Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part twenty

Gold stater inscribed [CO]MMIOS, VA 350-1
If anyone had pondered why legends started appearing on British Celtic coins, they might have had similar ideas to John Evans: that the British were influenced by legends on Roman coins. It all seems like a natural progression: first comes uninscribed coins, then they learn to write and start putting ruler's names on the coinage just as the Roman's do. This sort of thinking is not so much careful analysis as it is a minimum of consideration over what "we have always known". Memes pass as reality because they appear to be common knowledge. People can preface the uttering of a meme with "As everybody knows...", and it does not invite much further thought. If anyone had bothered to question this assumption, then certain pieces of information would soon cause cracks to appear in the model: Gaul also went from uninscribed to inscribed coinage, but earlier than Britain, and it started with tribes that were more "state-like" and prosperous like the Aedui and the Arverni. Any ideas about Romans placing ruler's names on their coins would vanish as soon as we remember that the Roman coins of that time were Republican and not Imperial. Then we have Caesar telling us that the Gauls did not believe in putting their beliefs into writing, but for mundane records like accounts, they used Greek letters. We do have Gaulish and British Celtic coins with Greek letters, the commonest being theta which is written in different forms.

I have noticed that an awful lot of writing about the ancient Celts is heavily referent to the Romans. A corollary to this statement might come from my critics who say that I place far too much emphasis on the Celtic connections with Greece. While we have a rich source of information with Caesar, his commentaries start in 58 BC and end in 51 BC. Details of the earliest Celtic connections with people south of the Alps is sketchy, but the late Golasecca culture shows increasing Celtic presence. By about 400 BC, Dionysius I of Syracuse was paying very generously for good troops and this marks the start of a massive movement of Celts to northern Italy and the start of tribal bases there. One of the first things the Celts did in Italy was to capture Rome and hold it for ransom. The Romans did not put an end to this Celtic military presence in Italy until about two hundred years later.

Celtic art is inspired by the Classical, not so much in its figurative aspect as its vegetal: ivy scrolls; palmettes; lotus buds. It does not adopt the grapevine scroll, however, because the Dionysian ivy scroll is referent to the night; to the dark part of the year; and to being like the second-born Dionysos because it has two different growths each year. This Dionysian belief appears to have been shared by the Celts prior to their arrival in Italy, but it is also possible that it came into Dionysian belief through travelers in Celtic lands. Whatever its early history might have been, it certainly made for an easy syncretism, in Italy, between Celtic and Dionysian, Orphic and Pythagorean beliefs. It is easy, too, for a meme to dismiss the Greek accounts which compare Celtic and Pythagorean beliefs in the transmigration of souls with a "That can't possibly be right". If you ask "Why?", the person will not be able to give you a reason, at least at first, as they have never actually thought about it.

We do know, from Julius Caesar, that the Gauls had kings much earlier than the time that their names started appearing on coins. One of these kings, Diuiciacus of the Suessiones, was an overking and ruled Britain, too. We also see a number of titles appearing on Celtic coins and some of these seem to be embedded in so-called king's names, such as VERCINGETORIX, which also suggests an overking. In Britain, in addition to REX variations (Rix; Ri; Rig.., etc.) we get Corionos = "Army commander"; and even Antethirig = "Fit to rule"  (which seems far less a title than a political campaign slogan to me).

At about the same time that the Celts were starting to be tempted by the prospects offered by Dionysius I of Syracuse, but before the big Italian bases were in place, Britain was seeing a build-up of hillforts, but these forts seemed to have varying functions and varying success and it did not seem to go anywhere at all. Any sort of military prowess at home would have been a problem for much of the population and a local revolt or two is more than likely if any group became too oppressive. Having foreign wars to fight, however, not only promised great wealth, but did wonders for keeping things fairly peaceful at home. The future must have looked rosy.

No one would have expected, in the fourth century BC and before Alexander, that the Romans would eventually take Italy, let alone the entire Mediterranean basin and beyond. They were seen as comically self-important and stuffy, more bureaucrat than warrior; just another barbarian tribe, though. All of those wars, though, were largely about business: the western Mediterranean trade had come up for grabs a couple of hundred years earlier than that, and Carthage, Massalia, Syracuse, Etruria, and others, including Rome wanted a slice of that pie. When the dust finally settled, Rome won. The bookies must have made a killing.

In a fine bit of historical irony, the Celts actually helped the Romans win Italy: the Celts had been removing large quantities of gold, in military pay, ransoms, and booty for some time. Whenever a Celtic spearman had more gold than he could wear without getting weighed down too much, or got a bit old and wanted to retire from fighting, then he went home with his takings. Here and there, various important workshops sprang up in the homeland to make jewelry from that gold, and fine weaponry and armor for its owners. But there was less and less gold available to hire foreign armies; another Pyrrhus was not going to come to defend their cities. I think that the Celts made off with about half of the Etruscan treasury. The Etruscans thought they were gaining Celtic allies, but it was only a protection racket.

Little did the Celts realize, at first, that it was not gold they brought back home, but a Trojan horse: gold was the universal currency of troops; at about 200 BC, the Romans had driven the last Celts from Italy and Celtic armies and their commanders with two hundred years of accumulated experience in Greek battles, knowledge of Greek culture and experiences with Greek tyrants such as Dionysius I, suddenly had no one to fight but each other, at home.

What followed is too complex to write about here, but you can get an idea of the sorts of safeguards that had to evolve from Caesar's description of the druids as judges; the divisions into factions; the inviolate nature of booty, and so on. Tribal society had to somehow absorb all of that wealth and prevent the emergence of its own tyrants. It became a society of conspicuous waste: the slaughter of far more livestock than could possibly be eaten; the deposition of great treasures in rivers and bogs; competition over who has the greatest finery. Although avoided at first, coin use returned and spread, and you see the gold become increasingly debased over time. Too much gold had already gone (we are finding it today).

Again, foreign troops cannot be hired. They still work for gold staters, not for silver or even copper. Response to hostilities becomes ever more local. Then comes Caesar, then comes Claudius. Game over.

In Britain, the military gold coinage has at first only a tribal identity, and this includes its usage against Caesar's troops. Sometime after Caesar had left, names start to appear on British coins that have been assumed to be of kings operating in a Medieval line of familial succession from a central tribal authority. This is really a description of a state. We see a secure background of avoidance of even family cliques with the business over Dumnorix and Diuiciacus of the Aedui; with the Celts practice of fosterage; with their two factions extending as far down as to some families. We see, too, ample evidence of multiple levels of kingship by looking at potential evolutionary states between what Caesar describes and what we see in later Irish laws.

We are used to money being issued each year so we can spend it in the shops, but in the time we are looking at, money was predominantly used for warfare. But times were changing, and trading opportunities offered more chances for wealth than did warfare, which had become rather hobbled after a while, anyway, by tribal policy. I think that names appeared as political slogans. Money was given a new purpose: as capital for trade and politics, not war. The best clan leader was the one who would give the most; who would waste the most. Whether the conflict was political with kings vying with each other for votes to gain another rung in kingship, or was with swords and military pay, coinage was used to obtain power and not to revel in it afterward. So you are bound to find a lot of coins issued by people whose coins said "Make me your leader", but the people did not listen. I would expect coin use to be sporadic, especially for the gold. This is what happened with the Greeks use of gold, which the Celts directly inherited: it was only issued for a campaign. When Greek coins are dated in catalogs, "350 - 300 BC" it does not mean that coins were issued each year, between those two dates. It means that the coin type was issued sometime between those two dates because of certain evidence, but we have no idea, yet, of what exact date. A coin production might go on for days, weeks, months, but only for years in extreme cases or with very large states.

So when assigning names on Celtic coins to a succession of family heirs, you had better have strong historical evidence that this is correct because there is a lot of evidence to the contrary for this sort of thing. We cannot even know, for sure, that  COM F. really means birth son of Commios; whether it is a formal tribal adoption (I had a friend, once, who was adopted into a tribe and became a princess of that tribe); or whether COM F. means MacCommios.

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