting a type of vessel with high prow and stern that he took to be a sea-going ship, and which would certainly be consistent with Caesar's account of the sturdy, ocean-going ships of the Veneti to the west. In general, however, we should not expect to see the iconography of the coins as a mirror of everyday life. As Allen observed, 'it was no part of the aim of the engraver to represent that which was simple and homely, but that which was bizarre and heroic' (Allen and Nash, 1980, 148). Notwithstanding his legitimate scepticism regarding some of the more extravagant claims of ritual symbolism in Celtic coins, it does appear that there were recurring images that can provide genuine insights into the Celtic mindset in terms of the heroic and supernatural pantheon.

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