By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
AT THE BEGINNING of recorded history, the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by a variety of peoples.
Iberians, who spoke a non-Indo-European language that might – or might not – be related to modern Basque, lived along the Mediterranean coast.
Along the Atlantic coast lived Lusitanians, a warlike tribe that might – or might not – be related to the Celts.
Tartessians (or “Turdetanians”), who controlled rich gold and silver mines, lived in the extreme south around the city of Gades (today Cadiz). This land was known to the ancient Hebrews as Tarshish. The Tartessian language, known from a handful of inscriptions, was written in a script derived from the Phoenicians with which they traded.
The central plateau (Meseta in Spanish) was inhabited by Celtic tribes who migrated across the Pyrenees in several waves, beginning perhaps in the sixth century BCE. They merged with the indigenous population, creating a unique culture described by modern historians as “Celtiberian”. Skilled metal workers, the Celtiberians developed the short, double-edged “Spanish” sword that was adopted by the ancient Romans as the lethal weapon of the legions. Celtiberians fought a long series wars against Rome, from 181 BCE to their ultimate defeat by the forces of Emperor Augustus in 19 BCE.
Coins issued by Celtiberian cities are an important source for understanding this era of Spanish history, from the third century BCE to the final Roman conquest. Without the names of rulers, Celtiberian coins generally can be dated only approximately, on the basis of find context and hoard evidence. As many as 160 mints issued coins during the second and first centuries BCE, some of still uncertain location.
In 575 BCE, Greek colonists from Phocaea founded the city of Emporion (or Emporiae, or Emporiton; today Empúries in Catalonia) on the northeastern coast of Spain. The name means “trading post”. Emporion issued an extensive silver coinage that circulated within the Iberian lands, helping to establish the use of coinage among the Celtiberians. Typical drachms bore the head of the goddess Persephone on the obverse, and the mythical winged horse Pegasus on the reverse.
During the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), many local imitations of drachms of Emporion were struck, probably to pay mercenaries.
Rhode, a small nearby Greek settlement founded in the fourth century BCE as a colony of Rhodes, struck coins (which are scarce today) that copied silver issues of the great trading city of Massalia (now Marseille, France). Like the coins of Emporion, these helped to spread the idea of coinage to the Celtiberian tribes of the interior.
Around 200-150 BCE, the town of Celti or Celtitan (now Peñaflor, on the Guadalquivir River in the province of Seville) issued large (23 gram) bronze coins depicting the head of an unidentified male on the obverse and a boar standing on a spearhead on the reverse. The reverse inscription in Latin letters is CELTITAN.
This rare piece has been described as “the only Celtic coin that says it is.”
Turiaso (or Turiasu; now Tarazona in the Spanish region of Aragon) was a major Celtiberian town with an extensive silver coinage based on the Roman denarius during the late second to first century BCE. The fineness of Turiaso’s silver coins averaged around 95%.
The design of Celtiberian silver coins was highly uniform, with a male head – sometimes bearded, sometimes beardless – on the obverse. The identity of the person depicted is uncertain – was he a deity, a ruler, or a culture hero? The reverse bears a galloping horseman, usually holding a lance, with the city name in bold Iberian letters below. Sometimes the rider holds a palm branch (symbolic of victory) or a short sword rather than a lance. The Iberian Peninsula raised fine horses, and Celtiberian light cavalry, often armed with javelins, was highly valued as mercenaries by ancient armies.
Castulo (or Kastilo) near Linares in the Spanish province of Jaén, was the capital of a tribe called the Oretani. An Oretanian princess named Himilce married the Carthaginian general Hannibal, whose brother Hasdrubal won a great victory over the Romans at Castulo in 211 BCE. Later, Castulo sided with the Romans. The town issued large bronze coins of uncertain denomination – they are catalogued as “units” or half-units”.
A handsome example from the early second century BCE is described in glowing terms by a cataloguer:
But, frankly, there are very few Celtiberian coins that can get away with being called an ‘art object’. This is the exception that proves the rule! … With its immensely thick (4 mm) flan, very dark patina underlying smooth earthen deposits, and with its design peeping through the deposits as if sailing through a fog, this is simply not just a coin anymore. The more you look at it, the more it impresses you.
A long series of bronze coins from Castulo have a reverse that bears a winged mythical creature described as a “sphinx”. An abundant bronze coinage often indicates the presence of a thriving urban economy, in which residents need to make small daily purchases.
Numantia, a major city on the Duero River in the Spanish province of Soria, was known as Arekorata in Celtiberian. It was the scene of a dramatic 13-month siege by the Romans in 133 BCE. When supplies ran out, rather than surrender and become slaves, the Numantines set fire to the city and mostly committed suicide. In modern Spanish, the phrase “defensa numantina” describes any desperate, suicidal last stand.
Silver coins of Arekorata bear the typical Celtiberian beardless male head with curly hair and a beaded necklace. The reverse shows a charging rider with lance. On the scarce bronze coins, the reverse depicts a rooster.
Celse (or Kelse, or Celsa) in the Spanish province of Zaragoza had the only stone bridge over the Ebro River. A unique silver coin, discovered in 1988, realized the impressive price of €15,500 (about $17,342 USD) in a 2020 Spanish auction, apparently a record for a Celtiberian coin. Rather than a lance, the rider on the reverse holds a palm branch, symbolizing “Victory”. Celse also issued bronze, including a small quadrans, with a depiction of Pegasus on the reverse.
Baskunes (or Barskunes, or Brascunes) was an uncertain mint in northern Spain; Pamplona, Rocaforte, and La Custodia have been suggested as possible locations. Silver denarii of this mint are relatively common, bearing a bearded male head on the obverse, and a rider holding a sword on the reverse.
Saguntum (the Celtiberian name was Arse) on the coast of the Spanish province of Valencia, was founded by Greek colonists in the fifth century BCE. It was one of the first cities on the peninsula to issue coins. Saguntum formed an alliance with Rome, and when the Carthaginian leader Hannibal besieged it in 219 BCE, it triggered the outbreak of the Second Punic War. Retaken by the Romans in 214, the town prospered, issuing an extensive coinage in silver and bronze.
A rare silver drachma (c. 195- 130 BCE) bears a laureate male head on the obverse and a standing bull on the reverse, with a small crescent in the field.
Ikalesken (or Ikalensken, or Ikales) was a mint of uncertain location in southern Spain, possibly in the provinces of Murcia or Alicante. It struck large issues in silver and bronze. A typical silver denarius depicts a youthful male head wearing a beaded necklace on the obverse, and a helmeted rider with a round shield, with a second horse behind him, on the reverse.
Bolskan was located on the site of the modern Spanish city of Huesca, in the northern province of the same name. It was destroyed by the Romans in 179 BCE, and eventually refounded in 37 BCE with the Latin name of Osca. Bolskan issued an extensive Celtiberian coinage in silver and bronze, c. 150 – 100 BCE. The typical denarius bears a bearded male head with a beaded necklace on the obverse and the galloping lancer on the reverse, with the city name in Iberian script below. The bronze unit is similar, with an elegant leaping Pegasus on the reverse.
Collecting the Celtiberians
Our understanding of Celtiberian coinage rests on decades of meticulous research and scholarship by the Catalan numismatist Leandre Villaronga i Garriga (1919-2015). He authored over 20 books and 300 articles, culminating in the standard reference, Ancient Coinages of the Iberian Peninsula (2011), with 802 pages in English and Catalan, often abbreviated “ACIP”.
As you might expect, Celtiberian coins appear on the market mainly in the auction sales of major Spanish and Portuguese dealers. In the traditional classification of ancient coins based on geographic regions, Celtiberian coins are considered “Greek” and they often appear right at the beginning of a sale catalog.
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 Tarshish is mentioned 25 times in the Old Testament, notably Ezekiel 27, Isaiah 23, and Jeremiah 10:9.
 Hervera, Soler & Llach Auction 1123, December 1, 2021, Lot 55. Realized €340 (about $385 USD; estimate €150).
 Auctiones eAuction 35, March 22, 2015, Lot 2. Realized CHF 1,115 (about $1,141 USD; estimate CHF 750).
 CNG Electronic Auction 314, November 6, 2013, Lot 2. Realized $1,900 USD (estimate $750).
 Harlan J. Berk Sale 197, April 27, 2016, Lot 32. Realized $275 USD (estimate $350).
 Nomos Auction 19, November 17, 2019, Lot 7. Realized CHF 500 (about $506 USD; estimate CHF 450).
 Tauler & Fau Auction 73, January 9, 2021, Lot 127. Realized €150 (about $182 USD; estimate €120).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 36, May 27, 2017, Lot 1. Realized £95 (about $122 USD; estimate £75).
 Jesus Vico Auction 131, October 9, 2012, Lot 37. Realized €1,300 (about $1,677 USD; estimate €500).
 Jesus Vico Auction 156, March 5, 2020, Lot 263. Realized €15,500 (about $17,342 USD; estimate €12,000).
 Tauler & Fau Auction 24, February 19,2019, Lot 224. Realized €301 (about $341 USD; estimate €350).
 Hervera and Soler & Llach Auction 1067, July 5, 2011, Lot 2073. Realized €280 (about $405 USD; estimate €180).
 Jesus Vico Auction 131, October 9, 2012, Lot 68. Realized €2,400 (about $3,095 USD; estimate €1,000).
 Nomos Auction 14, May 17, 2017, Lot 2. Realized CHF 460 (about $470 USD; estimate CHF 450).
 Nomos Auction 23, November 30, 2021, Lot 1. Realized CHF 650 (about $703 USd; estimate CHF 500).
 VAuctions Auction 329, April 6, 2018, Lot 33. Realized $117 USD (estimate $150).
Hoge, Robert. “Obituary: Leandre Villaronga”, ANS Magazine 14/4 (2015)
Ripolles, P. “The ancient coinages of the Iberian peninsula”, Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (W. Metcalf, editor). Oxford (20212)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values. Volume 1, Europe. London (1978)
Villaronga, L. Corpus Nummum Hispaniae Ante Augusti Aetatem (“Catalogue of Spanish Coins Before the Age of Augustus”). Madrid (1994)
Villaronga, L. and J. Benages. Ancient Coinages of the Iberian Peninsula: Greek / Punic / Iberian / Roman. Barcelona (2011)
Wilcox, Peter, and Rafael Treviño. Barbarians Against Rome: Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies. Oxford (2000)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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