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How a Greek god inspired the first British coins


John Conduitt
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I thought I'd Christen the Celtic forum with a post about Britain's first coins.

Britain’s history is long and illustrious. Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin have reached every corner of the world. Yet while Alexander the Great was defeating the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela, Qin Shi Huang was creating an army of terracotta and Ashoka the Great was building an empire from Afghanistan to Kerala, the Britons were…well, nobody really knows.

The history of Britain in the thousand years before the Romans arrived is vague to say the least, based on little more than DNA, stone positioning and bits of iron found deep in the ground. The problem was that while the Greeks had Homer and Aristotle, the British (whatever that meant at the time) didn’t write anything down. They didn’t even draw anything. Because of this, they were thought to have been savages. But they weren’t. Probably.

Uffington-White-Horse-sat.jpg

The Uffington White Horse. Perhaps they did draw something.

Most of what’s known about pre-Roman British rulers (and even their tribes and capitals) comes from their coins. Names like Tasciovanos, Addedomaros and Cartivellaunos are well-known to collectors of early British coins but no-one else, because two-thirds of all known pre-Roman British rulers are only known from their coins. King Sam of Kent was rediscovered a decade ago and is only known by the three-letter inscription on his coins and the location of the finds. It’s odd that in a society that appears to have been completely illiterate, they felt the need to put any letters on their coins at all.

The British had long had close links to Europe when the Belgae, a Celtic tribe from France, brought their gold staters (copies of Philip II of Macedon’s coins) into Britain around the end of the 2nd century BC to buy grain, cattle, precious metals and British slaves. Indeed, the Belgae (‘the people who swell with anger’) moved over the Channel and started living in what is now Hampshire, a migration that continued when Caesar invaded their lands in Gaul.

2560px-England_Celtic_tribes_-_South.svg.png

The main Iron Age tribes in Southern Britain. Not far off a present-day county mapChris Rudd’s more detailed map shows British tribes and those producing coins.

The first British coins, however, were minted by the Cantii or Cantiaci (‘land of the assembly men’, in what is now Kent), sometime around 120-100BC. Julius Caesar described the Cantii as ‘by far the most civilised’ British tribe and said they ‘differed little from the Gauls in their customs’. How things have changed…

Being the nearest part of Britain to Europe, Kent has often been in close contact with the continent, although the coin they decided to copy came from much further afield than Calais. They chose a Hemiobolion of Apollo from Massalia (Marseilles). Massalia was a Greek colony in France and an ally of Rome whose coins were found all over Gaul. Massalia resident Pytheas, the first to realise the tides are connected with the phases of the moon, was also the first person known to even mention the existence of Britain, after his 330-320BC expedition hoping (but failing) to establish a sea trade route for Cornish tin.

This is the type of Massalia coin the Cantii copied, although the one they copied was in a lot better condition than mine:

image.png.0aefc75c2c0bc33ececaec4a5e2a2873.png

Bronze, 15mm, late 3rd to mid-2nd century BC, Massalia. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right, MA above (for Massalia). Found in Kent.

The Cantii cast (not struck) their copies in potin, an alloy of copper, tin, zinc and lead, metals mined in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset on the other side of the country. They retained the MA mintmark, obviously not knowing what it meant. These coins are called Thurrock potins after the find spot of a large hoard, but although Thurrock is actually in Essex, most of the rest of these are found across the Thames in Kent.

Looking at the quality of the casting, perhaps they didn’t have a better version of the Massalia bronze to work with after all:

image.png.fa77c918f57fff91607ddc98d595f023.png

Thurrock potin, 17mm, 120-100BC, cast in Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right, traces of MA above. Found in Kent (S. 62).

This style was copied again and again into the next century, developing a little each time, losing detail each time as you would if using a photocopier. This is a ‘transitional’ variety of the Thurrock potin, when both Apollo and the bull were becoming stylized. Apollo’s hairline has become a vertical bar, while the bull is losing its shape and its legs have become wavy lines:

image.png.16742c9a887f7f110b4a48508dc8d233.png

Potin, Thurrock-type variant, 15mm, 1st Century BC, Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting (between S.62 and S.63).

By now the Cantii were producing numerous uninscribed silver, bronze and potin coins for use by farmers, merchants and craftsman. Gold coins (with Apollo joined by a horse this time) were for kings to pay tribute and their armies. The designs were now very abstract, often artistic and beautiful (the ‘Celtic style’). Having had most time to develop, the Thurrock potin had perhaps become most abstract of all (if not so beautiful). Apollo and the bull were now unrecognisable. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the previous coins no-one would have had any idea what it was meant to depict:

image.png.217a88c63e5e94b9656d5f203656285e.pngPotin, 85-50BC, Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right (S.63).

The transformation from a crude copy to a British style was complete. Not long after this coin was minted, Julius Caesar arrived, potin production ceased, and British history began.

Sources

Chris Rudd, Britain’s First Coins.

Old Currency Exchange, The Enigmatic Coins of the Celtic Tribes of Britain.

…and, of course, Wikipedia:

The Belgae.

The Cantii.

Marseille.

Edited by John Conduitt
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  • 2 weeks later...

Just revisiting your first post, @John Conduitt, after having seen some of your later Cantii coins.  How fantastic that you have a Kent-find Massalia and early Thurrock!!

Question: here's an early(-mid?) Thurrock I found on acsearch:

image.png.b9026b4fb206181f5a7d40c75784417f.png

I notice a strong similarity here between the obverses of this coin (as well as your similar coin, though less strongly) and a coin I just won in the latest (now postponed) Leu auction:

00027q00.jpg.4912fd177ee6086cfe7f949f20580802.jpg

This is the "tête diabolique / loup" type potin of the Carnutes from around the same time or a little earlier.  Here's another example that really shows the "posts" above and below the grotesque head:

image.png.c54cbf56ea97a1213edc0e5c4d714782.png

It seems to me the similarity can't be coincidental, although my knowledge of Celtic coins is still very sparse.  I'd be grateful for your more expert reflections, @John Conduitt!

Edited by Severus Alexander
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34 minutes ago, Severus Alexander said:

It seems to me the similarity can't be coincidental

I agree, it seems unlikely it's a coincidence. Perhaps it's a Continental potin rather than a Thurrock potin.

There's even a theory the Cantii potins were struck in what is now France, but find evidence seems to have persuaded most people they came from south east England. There's also debate as to whether they were struck by the Cantii or the Trinovantes (in Essex) but in either case they would've had a lot of contact with the Continent. Most British Iron Age coins are based on Continental designs and they got a lot of the alloys from the Continent. But Van Arsdell believes the British potins predate the Gallic ones, and are not derivative. They also have a different alloy mix, with more copper/less tin. But perhaps some designs were made on the Continent or were copied on the Continent. Perhaps the moneyers crossed the Channel in both directions, just as they did in Roman, medieval and even modern times.

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8 minutes ago, John Conduitt said:

I agree, it seems unlikely it's a coincidence. Perhaps it's a Continental potin rather than a Thurrock potin.

There's even a theory the Cantii potins were struck in what is now France, but find evidence seems to have persuaded most people they came from south east England. There's also debate as to whether they were struck by the Cantii or the Trinovantes (in Essex) but in either case they would've had a lot of contact with the Continent. Most British Iron Age coins are based on Continental designs and they got a lot of the alloys from the Continent. But Van Arsdell believes the British potins predate the Gallic ones, and are not derivative. They also have a different alloy mix, with more copper/less tin. But perhaps some designs were made on the Continent or were copied on the Continent. Perhaps the moneyers crossed the Channel in both directions, just as they did in Roman, medieval and even modern times.

Cool, thank you!  It seems I may have accidentally snagged another coin that should be included in the mysterious primordial ooze that eventually gives rise to British Celtic coinage.  Excellent!  I wonder... the Carnutes being the main locus for the Druids in Gaul... perhaps their coinage was more influential as a result?

I look forward to learning more, and thank you for helping out a newbie.  I greatly look forward to your future Celtic posts!

Edited by Severus Alexander
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11 minutes ago, Severus Alexander said:

the Carnutes being the main locus for the Druids in Gaul... perhaps their coinage was more influential as a result?

The Massalia Apollo / Bull coins are thought to have arrived pretty much directly from southern Gaul through trade in wine. That was more of an influence not only in Britain but across Gaul 🤣

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41 minutes ago, John Conduitt said:

The Massalia Apollo / Bull coins are thought to have arrived pretty much directly from southern Gaul through trade in wine. That was more of an influence not only in Britain but across Gaul 🤣

😆 That was the way the Romans made their alliances!  (We'll give you 1000 amphorae, just for you Dumnorix... 🤩)

"Directly from Southern Gaul."  By sea, or land?

Will have to check the PAS for finds of early Carnutes issues... there must be a paper or two on the frequency of various tribal finds, no?

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Great post @John Conduitt. It’s amazing that when Greek culture spread outside its heartland, Apollo seems to have been one of the gods most readily picked up by other cultures.

You can see this even in the east where Apollo appears on Indo-Greek coins.

D389FAE1-02AB-4B6A-B368-8BC79148787A.jpeg.11933b2076f1332f0eeb62ad9fc9078f.jpeg

Indo-Greek Kingdoms
Apollodotus I
AE Hemiobol, mint in northwest India, struck ca. 175-164 BC
Dim.: 22x22 mm
Wt.: 9.27 g
Obv.: BAΣIΛEΩΣ AΠOΛΛOΔOTOY ΣΩTHPOΣ; Apollo standing facing holding arrow in right hand and bow in left.
Rev.: Karoshthi legend; tripod and monogram surrounded by square of dots. 
Ref.: BMC 17, SG 7594
Ex Deacon Ray (Secret Saturnalia gift)

 

Even though it is not certain, this coin may depict a Kushan god named Miiro whose iconography (arrow, sun rays) were influenced by Apollo.

EEF960C3-DE85-4721-82C7-5B692056020F.jpeg.ca62718e1967e58b224ac1bfd90dd257.jpeg

Kushan Empire
Vima Takto, AD 78-110
AE Unit, Unkown mint, struck ca. AD 78-110
Dia.: 21.2 mm
Wt.: 8.2 g
Obv.: Bust right, 12 rays above, holding object. 3 pronged tamga in left field
Rev.: Horseman right, holding whip. 3 pronged tamga in right field
Ex Severus Alexander Collection 

 

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6 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

"Directly from Southern Gaul."  By sea, or land?

By sea. The coins had spread to the rest of Gaul so it could easily have been by land, but there were direct trade links.

6 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

Will have to check the PAS for finds of early Carnutes issues... there must be a paper or two on the frequency of various tribal finds, no?

Yes there are. There are a lot of possible stylistic connections between the coins of Gallic and British tribes and a number of coins have distinctive features that make the link all but certain (like copying the ‘MA’ legend from the Massalia coins). 

But almost all are stray finds and hardly any have contextual evidence. Even find spot frequency on the PAS database is likely more to do with where the metal detectorists are than where the coins are concentrated. Most bronzes are later than 100BC and even if the dates of the coins were any more precise than several decades, there aren’t many clues as to when they arrived in Britain.

I don’t know of any links to Carnutes coins, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The numbers are very small so I imagine to prove any link, there would need to be stylistic similarities that couldn’t have come from anywhere else or evolved simultaneously.

Edited by John Conduitt
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5 hours ago, Curtisimo said:

Apollo seems to have been one of the gods most readily picked up by other cultures.

Good point. Is Apollo more likely to be on Greek coins of a certain age or denomination? The fact that he was Roman too must’ve helped. Although I don’t think it’s clear the Britons even knew who he was when they copied him.

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