The Celts from Northern Gaul - Third Generation Coins (c. 125 BC to c. 50 BC) - Gallo Belgic E

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About Gallo-Belgic E

Gallo-Belgic E coins survive in large numbers and are probably the cheapest Celtic gold stater you can buy. This, together with their interesting story, makes them good coins to collect, so I’ll go into a bit more detail than normal here.

The Gallo-Belgic C coins ended at the start of the Gallic Wars when Caesar attacked Gaul. They were replaced with Gallo-Belgic E (58-50 BC) which is possibly the largest series ever minted by the Celts. At the time of writing (2019) there are 1,019 known reverse dies, and over 2,100 known coins, leading to an estimate of 2,314 reverse dies (technically, somewhere between 1,778 and 3,318 dies, with 95% confidence). Assuming that one die could make 1,000 coins, total production would have been around 2.3 million coins.

Advanced notes

The estimates for the numbers was calculated using equations from Warren Esty (“How to estimate the original number of dies and the coverage of a sample“) and data provided by Dr. John Sills. This information is presented below.

The number of coins that could be produced by a single die is still a matter of debate. “Calculating ancient coin production: seeking a balance” by F. de Callataÿ is worth a read if you want to know more, but he cites estimates of between 287 coins and 8,818 coins per die for gold coins. These estimates don’t really distinguish between obverse dies and reverse dies, which wore out faster, so these might be too high.

Dr. Philip de Jersey used a figure of 1,000 coins per die (“Some experiments in Iron Age coin production and some implications for the production of Gallo-Belgic E“) based on practical considerations, such as the amount of gold, wood, charcoal, people, and time required. For example, a common estimate of 10,000 coins per die would result in 23 million coins being produced, which would require about 83,300 Kg of gold. 1,000 coins per die would require only 8,330 Kg of gold, which seems more manageable. He managed to strike 800 coins without any wear showing on his die, so it might be the case that the 1,000 coins-per-die estinate is too low, but that dies were used in parallel and retired when sufficient coins had been produced even if they weren’t worn out. It’s very rare to see a Gallo-Belgic E coin with die damage.

The estimates shouldn’t be taken too literally as there are many assumptions being made, but the key point here is that the numbers are large. Very large. Minting Gallo-Belgic E was a significant undertaking, and must have been a response to an existential threat to the Gauls.

The early staters die link to Gallo-Belgic Ca, so are assigned to the Ambiani, but they were almost certainly minted, or at least financed, by the coalition of tribes at war with Caesar. It would take around 8,330Kg of gold to mint Gallo-Belgic E and it was unlikely that the Ambiani could manage this on their own, even if they recalled all of the Gallo-Belgic Ca coins and melted down their treasure reserves. The uniface design, whereby the obverse is blank, also suggests they were minted by a coalition of tribes.

Discussion

The general thought is that these coins were uniface because it was too time consuming to carve obverse dies for such a large issue. However, there are a number of counter arguments to this that suggest that they were uniface for another reason:

  1. It appears that if didn’t really take that long to carve a new die. Dr. Philip de Jersey managed to engrave a reverse for a left facing Norfolk Wolf stater in under an hour on his first attempt, and posits that the reverse of a Gallo-Belgic E stater could be engraved in a matter of minutes by an experienced engraver. The Celts also knew how to rapidly create new dies from existing coins using a process called “hubbing”, which means they wouldn’t even have to engrave the dies. If having an image on the obverse was important they could probably have found time to do it
  2. Obverse dies wore out much more slowly than reverse dies. If die production time was a problem then it would be more likely that the coins would be blank on the reverse instead of the obverse. A counter argument to that would be that the image of the horse was important (perhaps for religious reasons) so it had to be kept. If that was the case, then the reverse image (the horse) could have been used on the obverse side, making the dies last much longer. The reverse could have then been left blank
  3. We rarely see Gallo-Belgic E coins with the kinds of die flaws that are common in many other Celtic coins. If time was the issue we’d expect to see the reverse dies used to destruction before being replaced, but that doesn’t seem to have happened
  4. If die production time was a big problem, we could perhaps expect the coins to be blank, or vastly simplified, on both sides. After all, a lump of gold is worth the same even if it doesn’t have complex pictures on it

While we’ll never know for sure why the obverse was allowed to go blank, and pretty much remain blank, on these coins, the argument that it was due to time pressures isn’t a strong one. An alternative argument is that the obverse was left blank to signify that the coins were minted by a coalition of tribes. If the images on the obverse of coins were being used as tribal markers in some way (no matter how subtle the differences), then it wouldn’t have been appropriate to use a single image.

Simone Scheers identified six different classes of coin (Scheers, “La Gaule Belgique - Traité De Numismatique Celtique”). Dr. John Sills later refined this by introducing some sub-classes, and by splitting class four into two parts. He believes that the seven classes can be mapped to the seven winters of the Gallic war, where coins were minted in preparation to the upcoming summer campaigns (and during the summer if more were required).

ClassDateEvents
158/7 BC57 BC: Caesar attacks the Belgae
257/6 BC56 BC: Veneti defeated
356/5 BC55 BC: First invasion of Britain
4H55/4 BC54 BC: Second invasion of Britain
4L54/3 BC53 BC: British recoinage to pay tribute?
553/2 BC52 BC: Rebellion of Vercingetorix
652/1 BC51 BC: End of Belgic resistance

While this of course is just a theory, it is widely accepted as a plausible one.

Advanced Discussion

The data for classes 1 to 4L in the table below comes from Dr. John Sills’ article “Identifying Gallic War Uniface Staters”, in Chris Rudd List 83, 2005. The numbers of coins for these will now be slightly low as more coins will have been found by metal detectorists since they were published.

Dr. Sills provided me with updated data for classes 5 and 6 in 2019 as new finds had substantially changed the numbers in that article.

ClassNumber of CoinsNumber of DiesNumber of SingletonsNumber of Singletons as a % of the known coinsEstimated Number of Dies95% confidence interval
1512134347%161151 – 173
257123610518%353322-387
327716510136%339281-409
4H2611579737%327269-397
4L2291298236%265217-323
519414010554%419313-563
664585281%448224-1063

Classes 5 and 6 are a bit of an enigma. So few coins had been found by 2005 that die numbers could not even be estimated. By 2015, a single hoard of class 5 staters (the Aumale hoard), and new finds of class 6 staters from the site of an earlier hoard (the 1852 Ledringhem hoard), have produced die estimates higher than those of any other class.

If these numbers are correct (and as the sample sizes are small in relation to the number of singleton dies, they need to be treated with caution) then the last two years of the war saw more coins minted than in any previous year, but with fewer actually circulating and surviving. It’s possible that this represents a last ditch effort from the Celts and that many coins were captured and confiscated by the victorious Romans before they could circulate far.

It’s also possible that the duress the tribes were under in the last years of the war lead to rushed and shoddy die production. F. de Callataÿ (Calculating ancient coin production: seeking a balance) comments that coin dies are much like any other industrial artifact. They will either last a long time, or break almost immediately. Dies that break early (and some can break after just one coin) will vastly inflate the estimated number of coins produced. It might have been the case that the Celts burned through a lot of dies for classes 5 and 6, but didn’t actually produce that many coins.

The Coins

Classifying the coins can be difficult as the first four require the exergue to be visible, and this is frequently missing from coins. Sills gives some tips in his article for dealing with these coins, so it’s worth tracking down a copy.

Class 1 – Zigzag

Class 1 coins are defined by the zigzag pattern in the exergue, the top of which is a flat line. The earliest coins in this class have an obverse die link with Gallo-Belgic Ca class 6, and can still show some detail on the obverse.

There are three sub-types in this class, mainly defined by the horse’s stance.

1A – Standing Horse

The ∩ shape above the horse (the remnants of the charioteers arms) is bold in this class, and the horse is standing. The very first coins still have a Gallo-Belgic Ca design on the obverse, but that is allowed to wear flat

Photo Copyright Spink and Son Ltd (6.35g)

1B – Bold ∩

The ∩ shape above the horse is bold in this class, like it was in the previous one, but the horse has a wider stance – the front legs aren’t quite so vertical.

Photo Copyright Stack's Bowers (6.34g)
Photo Copyright Stack's Bowers (6.27g)

Note that we still have some obverse patterning, suggesting 1A and 1B were minted in parallel

1C – Smaller ∩

The ∩ shape above the horse is smaller in this class, and the horse is running. Its neck is more vertical and the front legs are at a shallower angle.

Class 2 – Arc-and-Pellet/Solid Line

Class 2 coins are defined by the lack of a zigzag pattern in the exergue, the top of which is still a flat line. The first sub-class just has a jumble of shapes in the exergue, but the second and third have arcs and torcs (arcs with pellet ends) respectively.

2A Jumbled Exergue

It has been remarkably difficult to find an example of this type. If you are planning to collect one from each sub-type, then this might be one of the more challenging ones to get

Photo Copyright Collecting Ancient Coins (6.1g)

2B Plain Arcs

In this sub-class, the arcs in the exergue have plain ends.

2C Solid Line/Pellet Arcs

In this sub-class, the arcs in the exergue have pellet terminals.

Class 3 – Arc and Pellet/Corded Line

Class 3 coins have a corded line at the top of the exergue, but still have pellets and torcs beneath it. The pellet beneath the horse is closer to the back legs in this class, and the legs can be shorter.

3A – Corded Line/Pellet Arcs

Photo Copyright Surrey County Council (CC BY 2.0) (6.14g)

3B – Crescent Arcs

In this sub-type, the arcs in the exergue have crescents in them.

3C – Crude

In this sub-type, the pellet below horse is almost at the back legs. The front legs are short, and the neck sometimes extends over the head. This is perhaps the most identifiable feature.

The ∩ shape above the horse can be large in this sub-type.

Photo Copyright Oxford University & The Portable Antiquities Scheme (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Class 4H – Fronds/Heavy

Class 4H coins (the H stands for “Heavy”) have a corded line at the top of the exergue, but below it they have a wavy line between two straight lines. “Fronds” are added at both ends of the exergue (they look like little waving arms).

Example of the exergue:

Photo Copyright Oxford University & The Portable Antiquities Scheme (CC BY-SA 4.0)

4H-A Small Figure

In the first sub-type, the ∩ shape above the horse is replaced with a stick figure of a running man, but only on the first die.

4H-B – Wavy Anemone

This sub-type is named after the object behind the horse, which was once its tail. This looks similar to one in the next sub-type (4L-C) but it is more vertical here.

The weight of the coin can also help here. Unworn coins of this type generally weigh more than 6g.

Class 4L – Fronds/Light

Class 4L (the L stands for “Light”) coins are similar to class 4H coins but are lighter, with their mean weight falling below 6g. A ring of fronds can appear on the obverse, and the “anemone” behind the horse (the remains of its tail) becomes more rectangular and more horizontal. Classes 4L-D and 4L-E are easier to identify as they involve obvious changes to the ∩ shape above the horse.

4L-C – Neat Anemone

This sub-type is named after the object behind the horse, which was once its tail. This can appear to be very similar to one in the previous sub-type (4H-B) but it is more horizontal here, and can be more rectangular. The back legs are spread further apart in this sub-type, and later coins of this sub-type have an obvious “notch” in the horse’s rear, just at the top of the leg. Another defining feature of this class is the fronds that appear on the obverse, and the weight of the coin can also help, as the average weight from now on is less than 6g.

4L-D – Pellet Ring

In addition to the features of 4L-C, this sub-type features a pellet ring around the terminal of the ∩ shape’s left arm.

4L-E – Annulet/Rosette

In addition to the features of 4L-C, this sub-type features an annulet around the terminal of the ∩ shape’s right arm. It also features a rosette in from of the horse.

Photo Copyright Comptoir des Monnaies (5.91g)

Class 5 – SS Type

Class 5 is the first of the main classes that doesn’t depend on the exergue. Instead, it is defined by the “S” shapes that appear below the horse. Sills defines two sub-types; one with both S’s reversed and one with just one of them reversed. However, coins exist with both S’s facing the correct way, and with only one S. I’ve added these as two new sub-types here.

5A – SS Reversed

5B – One S Reversed

5C – Double S

This coins has neither S reversed. Sills doesn’t mention one like this

Photo Copyright ogn-numismatique.com (5.75g)

5D – Single S

This isn’t mentioned by Sills. The reverse is identical to that of class 6, but the obverse does not have the A motif required for class 6. It’s possible that this is just missing on this coin because the flan was off-centre with respect to the obverse die, in which case this is just a class 6 coin.

Photo Copyright Stack's Bowers (5.46g)

Class 6 – A Type

The final class is defined by an A shape on the obverse. There is some debate as to whether this is an “A”, an “AT” monogram, or a reversed digamma symbol (originally the 6th letter of the Greek alphabet). The Celts didn’t speak Greek, and the Greeks had stopped using it before 500 BC, so “A” or “AT” are much more likely. There is a very rare quarter stater associated with class 6 that has AR on the reverse, which could make this ATR. In 55/4 BC the Romans spent the winter in Belgic territory, and in the winter of 54/3 BC Caesar stayed in the capital city of the Ambiani. It’s likely that coin minting moved to other territories, and the closest tribe that was furthest from the Romans was the Atrebates.

6 – Digamma/Single S

Further Reading

For such a large and important series of coins, there’s surprisingly very little in the way of literature about them. The most useful is a five page article by Dr. John Sills called “Identifying Gallic War Uniface Staters”, which was published in Chris Rudd List 83 (2005). This is where he defines the classes and gives tips on how to work out which class a coin belongs to. He talks a little about Gallo-Belgic E in “Gaulish and Early British Gold Coinage”, but only in the context of Gallo-Belgic C. He also discusses them briefly again in “Divided Kingdoms: The Iron Age Gold Coinage of Southern England”.

For those of you who read French, Simone Scheers covers Gallo-Belgic E in her book “La Gaule Belgique - Traité De Numismatique Celtique”, but her work has been superseded by that of Sills.

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