Gaulish money  Share

Map of Gaul, Source: Atlas der Algemene Geschiedenis en der Belgische Geschiedenis. Wesmael-Charlier, Namen, 1972.

Map of Gaul, Source: Atlas der Algemene Geschiedenis en der Belgische Geschiedenis. Wesmael-Charlier, Namen, 1972.

By the end of the 4th century BC, coinage had been introduced into Gaul. In those days, the Gauls began hiring out their services as horsemen or foot soldiers to the great Mediterranean warlords. In the ancient world, the Gauls were regarded as “barbarians” – i.e. people who did not speak Greek – but they were also valued for their skills as warriors. So they became mercenaries – formed into organised bands with a hierarchical structure and weapons – in the service of great kings such as Philip II of Macedonia or Alexander the Great. In exchange for their services they were given gold coins, and thus became familiar with the monetary system. The Gaulish elites understood the importance of coins as a unit of account (currency facilitates trade) and a store of value. But coins were also a popular medium for displaying images. Furthermore, the power to issue currency is a source of prestige and profit. Each new issue is inherently worth less than the previous one, whereas the face value does not change. There is therefore a discrepancy between the coin’s face value and its intrinsic value.

Since the quantity of money brought back by the mercenaries proved insufficient, the first Gaulish coins were issued in the 3rd century BC. These first examples were faithful reproductions of the Greek models, mainly Macedonian coins. The most famous are the copies of the gold stater of Philip II of Macedonia, which was in very widespread circulation. They are the same size and weight (8.6 g), with the same images and even the same inscriptions as the original. Other Greek prototypes were copied, such as the gold stater of Taranto, a Greek colony in Italy. The Taranto gold staters were also the main prototype used in parts of northern Gaul, and more particularly in the Somme valley. They may have been introduced by sea, via the tin trade, or by mercenaries. These staters were imitated by the Ambiani, the first people to mint coins in Belgian Gaul.

In copying the Mediterranean prototypes, the Celtic princes aimed to compare themselves to the great kings of ancient times, symbols of social prestige.

Stater of Philipp II

Stater of Philipp II

By the 2nd century BC, trade and crafts were expanding – a new social group appeared, the merchant class, accompanied by the emergence of the great markets – encouraging the development of fortified towns: oppida. As more goods were traded for cash, the use of money became widespread, and was adjusted to the needs of each population. That led to the multiplication and diversification of issuing powers. Monetary activity was structured around a number of regional centres, and the coinage tended to circulate mainly in the region where it was issued. Potins – coins cast in an alloy of lead, tin and copper – appeared at this time.

The various issuing authorities tried to establish their own identity by the iconography used on the coins which they issued. The coins became less directly reminiscent of the Macedonian or Greek prototypes. The images were adapted to Celtic art motifs (featuring torques, and people with longer hair, etc.). In addition, new images and new themes specific to Celtic art appeared, focusing on beliefs rather than everyday life. The images became increasingly stylised. Animals and mythical creatures appeared.

From the 1st century BC, a new elite began to issue coins. This new issuing authority developed a new kind of iconography, relating to war. Weapons and harnessed horses were depicted on the back of the coins, with helmeted figures on the face. The chiefs used images which related to themselves personally, rather than to the group as a whole. The two types of iconography therefore coexisted, with a new repertoire alongside the old images. The chiefs used this iconography for propaganda purposes. Some Gaulish aristocrats used Greek or Latin to inscribe their names on the coins, in an attempt to show that they were educated, and to indicate their interest in Greco-Roman culture.

Horses always featured on the back of many Gaulish coins. Initially, horses were depicted because they were shown drawing a chariot on the staters originally used as prototypes for most Gaulish coins. But the horse had always held an important position as a symbol of prestige in Gaulish society. The first Gaulish issues presented a fairly faithful image of the model of chariot used in Gaul. Gradually, the chariot came to be represented by a simple wheel, and the horse became increasingly stylised in accordance with Celtic practice.

During the Gallic Wars, political views became increasingly outspoken, and some Gaulish chieftains did not hesitate to state their position with the aid of the images depicted on their coins.

Nervii stater with epsilon: on the obverse, vestiges of a broken head, on the reverse, a horse with a triangular head and above it a wheel with four spokes

Nervii stater with epsilon: on the obverse, vestiges of a broken head, on the reverse, a horse with a triangular head and above it a wheel with four spokes

After the Roman conquest, the Romans were unable to place their coins in circulation as far away as Gaul without risking a shortage. That is why the Roman coinage was not imposed immediately. The Gaulish issuing authorities therefore continued to manufacture coins, still using the same images for propaganda purposes, and thus gave the impression that the conquerors had not deprived them of their freedom.

When the Emperor Augustus (23BC to17BC) introduced his currency reforms – imposing control over the coins minted by imperial production units scattered throughout Gaul – Gaulish coins gradually ceased to be issued. Nonetheless, those already in circulation remained in use for a time.

Laura Pleuger
Museum guide

Acknowledgements: J.-M. Doyen

Bibliography

  • Doyen J.-M., “Les Nerviens, une histoire de gros sous”, in L’Archéo-Théma, special issue on the Nervii, (forthcoming).
  • Gruel K., La monnaie chez les Gaulois, Paris, Errance, 1989.
  • Ruta V., Les Celtes. Histoire et dictionnaire. Des origines à la romanisation et au christianisme, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2000.
  • Meissonnier J., Popovitch L. & Schomas H., “Piles et Faces. Une collection d’images monétaires”, in Fragments d’archéologie, n°15, Dijon Archaeological Museum, June 2010.
  • Scheers S., “Traité de numismatique celtique. II. La Gaule Belgique”, in Annales Littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, n°195, Paris, 1977.

One Comment

  1. Posted Monday December 27th, 2010 at 09:52 AM | Permalink

    A record breaking Treasure Trove of Gaulish gold coins has been found in a farmers field in France.The hoard of coins found in central Brittany was discovered by the French government agency the Institut National de Recherches Archeologiques Preventives INRAP . And this area is due for a new by-pass to be built.The coins are believed to have been minted around 75 to 5BC and were likely buried in order to protect the Celtic tribes wealth just before or during the first Roman invasions of northern and western FranceIt is believed that they were all buried together but disturbed over the centuries by agricultural ploughing.

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