Thursday, 18 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 2: Gold and warfare

Ambiani large flan gold stater (also known as Gallo-Belgic A) circa 125-100 BC.

One of the earliest Celtic gold coins imported into Britain, it set the type for most
of the early British gold coinage.

Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
"The second class is that of the knights. When their services are required in some war that has broken out ― and before Caesar's arrival in the country the Gallic states used to fight offensive or defensive wars almost every year ― these all take the field, surrounded by their servants and retainers, of whom each knight has a greater or smaller number according to his birth and fortune. The possession of such a following is the only criterion of position and power that they recognize." Caesar, The Gallic Wars,  6,15

Largely missing in accounts of the arrival of the first Celtic gold coinage into Britain is that Gaul was part of the Greek world and that the Celts not only used gold coins that are modeled after Greek coins, but the coins had the same purpose as that of the Greek gold coins ― to pay for troops for specific campaigns (see Melville-Jones, J.R.  Ancient Greek gold coinage up to the time of Philip of Macedon in Travaux de Numismatique Grecque Offerts à Georges Le Rider, Spink , London, 1999.)

Prior to the large flan type, the Ambiani were the first Belgic tribe to mint gold coins and those rare coins were copies of a gold coin of Taras in Italy minted around the time of Alexander the Molosian, who was uncle to both Alexander the Great and Pyrrhos, but the coins were possibly paid out to the Celts in the defence of Taras against the Romans by Pyrrhos. Taras (Taranto) was a Spartan colony in Italy founded in 706 BC. Celts under Dionysios I of Syracuse in Sicily first fought for the Spartans against Athens about two hundred years earlier.

The Celts could have made gold coins using their own styles without any difficulty but decided to model their coinage on the coins that were paid to them for their military services. Thus gold coins had a purpose different from their intrinsic value ― the designs symbolized the Celts prowess in battle. While the chariot design on the reverse of the Philip II prototype would have resonated with the Celtic consciousness being a vehicle much used by them in earlier times and still used in battle by the Britons, the first prototype gold coin copied by the Ambiani did not depict a chariot at all.

The way that the Celts abstracted the prototype design gives us information about how warfare was absorbed into their religious beliefs, but that subject will have to wait until tomorrow.

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