Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part 28

Base gold inscribed stater of the Corieltauvi,
ex Mossop collection 
Looking at the emergence of the La Tène decorative art it is clear that this was a warrior society and that military prowess was its measure of status. La Tène art would probably never have developed if the Celts had not set up military bases in northern Italy because it was from there that Greek decorative elements were first adapted by the Celts. Prior to the La Tène period, the Celts experiences in warfare had been more local: wealthy leaders had sprung up here and there and left evidence of their success with princely graves on the continent but not, so far, in Britain. The Mediterranean wars provided not only a source of great wealth for the warrior, but a certain amount of peace back home: no war lord had emerged to seize control over all the lands where the Celtic language was spoken. The spread of the La Tène culture was slow and intermittent. The southern part of Ireland did not adopt the culture at all, and Britain did not show much of the La Tène styles before about 300 BC.

Any Celtic warrior who had been hired by Dionysius I of Syracuse in about 400 BC might have been about twenty years old at the time. Owing to the shorter life expectancy at the time when people were commonly dying in their forties, that warrior probably would not have had twenty years of active service left. At the end of his career he might have gone home with a large amount of gold. Not being too interested in fighting anymore, he could still have acted as patron for those who did, but lacked the ambition or the resources to fight in the Italian campaigns. Throughout human history, whenever gold shows up in an area, so too, do people eager to capture it. In Britain, gold had been virtually absent since the late Hallstatt, but it starts to appear again, after 300 BC in some surprisingly remote areas of Britain. We might expect it to have arrived in the southeast, but that area's domination was to come much later.

There is a thread which runs through the classical accounts of the Celts in northern Europe and which seems to have been something also understood by the Celts, themselves. In modern jargon, it is "The further south you move, the softer you get". The Belgae took great pride in saying that they had originated on the other side of the Rhine, and their most ferocious fighters were the northernmost Nervii who had impressed Caesar by not only giving him a hard battle he won more by luck than anything else, but also for fighting and not retreating even when most of their warriors had been killed. When their Druids finally concluded that surrender was their only option, Caesar allowed them to retain their "territories and towns" and offered them Roman protection against their neighbours because of their weakened state.

Before the Celts set up their military bases in northern Italy, a certain amount of softness was not difficult to find in Italy: the Etruscans seem to have wanted to be remembered as fashionable couples reclining on couches and drinking wine, and in the south, Sybaris enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle (while it was allowed to survive) making much of its money by taxing traders. Their name survives in "sybaritic". Even the Celts who had moved to northern Italy's Golasecca culture had intermarried with Etruscans and had adopted Greek lifestyles. Much later, still, the Celts who had founded Galatia (in what is now Turkey) in the 270's BC gradually became ever more Hellenized (Galatian coins look no different than the Greek coins of the region). The Greek commanders understood that the most ferocious fighters would be in the northern parts of Gaul (and Britain), and the Senones, who lived just south of the Belgae were the intermediaries who set up the Gaulish base in northern Italy. Further northwest from the Senones in Gaul, there was a recruiting centre in the Somme Valley (Ambiani) where most of the British forces appear to have headed in the third century BC. (John Sills, Chris Rudd List 69, May, 2003). It seems likely to me that the owner of the (pre-modified) Witham shield had taken such a route to Italy. That its owner was Corieltauvi seems also likely as the tribal name is adapted from the Celtic Corio=army.

After the Romans had expelled the Celts from Italy in about 200 BC, the Celts had no foreign outlet for their military ambitions, but they had a considerable amount of gold with which to purchase troops. It must have been at this time that the Druid and Knight classes that Caesar tells us about were either formed, or highly modified. It might have been that, previously, the Druids had held all of the power, but when Celtic warriors returned from the Mediterranean with plenty of gold and knowledge of the ways of Greek tyrants, that gave them a very large bargaining chip. At some point, some Druids created a law that forbade the use of captured gold for anything other than a permanent trophy. This was a way in which the wealth could be controlled so that it would be difficult for any warlord to gain ascendancy through his increased wealth being used to amass even more troops. Legal regulations also governed the degree to which blood relatives could share power, and the druids set up a "two-party system" (factions) whereby each layer of their society would have a voice. I see this as having been developed, in an evolutionary manner, to handle various problems in the new wealthier and more militant society.

This soon lead to a new function for gold coin: as their military ambitions were held in a far from peaceful check by the Druids, the Knights saw that in order to advance, gold could now be used to purchase political influence from the support of the same people who had served them as troops. The tribes had no standing armies and the troops were enlisted farmers and even farm owners (in the higher ranks). I think that it was this change that brought about coins inscribed with names and/or titles, not any influence from Roman coins. A knight's political victories could feed his military ambitions by having more of the people support military over diplomatic solutions and thus sway the "tribal supreme court" of the Druids by using their own system of political representation. So the new function for gold did not replace the old function of buying troops, it augmented it.

Another development caused from the situation of having greater wealth, not just from military earnings but from the Celtic credit system whereby cattle could be loaned at the interest of some of their offspring, was that in order to gain support from the people through social obligations like the potlatch, displays of great wealth through wasteful feasts and financial largess became the standard. This clan system was so wasteful that we see a gradual debasement of the money: the gold coins have less and less gold in them. Some tribes, like the British Durotriges, ended up with copper alloy "gold staters", and were unable to hire military support from any area with a healthier currency (which was pretty well anyone close to the Durotriges).

Most importantly, gold coins were used to obtain support to rule in some way, and not as spending money for the subjects of a king after his accession (unless gold was used again to finance warfare). You might say that the issuing of coinage was now thoroughly privatized, and its quality was backed by the name of the issuer as in the traditional Greek fashion. Gold coinage, in addition to being military pay, now had also become a sort of intrinsically valuable "campaign button" and the candidates sometimes identified themselves as having political qualities such as Antethirig= Fit to rule. Of course, entering a campaign does not always end in victory and I think it highly likely that some of those "dynastic rulers" were not even blood-related and some of them only ever made it to contender. Gold staters were only issued for a specific need (again, in the Greek fashion).

Tomorrow, gold quarter staters and silver coinage.

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