Celtic Coinage

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The coinage of the Celtic tribes in northern Europe and England has often been little more than a footnote in the history of the vast coinage of Greece and Rome, perhaps with reason because some of the Celtic coins were imitations of Macedonian and Roman coins. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Celtic coins have been discovered, sometimes in hoards of up to 40,000 pieces. And these coins tell more about the life and thought of the Celts than any other artifacts from a society that left little in terms of written records. Certain Celtic rulers are known to history only because of their representation on coins.

The earliest dated coins found in England are the golden staters struck by Philip II of Macedon, and imitations of this stater are among the earliest Celtic coins found in northwestern Europe. Philip’s golden stater found its way to the Celts either through Celtic mercenaries in the pay of Alexander the Great, through the migration of peoples, or through a trickling trade between England and the eastern Mediterranean. Between the first century b.c. and the first century a.d. the Celts struck imitations of the Macedonian golden stater. In addition, the Celts minted coins from silver, bronze, and a mixture of tin and copper called potin. The potin coins were cast rather than hammered or struck and passed as everyday token money. As Celtic coinage evolved beyond the imitation stage, it abandoned the Greek images, displacing them with images of things that reflected the pastoral life of the Celts—horses, boars, or stalks of wheat, among other things.

As Rome pushed the frontiers of its empire northward and across the channel to England, indigenous Celtic coinage disappeared in favor of Roman coinage. After the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d. all coinage disappeared in the former Celtic countries for nearly 200 years. During the sixth and seventh centuries the Merovingian Gauls began minting gold and silver coins, and the winds of trade carried these coins to Anglo-Saxon England. During the seventh century these gold coins were progressively debased with silver.

Evidence of Anglo-Saxon gold coinage appears in the seventh century. The prime denomination of these coins was the thrysma, a reference to one-third of a gold solidus. These coins also succumbed to debasement, leaving silver as the principle monetary metal. Silver coins were often debased with copper or brass, until the eighth century, when full-weighted silver coins again appeared, and the English silver penny began its long history, lasting 1,000 years.