Celtic coins are cultural artifacts to be considered in the scheme of ancient European history


The artistry of ancient Celtic coins is easy to dismiss as unsophisticated and crude, especially in comparison to the Greek and Roman coins after which oftentimes they were modeled. And while Celtic coins aren’t to everyone’s liking – perhaps they are an acquired taste? – they amply demonstrate the interactions of diverse culture in antiquity.

We may start by looking at this ‘Zickzackgruppe’ coin, which recently sold at the Heritage CICF auction in April 2016. Clearly inspired by the Macedonian king Philip II (359 to 336 BCE), this tetradrachm of the second to first century BCE appears like political caricature meets Cubist abstraction. The artistry is distinctly Celtic, with stylized features, abstract shapes and a swirling depiction of a horse on the reverse.

Celtic Zickzackgruppe coin, courtesy Heritage Auctions

Celtic ‘Zickzackgruppe’ Tetradrachm, 2nd – 1st Centuries BCE, imitating Philip II. Courtesy HA.com

It shows on the obverse the laureate head of Zeus, and on the reverse a rider on horseback. While the core design is the same (save the directions of Zeus’ head and the horse), that is about where the similarities end. On the ‘Zickzackgruppe’ coin, the animal style is manifested on the reverse with the horse’s body contorted in an S shape. Zeus’ portrait on the obverse is more surrealistic than realistic.

Philip II silver tetradrachm, courtesy CNG

Silver Tetradrachm of Philip II, 359-336 BCE. Courtesy Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)

The style and execution of the designs are strikingly different, and it would be impossible to consider that these two coins emanated from the same cultures. This particular coin type originated in Eastern Europe, maybe in Central Hungary along the Danube.

The ‘Zickzackgruppe’ type gets its name from the zigzag appearance of four Greek lambdas on the reverse above the horse. Here it is essentially a design element, whereas on the Greek originals it names the issuer of the coin, King Philip of Macedon. The Celts did not have their own writing system, but on some occasions they would adapt Greek and Latin for their use.

Sarmatian belt buckle, courtesy NGC

Sarmatian Belt Buckle in the shape of a galloping horse, about the 6th century BCE, from the collection of the Hermitage State Museum. Courtesy of the Hermitage State Museum

The Celts were a collection of autonomous tribes that lived mainly in Europe concurrently with their southern neighbors, the Greeks and the Romans. Their geographic origin often is described as being Central-Northern Europe, radiating from a small territory near the Danube eventually expanding west into France and England, and eventually into Asia Minor. A largely agrarian society, the Celts eventually settled into what the Romans called oppida, small fortified towns. The larger Celtic oppida became hubs of trade, industry and coin manufacture.

Because the Celts were diverse and eclectic, united only by similar language, religion and material culture, the term ‘Celts’ can be somewhat misleading. After all, where does one draw the line between true Celts and those who were materially influenced by them?

Iron Age gold stater issued by Cunobelin of the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes in southeastern Britain; Courtesy CNG

An Iron Age gold stater issued by Cunobelin of the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes in southeastern Britain. Courtesy CNG

For example, many scholars believe that there were few (if any) Celts in ancient Britain. They suggest, rather, that the Iron Age inhabitants of the British Isles traded with Celts on the European mainland and that through regular contact they adopted some of their customs. If so, it undermines the very concept of British Celts.

The artistic mores in the Celts strongly favored animal motifs and abstract geometry. The Celts may have borrowed this aesthetic from the Sarmatians and the Scythians, their immediate neighbors to the East.

Historical evidence indicates that the Greeks were aware of the Celts from at least the sixth century BCE. The Romans also had their share of encounters with Celts, which were not always peaceful. Livy recounts that in 390 BCE Celtic tribes invaded Rome and, completely dumbstruck by the magnificence of the city, burned it to the ground. Stories like these earned the Celts a reputation as being violent and uncivilized.

The Celts began to strike coins in the late fourth century BCE such that they could participate in trade with their Mediterranean neighbors. Major trade routes were located along the Rhine, the Danube and the Seine Rivers, where Celts exchanged goods with Greeks, Romans, and each other. Their participation in a larger European economy had mutual benefits: conflict between the Celts and Greeks and Romans generally declined and alliances began to form.

Map illustrating the Greek and Roman coin prototypes that appeared in Celtic settlements.

Map illustrating the Greek and Roman coin prototypes that appeared in Celtic settlements; “Zickzackgruppe” coin may have originated near the yellow region

By the end of the fourth century, a number of tribes in Eastern Europe supported kings Philip II and Alexander III “the Great” on their conquests to extend Macedonian authority. Celtic soldiers almost certainly were paid with Macedonian coins, which were returned to their homelands and circulated. When the economy expanded and the Celts struck coins, they naturally copied the designs of the coins already in use.

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