Abstract, stylised, non-figurative … These are just a few of the words that come to mind when looking at the obverse of this Celtic coin. It certainly appears as if a number of meaningless signs or symbols have been arbitrarily combined. But is that really the case? Does the obverse of this coin not tell us something? And why is there an image of a horse on the reverse? To be able to answer these questions, we need to turn the spotlight on Celtic monetary history.
The first Celtic coins date back to the third century BC and draw heavily on the Greek staters, like those of Philippus II of Macedonia. The coins of Taranto were also used as a model for Celtic coinage, as evidenced by the earliest coins of the Ambiani. This Greek influence can be ascribed to the presence of Gallic mercenaries in the army of the Mediterranean monarchs, as well as the many trade contacts between the two peoples. After all, because of their favourable location the Ambiani played a crucial role in the transport of pewter to Taranto. This not only explains the substantial Greek influence, but also why the Ambiani were more advanced, in economic and monetary terms, than the other Celtic tribes.
In 209 BC, however, Taranto lost its independence, spelling the end of its very close trade ties. This led to a period of monetary inactivity among the Ambiani, and it wasn’t until the middle of the second century BC that they began striking coins again. These “broad flan” coins are an amalgam of the staters of the type of Philippus II of Macedonia and the Tarentine type.
The head on the obverse clearly takes its inspiration from the head of Apollo on the Macedonian stater. The hair slide was derived from Hera’s veil on the coin from Taranto. The horse on the reverse of the coin is a reference to the pair of horses, with the wheel behind the horse representing the cart and the pellets alluding to the driver on the Macedonian stater. In combining the two types, the Ambiani were attempting to create greater monetary unity and make the currency more instantly recognisable.
During the first century BC, the coins steadily decreased in size. This affected the effigy, which became increasingly abstract. The head on the obverse, for instance, loses its human features and the head of hair is reduced to a few curls. On the reverse, only the horse is recognisable, the other elements having been reduced to pellets. This leaves little obvious trace of the Greek prototype…
These “biface” coins in turn provide the inspiration for a series of coins struck in the wake of the Gallic war (59 – 51 BC). Immediately after Caesar’s arrival in Gallia, a coalition was formed between various Belgian tribes such as the Nervii, the Ambiani, the Suessiones and the Veliocasses. In order to meet the needs of the war and promote mutual trade contacts, various tribes began minting new coins that were almost identical in weight and that had strong typological similarities, based on the “biface” coin of the Ambiani. This “biface” coin was not only widespread and widely accepted, but was also stable in weight and purity, making it the ideal prototype for the coins of the allied tribes. However, their new coins are characterised by their highly abstract imagery, which means that often only a few elements of the prototype are recognisable, as the following examples show.
On the obverse of this Nervian stater only the curls and the hair slide are identifiable. The reverse bears more similarities with the original: the horse is clearly recognisable. The wheel is a reference to the pair of horses.
This coin too, minted by the Suessiones, has retained only the curls and the hair slide on the front. On the reverse the horse is once again portrayed, a clear reference to the prototype.
On the coins of the Treviri there is no space for curls or a hair slide, because they have greatly enlarged one facet of the prototype, namely the eye. All the other elements of the head are therefore omitted from the coin face. On this coin too, the reverse bears the image of a horse.
From these examples we can therefore conclude that the Celtic effigies are not a collection of arbitrary signs and symbols, but highly abstracted forms of Greek originals, specifically the coins of Philippus II of Macedonia and the staters of Taranto.
Jeroen De Meester,
Member of the Museum staff
- Scheers S., Traité de numismatique Celtique: II. La Gaule Belgique, Paris, 1977, pp. 27 – 80.