NGC Ancients: Celtic Copycats
Posted on 5/10/2016
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 made an appearance at the Heritage CICF auction in April, 2016. Clearly inspired by the Macedonian King Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.), this tetradrachm of the 2nd- 1st century B.C. 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’ Tetradrachm, 2nd – 1st Centuries B.C., imitating Philip II.
Click images to enlarge. (Courtesy of 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.
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.
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 and 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?
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 6th century B.C. The Romans also had their share of encounters with Celts, which were not always peaceful. Livy recounts that in 390 B.C. 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 4th Century 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.
By the end of the 4th Century, a number of tribes in Eastern Europe supported the 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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