Coinage you might’ve seen in northeastern Spain 2,100 years ago

Among the most charming coinages of the ancient world are the horseman (jinete) denarii produced in what is modern-day Spain from the mid-second century through the early first century BCE. The obverses of these coins invariably show a male head, and the reverses usually show a single horseman holding a lance, a sword, a double-headed axe, or a palm branch.

The horseman type appears on a wide variety of coins issued at cities throughout the Iberian peninsula. Most of these cities issued copper only, but a few also struck silver. Each issue is distinguished by an inscription — presented in the Iberian script — naming the issuing city.

A denarius of Turiaso (Turiasu), modern-day Tarazona. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Turiaso (Turiasu), modern-day Tarazona. Images courtesy Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)

Before the proliferation of the horseman type, a rather wide variety of silver coins was produced in Iberia from the fifth century through the close of the third century BCE. Some were struck at independent cities, and others under Carthaginian or Roman rule.

In this survey we’ll focus on the nickel-size horseman coins struck in silver. Sometimes they are called drachms, but usually they are referred to as denarii, after the Roman coin denomination so commonly used in Spain at the time (much of the Iberian peninsula had been under Roman control or Roman influence since Rome’s victory in the Second Punic War).

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the silver horseman coinage is how infrequently the locations of the issuing cities are known. One might presume that cities with enough material wealth to issue silver coins would be well-attested, either in ancient literary or epigraphic sources or through archaeological findings. But this is not the case.

Most of the denarii illustrated below were struck at cities in the north of the Iberian peninsula at locations that are not certainly known. Beyond those described here, at least half a dozen other cities also issued horseman denarii.

A denarius of Arsaos. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Arsaos

Shown above is a denarius of Arsaos, a city in the mountainous northern region, near the border with modern-day France. The city was in the territory of the Vascones, and is attested only by coinage. Struck c.150 to 100 BCE, its artistry is highly stylized. It shows on its obverse a bearded male head flanked by a plow and a dolphin, and on its reverse a horseman holding what usually is described as a double-headed axe.

A denarius of Barskunes. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Barskunes

Next is a denarius of Barskunes, a city close to Arsaos; it also was in the territory of the Vascones and is attested only on coinage. It’s similar to the type of Arsaos, except that the rider holds a sword rather than an axe. Also struck c.150 to 100 BCE, its style is equally arresting, though clearly the work of a different die engraver.

A denarius of Bolskan. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Bolskan

A little south of Arsaos and Barskunes, yet still in the mountainous region of northern Iberia, was Bolskan – a city later called Osca by the Romans and Huesca in modern times. It was in the territory of the Suessetani, and is attested only by coinage. This city issued a very large quantity of denarii in the second and early first centuries BCE, with the example above perhaps dating to c.80 to 72 BCE. Engraved in a more mainstream style than some Iberian denarii, it shows a bearded male head and a horseman couching a lance.

A denarius of Kese. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Kese

Moving eastward to the plain near the Mediterranean coast, we encounter Kese, to the south of modern-day Barcelona. Attested only by its coinage, this city was in the territory of the Cessetani. It is generally assumed that Kese later became the important Roman city of Tarraco. Struck in the second century BCE, this denarius shows a beardless male head and an unusual composition on its reverse: a horseman who holds a palm branch and leads second horse.

A denarius of Ausesken. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Ausesken

We continue in the region with another unusual denarius type, an issue of Ausesken, struck c.150 to 100 BCE. It shows a beardless male head and a rider who holds a palm branch over his shoulder. The location of Ausesken is not certainly known, but it seems to have been in the territory of the Ausetani and may have been the city of Ausa, near modern-day Barcelona.

A denarius of Ilerda. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Ilerda

A little inland and north of Barcelona was Ilerda (Iltirta), the modern city of Lleida (Lerida). Denarii struck here c.200 to 150 BCE have designs similar to those of Ausesken (above), except that the beardless male head is surrounded by dolphins.

Denarius from Turiaso. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

Denarius from Turiaso. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

Two denarii from Turiaso

Moving further inland, into the heart of a large plateau, we encounter Turiaso (Turiasu), modern-day Tarazona. Its denarii pair the classic bearded male head with a horseman couching a lance. They were produced from the late second through the early first centuries BCE in a range of styles, as illustrated by the two examples shown above (and by one shown near the top of the article).

A denarius from Belikio. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius from Belikio

Also in the large plain of northern Iberia was Belikio (Belikiom). Located in the territory of the Suessetani, this city also is attested only by coinage. The denarius above was struck c.100 to 70 BCE and bears the standard designs of the horseman coinage.

Denarius from Arekorata. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

Denarius from Arekorata. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

Two denarii from Arekorata

Also located in north-central Iberia, though further inland and in the mountainous terrain of the Celtiberi, was Arekorata, another denarius-issuing city attested only by coinage. Its denarii are represented above by two examples of the period c.150 to 100 BCE, both of quite different style.

A denarius from Sekobirikes. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius from Sekobirikes

Also in the central, mountainous territory of the Celtiberi, and attested only by coinage, was Sekobirikes, where the denarius above was issued. Produced in the early first century BCE, this piece shows the classic type, but with a beardless male head and a particularly energetic horseman.

A denarius from Ikalesken. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius from Ikalesken

Moving further south, to central Spain, we encounter Ikalesken (Ikalkusken), where the denarius above was struck c.150 to 100 BCE. Much like the denarii of Kese (Tarraco) discussed earlier, this coin pairs a beardless male head with a horseman leading a second horse; this time, however, the horseman carries a shield rather than a palm branch.

A denarius of Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus. Images courtesy CNG, NGC

A denarius of Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus

A fitting end to this survey of Iberian horseman coinage is the denarius of the Roman proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus shown above. It was struck in 39 BCE at the Roman city of Osca, which in earlier times had been the Celt-Iberian city of Bolskan.

Even by the time Calvinus was in Osca leading a campaign against the rebellious Cerretani, the horseman denarii still would have been familiar – thus Calvinus’ use of the bearded male head. The reverse type he chose, however, was purely Roman: a simpulum, aspergillum, axe and apex, all priestly implements reflecting his status as a Pontifex of the Roman state.

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