Featured How a Greek god inspired the first British coins

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by John Conduitt, Aug 10, 2020.

  1. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    Britain’s history is long and illustrious. Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin have reached every corner of the world. Yet while Alexander the Great was defeating the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela, Qin Shi Huang was creating an army of terracotta and Ashoka the Great was building an empire from Afghanistan to Kerala, the Britons were…well, nobody really knows.

    The history of Britain in the thousand years before the Romans arrived is vague to say the least. It's based on little more than DNA, stone positioning and bits of iron found deep in the ground. The problem was that while the Greeks had Homer and Aristotle, the British (whatever that meant at the time) didn’t write anything down. They didn’t even draw anything. Because of this, they were thought to have been savages. But they weren’t. Probably.

    The Uffington White Horse. Perhaps they did draw something.

    Most of what’s known about pre-Roman British rulers (and even their tribes and capitals) comes from their coins. Names like Tasciovanos, Addedomaros and Cartivellaunos are well-known to collectors of early British coins but no-one else, because two-thirds of pre-Roman British rulers (that we know about) are only known from their coins.

    King Sam of Kent was rediscovered a decade ago and is only known by the three-letter inscription on his coins and where they were found. (What would we do without metal detectors?). It’s odd that in a society that appears to have been completely illiterate, they felt the need to put any letters on their coins at all.

    The British had long had close links to Europe when the Belgae, a Celtic tribe from France, brought their gold staters (copies of Philip II of Macedon’s coins) into Britain around the end of the 2nd century BC to buy grain, cattle, precious metals and British slaves. Indeed, the Belgae (‘the people who swell with anger’) moved over the Channel and started living in what is now Hampshire, a migration that continued when Caesar invaded their lands in Gaul.

    The main Iron Age tribes in Southern Britain. Not far off a present-day county map.

    Chris Rudd’s more detailed map shows the British tribes and those producing coins: https://celticcoins.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/map-done.pdf

    The first British coins, however, were minted sometime around 120-100BC by the Cantii (or Cantiaci, ‘land of the assembly men’, in what is now Kent). Julius Caesar described the Cantii as ‘by far the most civilised’ British tribe and said they ‘differed little from the Gauls in their customs’. How things have changed…

    Being the nearest part of Britain to Europe, Kent has often been in close contact with the continent, although the coin they decided to copy came from much further afield than Calais. They chose a Hemiobolion of Apollo from Massalia (Marseilles). Massalia was a Greek colony in France and an ally of Rome whose coins were found all over Gaul. Massalia resident Pytheas, the first to realise the tides are connected with the phases of the moon, was also the first person known to even mention the existence of Britain, after his 330-320BC expedition hoping (but failing) to establish a sea trade route for Cornish tin.

    This is the type of Massalia coin the Cantii copied, although the one they copied was in a lot better condition than mine:

    Bronze hemiobol, 15mm, late 3rd to mid-2nd century BC, Massalia. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right, MA above (for Massalia). Found in Kent.

    (A link to a better version: https://www.sixbid.com/enghlights.h...=large&auctionSessions=&sidebarIsSticky=false).

    The Cantii cast (not struck) their copies in potin, an alloy of copper, tin, zinc and lead, metals mined in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset on the other side of the country. They retained the MA mintmark, obviously not knowing what it meant. These coins are called Thurrock potins after the find spot of a large hoard, but although Thurrock is actually in Essex, most of the rest of these are found across the Thames in Kent.

    Looking at the quality of the casting, perhaps they didn’t have a better version of the Massalia bronze to work with after all:

    Thurrock potin, 17mm, 120-100BC, cast in Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right, traces of MA above. Found in Kent (S. 62).

    This style was copied again and again into the next century, developing a little each time, losing detail each time as you would if using a photocopier. The coin below is a ‘transitional’ variety of the Thurrock potin, when both Apollo and the bull were becoming stylized. Apollo’s hairline has become a vertical bar, while the bull is losing its shape and its legs have become wavy lines:
    Potin, Thurrock-type variant, 15mm, 1st Century BC, Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting (variant between S.62 and S.63).

    By now the Cantii were producing numerous uninscribed silver, bronze and potin coins for use by farmers, merchants and craftsman. Gold coins (featuring Apollo joined by a horse this time) were for kings to pay tribute and their armies. The designs were now very abstract, often artistic and beautiful (the ‘Celtic style’).

    Having had most time to develop, the Thurrock potin had perhaps become most abstract of all (if not so beautiful). Apollo and the bull were now unrecognisable. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the previous coins no-one would have had any idea what it was meant to depict:
    Potin, 85-50BC, Kent. Head of Apollo left. Bull butting right (S.63).

    The transformation from a crude copy to a British style was complete. Not long after this coin was minted, Julius Caesar arrived, potin production ceased, and British history began.

    I would be interested in seeing any Cantiian coins or British potins you have, or any other coins the pre-Roman British copied.


    Chris Rudd, Britain’s First Coins, https://www.celticcoins.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Brit_First_Coins.pdf

    Old Currency Exchange, The Enigmatic Coins of the Celtic Tribes of Britain https://oldcurrencyexchange.com/2015/03/31/the-mystical-coins-of-the-celtic-tribes-of-britain/

    …and, of course, Wikipedia:
    The Belgae, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgae
    The Cantii, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantiaci
    Marseille, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Marseille

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    Pellinore, Egry, thejewk and 24 others like this.
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  3. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent, informative post John Conduitt! I like to think my distant ancestors were Brigantes - Lancashire and Yorkshire blood.
    Last edited: Aug 10, 2020
  4. robinjojo

    robinjojo Supporter! Supporter

    This is a very nice article.

    It seems that the very early British coinage was based on Greek and Roman prototypes.

    The butting bull depicted on the first two coins is very similar to the reverse of the tetradrachm or double nomos from Lucania, Thurium, circa 443-400 BC.

    D-Camera Lucania, Tetradrachm, Improved Image, MA Shops, 6-23-20.jpg
  5. jamesicus

    jamesicus Supporter! Supporter

  6. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent write up, highly interesting facts that I had no idea about. Great coins a very diverse group all with their own story.
  7. offa the saxon

    offa the saxon Active Member

    My family originates from Cumbria and south west Scotland.
  8. offa the saxon

    offa the saxon Active Member

    My family originates from Cumbria and south west Scotland. Like the brigantes we were never conquered and defeated the famed 9th legion capturing their eagle.
    GeorgeM and lordmarcovan like this.
  9. GeorgeM

    GeorgeM Well-Known Member

    It's amazing to see which elements were copied and how they changed over time. Kind of like seeing the art through a proto-British barbarian filter.

    I wonder if their engravers were locals? Or did the kings bring in outsiders with those skills to train local artisans?
  10. thejewk

    thejewk Well-Known Member

    Brilliant post, many thanks.

    I have no potin coins yet, and only some very rough Durotriges coins, but I hope to expand more into this area in the next few years.
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