Monday, 14 April 2014

The Sego legend on coins of the Catuvellauni -- part five

Gold stater of Verica showing a vine-leaf
The use of a vine-leaf as a sole coin type as is seen on this coin of Verica of the British Atrebates has no precedent in the ancient world, appearing only on later Jewish coins. On Greek coins, it appears, sometimes, as a subsidiary element when a bunch of grapes is depicted. There seem to be no Roman coins where even a bunch of grapes is depicted as a main type. It seems most likely that the design had been borrowed from an intaglio gem where it might have been a pun on a name or, more likely, to have been considered to be suitable device for a wine-trader. On coins of the continental Averni, however, the wine trade seems to be represented by an amphora as a subsidiary element, and trade in commodities that would have been shipped in amphorae are similarly depicted on many Greek coins, usually as a main type. Other Greek coinage references to wine include the kantharos

As gold staters were used, by the Greeks, for the hire of troops and served as the main prototypes for the earliest Celtic coins (which had exactly the same function), it is no surprise to see warrior imagery as on the reverse of this coin and many others. However, in Britain around this time, we start seeing a proliferation of types just north and south of the Thames that speak of a growing market economy. In the case of  the Trinovantes/Catuvellauni and the Cantii, this is emphasized by the appearance of a copper alloy coinage in addition the gold and silver, and with the Atrebates, the use of very small silver coins ("minims") in addition to the standard "unit" (these are all names given to the denominations in modern times).

Verica uses the vine leaf on gold quarter staters and a silver coin, but he also has other types indicating the promotion of the new market economy, such as the cornucopia (for plenty), and the kantharos (wine cup). It has long been suggested that Verica's vine leaf is a response to Cunobeline's ear of barley (which was, afterward, brought to Atrebates coinage by Epaticcus). The association of cornucopiae with a sceptre on another coin of Verica suggests that the king was politically promoting this new economy, and all of these "commercial" types indicate that this was an important part of his image-making.

There still might be a few people around who think that the Celts mindlessly copied types for their coinage, and I find it interesting that whenever this is mentioned, it is a Roman influence that is stated rather than both Greek and Roman but a kantharos is certainly a Greek icon. We can see a number of coins that do seem to be borrowed from Roman coin types, but while we might think of Roman influence, I think that a more likely answer is that, within this new economy, gem cutters trained in the Roman world were finding available work in Britain among the new merchant and middle classes. Even here, though, the types were likely to have had local significance even if we cannot positively identify the details of this. It is also very likely that Roman Republican moneyers were obtaining some of their designs from their own gem-cutters -- which was a trend that started with Greek coins (some of which are signed by people known to have been gem cutters). Besides, it would be absurd to think that anyone could make a living in the Greek world by only cutting coin dies.

It should also be no surprise that metaphor and the use of political imagery was typical for the Celts because Diodorus (V.31) tells us that "... when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another." In the last episode, the use of metaphor was explained to Lucian by a Celtic philosopher or bard to show how the power of speech was Herakles and not Hermes (Mercury). Caesar tells us that that Mercury was the god most reverenced by the Gauls, but does not mention how he was depicted.

Hermes/Mercury seems to be "the Swiss army knife" of Classical deities, being not just the popular "messenger of the gods", but concerned with poetry and oration, wealth, trade, the four seasons (which Macrobius says is represented by the four strings of his lyre), agriculture, and being a psychopomp etc.. His influence has stretched to the modern world through his importance in alchemy (Mercurius and the Vas Hermeticus) and through alchemy, to Jungian psychology -- Jung coming to his methods through his vast study of alchemy (Mysterium Coniunctionis) in which he shows that, instead of the popular "primitive chemistry", alchemy was not so much about the "transmutation of metals" as the transmutation of the alchemist, himself, to a higher state of being.

While Ogmios was the deity of the orator, his strength was that of Herakles, and it is strength that is the meaning of the Celtic sego-. So we can see the likelihood that the British Atrebates were using this aspect of Hercules Saegon, not just in the dedication to him at Silchester, but in their leaders' political emphases on trade and wealth. Of course, being so mercurial, the god is prime material for syncretism and the warrior based power is starting to yield to the more modern importance of trade and plenty for the masses.

Tomorrow, the geographical hunt for Sego in Britain.

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