The King and the Hybrid
This Coin of the Month is one of the many silver coins of the British King Tasciovanus. He is believed to have ruled an area that approximately corresponds to modern day Hertfordshire towards the end of the 1st century BC. Little is known of his history or circumstances, but he is best known for being the grandfather of Caractacus and Togodumnus, the British kings who fought the Romans during their final invasion of Britain in AD 43.
Tasciovanus was one of the earliest of the British kings to present classical Roman imagery on his coins, with Pegasus, griffons and hippocamps making appearances. The imagery of this coin is part of this trend towards classical imagery, but with one exception: the Capricorn, a beast of the sea, is given the wings of a beast of the air.
Tasciovanus ruled during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Augustus used the Capricorn, his star sign, as one of his many symbols. Even without the wings, the Capricorn was already a strange creature, with its front comprised of half of a goat and its rear the back of a fish. Despite this imagery appearing across Rome during the time of Augustus, little is known about the creature’s origins, or its role in ancient myth.
Perhaps it was this mystery that attracted Tasciovanus’ die engravers to the image. Capricorn is never portrayed with wings in the Roman world, so these were a British addition. The inclusion of another element to an already elaborate hybrid was inspired by what is known as Celtic religion. The peoples who inhabited Gaul, modern-day France, and Britain at this time saw their deities not as men and woman, like the Greeks and Romans, but as something beyond the human and natural world, or rather something that stood between them. As a result, the horned god is a popular feature of their mythology, and may explain the prominent horns of the Capricorn on Tasciovanus’ coins. The Tarasque monster, a statue found in France of a terrifying dog like creature, and the elephants with spotted fur depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark are another part of this belief. The gods do not walk as men or animal, but as a mixture of the two, or of many beasts, and are nothing like what can be seen with human eyes.
Hybridised creatures of classical mythology, such as the Pegasus or griffon, were attractive images to a culture with such beliefs. The Capricorn was no exception, but perhaps it was not deemed alien enough. The use of wings on the Pegasi and griffons had apparently been pleasing to British audiences, so this might have inspired the addition to the Capricorn here. Adding wings to a sea creature that does not apparently need them makes the monster less natural, and thus more appropriate to the divine forms familiar to the British inhabitants.
The fascination with winged creatures can be witnessed on the many British coin types displaying Pegasus. Rarely used in Roman imagery, the original image may have been taken from the Pegasi shown on coins of Emporion, a Greek colony in Iberia, modern-day Spain. The horse was a powerful image in Celtic art, appearing on coinage and many other forms of material culture, a popularity due to its effectiveness in Celtic warfare, the prestige value of its ownership and possibly the religious rituals associated with the animal. Witnessing a Greek depicting of their venerated animal with the addition of wings would have inspired the Celtic imagination. From then on, the presence of wings on a creature was a popular theme, accounting for the many Celtic coin images of classical monstrosities as well as deities, like the Roman winged goddess Victory.
This month's coin was written by David Swan. David is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Warwick. His thesis examines coinage and hoarding trends along the trade routes of the eastern Atlantic, from the 5th century BC – 1st century AD. He specialises in Celtic coinage.
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