Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The coins formerly attributed to Prasutagus, husband of Boudicca of the Iceni

An example from the Henry Mossop collection
For many years, some coins first found in the Joist Fen, Suffolk, hoard had been attributed to Prasutagus on the basis of the reading of the legend as Sub Rii Prasto/ Esico Fecit. (mixed Latin and Brythonic, taken to mean "Under king Prasutagus, Esico made this". Most of these coins were badly chipped and otherwise damaged, which made reconstructions of the legends difficult. In recent years, a couple of new specimens in excellent condition have been found and the legends of these are now read as: SVB ESVPRASTO / ESICO FECIT. For the background, so far, see this article by Amanda Chadburn.

A more recent find (CCI-00261)
showing a clearer legend
With the new reading, comparisons were made with legends on some Corieltauvi coins which gave variations of ESVP ASV, IISVP ASV, ESVP RASV, IISVP RASV. The substitution of II for E is common in British Celtic coin legends. Not mentioned by Chadburn is a gold stater which reads IVSPP [RA]SV (CCI 01.0421); a copper alloy core which reads ESVS [A]SV (CCI, 86.0408) which seems a direct reference to the Celtic deity, Esus: and a silver unit which reads [?]SVP [?]T (CCI 65.0014) -- providing a possible "Prasto".

The assumption is made that Esuprasto is a ruler's name (which includes an element drawn from the Celtic god Esus) and that ESICO FECIT (Esico made this) is a "signature" of the issuing magistrate or a die engraver. In a discussion with the Celtic linguist David Stifter at the University of Vienna, I asked for a translation of "Esuprasto" and questioned the interpretation of ESICO FECIT as the word Latin word fecit seems to have no other similar usage in ancient numismatics. His reply can be seen quoted here. In the message, he offers a suggestion for Esuprato:
"Could it be that prastu- is a spelling for *brasto- (vel sim.), as in British and Irish bras "fat, big", the b/p variation being due to an uncertainty as to the correct spelling of the initial consonant? A fluctuation between signs for voiced and voiceless consonants in the spelling of Gaulish and other old Celtic languages can be observed, which is sometimes explained as being due to Celtic having a different type of opposition in its obstruent system (not voiced : voiceless, but tense : lax or something like that). Think of pairs like Gaul. carbanto- : Latin carpentum, or Latin gladius, probably a loan from some Celtic word beginning with *klad- (cp. OIr. claideb), but also within Gaulish arganto- vs. arcanto- etc. ...Could it then be that Esuprasto means "fat/big through Esus"? Are there other personal names with the element bras as second compound member?"

Fecit does appear on some Roman coins in a completely different context, referring to the Cerealia, a feast to honour Ceres -- the Roman equivalent of Demeter, mother of Persephone whose legends were adapted to Ceres. The interpretation, "Esico made this [coin die/ issue]" is probably influenced by the same convention on antique prints where it names the artist. Roman pottery from Gaul also uses fecit on a
subsidiary stamp together with a name. These names are thought by some to be of slaves working at the pottery and presumably is some sort of tallying system. Signed ancient coin dies usually have a very small
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
name or an initial, often hidden in the design and nowhere as a prominent legend. Magistrates names often have a greater prominence on coins than artists signatures. The republican denarius uses the word fecit in commemorating a person who was the first to create the Cerealia  festival. Today we would be more likely to use instituted, held or even produced. Fecit is an archaic term, but its last common usage was in the 17th and 18th centuries on prints and clock mechanisms, and this is the meaning that has been assumed for the coin legend.

Already, we have two points of similarity: the Celtic coin legend refers to a god's name (something unusual in Celtic coinage), and the term fecit is used on both the Celtic and the Roman coin, but apparently has little usage outside of that save for the tallying of slave production at a pottery.

The Celtic god Esus  is first recorded in Lucan's Pharsalia:
"immitis placatur sanguine diro Teutates, horrensque feris altaribus Esus, et Taranis Scythicae non mitior ara Dianae
"harsh Teutates is cruelly propitiated with blood, and dread Esus on savage platforms, and the altar of Taranis, a match for that of the Scythian Diana"
This passage has been used to postulate the existence of a Celtic trinity -- Teutates, Esus, and Taranis. The theory goes that it is not only of very long Indo-European tradition, but these three deities were also propitiated with human sacrifices of the Indo-European "three-fold death"

The Pharsalia was written about the plight of Caesar, and Lucan appears to have tailored much of this passage to reflect various connections with Caesar. It was certainly not intended to be any sort of study of Celtic religious beliefs. The reference to the "Scythian Diana" is especially pointed -- Caesar owned a villa near her sanctuary which was 25 km south-east of Rome. She is "Diana Nemorensis"

The primary source for connecting Lucan's account with human sacrifice and thence to the threefold death comes from Lactanius. Unfortunately, Lactanius was a Christian Apologist who, like others of his nature, criticized the various mystery cults with many stories of their barbarity and human sacrifice. Today, he is favored more for his rhetoric style than for any accuracy. Copernicus said of him:
"Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth's shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such persons will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers."
The best site on the web about Esus is by Michael J Dangler. I have been working on a mythological analysis of Esus, but that will have to wait (perhaps) for some other time.

It seems to me that the "Prasutagus" coins were issued by Esico (does his name contain an Esus element?), and were commemorating his sponsorship of a feast dedicated to Esus with a coin legend using a Roman convention that had been applied to the Cerealia. Comparisons between sites containing these coins and sites from other regions without the coins, but with other similarities to the sites containing those coins are favorable but details of that, also, will have to wait for another time. Perhaps I will make it another series -- we will see.


  1. Very detailed and helpful. Thank you.

  2. You are welcome, I'm glad you found it useful.

  3. Any coins found of his daughters?

    1. No, and even some coins commonly attributed to her are now mostly considered to be earlier. No later Iceni coins appear to have been struck.