Why have no Celtic coins ever been found in Ireland ?


In order to understand the ‘situation’ of the Irish Celts and, therefore, theorize as to “why they did not produce coins like their English cousins”, we first need to understand the situation of the English Celtic tribes.

By the 2nd century BC (the Late Iron Age in Britain) the locals were trading iron “currency bars” shaped like swords, spits, ploughshares and bay leaves.  Celtic coins starting coming into southern Britain around 150 B.C. and continued to be imported until after the Gallic War in 50 BC.

  • These ‘English Celts’ used coins – both imported and, later, minted by themselves
  • This is because they traded goods and services with the Celts from nearby Gaul (modern day France)

Around 80-60 B.C. a Kentish tribe, probably the Cantii, produced the first coins that were actually made in Britain.

  • These imitated coins of Massalia (Marseilles) and were cast, not struck, in a tin-rich bronze alloy called “potin”

The first gold coins made in Britain, ca. 70-60 B.C., also come from Kent and are known as Kentish A staters.

  • Between c. 60 BC and 30 BC many un-inscribed silver coins and a few bronze coins were struck.
  • The early gold coins were standardized in style – all variations on the Apollo-head-and-horse theme
    • They ‘imitated’ those found in Gaul
      • a Celtic hinterland of southern Britain, an important commercial trading partner
      • the numerous Celtic tribes there would also have been military rivals
    • These gold coins were probably used solely by tribal leaders and their elite classes for very specific purposes, e.g. warrior/mercenary wages, bribes and ‘tribute’ money
  • The early silver and bronze coins seem to have been less tightly controlled and less conservative in design
    • They display an amazing array of different images
    • They were probably used for everyday commerce by farmers, merchants, craftsman, priests and other well-to-do members of their ‘petty kingdoms and/or local  communities.

Then, something changed ….

  • firstly, a series of coins was produced that were crudely engraved and clumsily struck
    • they seem to have been made on a hurry
  • secondly, the Celtic coins of Britain began to have Latin names ‘inscribed’ upon them !
    • they seem to be designed for a different audience

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A Roman general (Julius Caesar) invaded southern Britain twice – once in 55 BC and then again in 54 BC – the latter was strategically important because he installed a ‘Rome-friendly’ king (Mandubracius) and they forced the submission of Mandubracius’s rival, Cassivellaunus – who was probably king of the Catuvellauni tribe.

In order to fund the campaign against Caesar, it is possible that Cassivellaunus ordered an emergency issue of gold coins north and south of the Thames, to pay his soldiers and mercenaries to fight against Caesar

  • These coins are known as Ingoldisthorpe and Westerham staters (after the places where they first found).
  • These emergency war coins are often crudely engraved and clumsily struck
  • This suggests they were made in a hurry, to fend off a sudden and unexpected invasion
Ingoldisthorpe and Westerham staters - often crudely engraved and clumsily struck, which suggests they were made in a hurry

Ingoldisthorpe and Westerham gold staters – often crudely engraved and clumsily struck, suggesting they were made in a hurry

Although Cassivellaunus was miltarily defeated, no territory was conquered and held for Rome.  Before Caesar sailed back to Belgica in 54 BC, he imposed a heavy tax on the Celtic coalition tribes of Britain, to be paid each year by their commander in chief, Cassivellaunus.

It is at this time, that the British Celtic tribes of southern England begin to issue their own coins in earnest.  There is an explosion of ‘minting’ activity and many of the tribes begin to issue coins with local designs, as opposed to simple imitations of Gallic Celtic coins, or Roman coins.  The proliferation of ‘minting’ around this time is a fact.  Why it happened is open to conjecture and there is much debate and little agreement about why this happened.

Atrebates. Eppilus, Kentish Type, 10 BC-10 AD. AV Quarter Stater

One theory is that the fear of a ‘third’ Roman invasion was a genuine concern amongst the local rulers.  They were militarily defeated by a small force, displaying better tactics and weaponry.  They could either pay up and hope for better times ahead, or be ‘wiped out’ immediately.

Chris Rudd, a renowned expert on Celtic coins suggests :-

“It is therefore likely that Cassivellaunos honoured his treaty with Caesar and paid the annual tribute at least until Caesar left Gaul in 51 B.C., when the risk of defaulting would have diminished.  It is also likely that Cassivellaunos would have raised the money each year by taxing not only the people directly under his protection, but by bullying gold bullion out of neighbouring tribes too, such as the Atrebates, Durotriges, Eceni and Coreiltauvi.

John Sills attributes this yearly taxation to the huge amount of gold staters – Whaddon Chase, Atrebatic Abstract, Chute, Norfolk Wolf, North East Coast – which suddenly and simultaneously seem to have been struck episodically for some years shortly after Caesar’s second invasion.  The idea is pure speculation, of course, but plausible.

For the first fifty years of British minting, most of which was highly sporadic and localized, almost all the coins were uninscribed and we can only guess who produced them, when, where and why.  Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Celts wrote no books and little is known of Celtic rulers, their moneyers and their mint sites.  So any discussion about late Iron Age coin production, especially attribution and dating, is usually hypothetical, however scholarly it may seem.”

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This theory would, at least partly explain, why the more northerly and westerly of the British Celtic tribes did not produce coinage of their own.  In turn, this might explain why the Irish tribes did not produce their own coinage.

  • The Belgae of southern Britain produced their own coins but the Belgae of Ireland did not !
  • Were these two tribes similar, or was it just Ptolomy’s assumption that they were ?
  • No one knows for certain, so this is also just conjecture

Shortly after the third invasion (by Augustus) less than a hundred years later, local British Celtic coinage quickly disappeared and was replaced by Roman ‘provincial’ coinages.

  • The British Celtic series of coinages may well have been a reaction to Caesar’s invasions
  • Since there was no threat of Rome invading Ireland, or any tributes due, the Irish Celts (like their British cousins in the north) simply did not need to ‘convert their gold and silver bullion to coinage’ for export to Rome.
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