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August 01, 2017

The King and the Hybrid

tasciovanus coin

Tasciovanus silver coin, ABC 2619, c.25-10 BC.
Obverse: crossed wreath and two teardrop motifs, back to back crescents in centre, TASC in angles.
Reverse: winged capricorn right, VER below.

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.


J. Creighton, Coins and power in late Iron Age Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000

M. Green, The Gods of the Celts, Alan Sutton, Gloucester 1986

M. Green, An Archaeology of Images: Iconology and cosmology in the Iron Age and Roman Empire, Routledge, London 2004

A. Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: studies in iconography and tradition, Routledge, London 1967

M. Russell, Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain, Amberley, Stroud 2010

P. Zanker, The power of images in the age of Augustus, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 1988

May 09, 2017

The lead tokens of Roman Britain

Roman tokens found in Britain have previously received very little study. Discerning what form they take is key to understanding their purpose. To date the possibilities to be explored include a set of tokens bearing similarity to those from Rome, and leaden coin copies.

One form of token has been found primarily on the Thames foreshore by metal detectorists, as well as in East Anglia. They are not, however, particularly prevalent. In appearance they depict imagery similar to that found on coins. Deities feature heavily, while animals, busts and letters are also present. A variety of objects are also depicted, such as modii (a dry measure for products such as corn), palm fronds and boats. The imagery is, however, incredibly varied (plates of images from Rostovtzeff’s publication can be found here.

Face1: Corn modius flanked by stars

Face 2: Fides carrying plate of fruit and corn ears

It is evident that those found here in Britain have parallels elsewhere in the Roman Empire. For example, one token found on the Thames foreshore depicts a corn modius between two stars on one side (see above left) and a goddess on the other (probably Fides carrying a plate of fruits and corn ears, see above right). Parallels to this are housed in museums in France and Rome, as is the case with other tokens found in Britain. This therefore implies that these tokens are not native solely to Britain, and are more likely to have arrived here from elsewhere, or form a part of an object type recognised and used by Rome.

Another form the tokens may take is that of leaden coin copies (see below left). A few are recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, and it is possible that rather than trying to imitate coinage (lead after all is heavier than copper alloy and would have perhaps been obviously unauthentic when exchanging hands), they instead represent a token value. Some of the tokens on the PAS database are from Piercebridge (see below right), an assemblage which is believed to have had ritualistic significance due to its deposition over time in a river. This perhaps adds credence to the possibility that these copies had a function beyond merely being forgeries, especially as some have been folded or squeezed, thereby implying a votive significance. Tokens also form part of votive assemblages in Italy, for example in the river Garigliano.

A lead coin from Yorkshire, depicting Emperor with radiate crown, possibly also used as a token (PAS database YORYM-AF42B3)

Folded lead denarius from Piercebridge, possibly also used as a token (PAS database NCL-125BD7)

One reason for the paucity of tokens discovered in Britain could be that they are not recognised as such. When lead corrodes it often forms a protective and stable layer, but this obscures surface detail, thereby resulting in an undiagnostic lead disc. So far, the majority of the known tokens have been discovered by metal detectorists, rather than through excavation (the exception is a token found in the drains of the baths at Caerleon). If more tokens come to light perhaps their findspots and distribution will help to illuminate their purpose.


Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg. (YORYM-AF42B3) (NCL-125BD7)

Denise Wilding, PhD student on the Token Communities ProjectThis month's blog was written by Denise Wilding, a PhD student on the EU-funded project Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean.

April 01, 2014

The "King of the Britons" Coin

Coin of Cunobelinus

Before the invasion of Britain in AD 43 by the Roman Emperor Claudius, we have very little information on the earlier rulers of Britain. Classical accounts speak of only a few British chieftains, so our main source of evidence as to who these rulers were comes from the coins minted by the British kings themselves. Therefore this month’s coin belongs to Cunobelinus, a tribal leader active in South-western England from around AD 30.

This British coin is quite similar to its Roman counterparts. It uses a depiction of a head on the obverse similar to that of the Roman Emperors on their coins, and on the reverse a centaur is depicted. The centaur is a Greek mythological creature, and not part, as far as we are aware, of the pre-Roman British mythology. The use of Greek and Roman imagery was fairly common in this period, but it represents a new design of British coins. Horses had been very prevalent on coins, inspired by Macedonian coinage, but designed in such a local, British way, that they look very different from the depictions of horses in the Greek and Roman worlds. The designs on this coin indicate increased awareness of Roman styles, representing a stronger connection to the Roman world. As a bronze coin, this coin is unlikely to have been used for trade with the Romans, who traded in silver for the most part, although it is possible the ideas expressed on the coins were communicated to the Romans through a different medium. Thus the imagery is more likely to have targeted Cunobelinus’ British subjects. Wine amphorae from Rome have been found in elite burials in this period, indicating there was increased contact and trade with the Romans, and that the British elite were starting to adopt Roman customs. A ruler who was also interested in Roman designs would thus be more favoured as a leader. Thus even before the Roman invasion, the British were already adopting Roman customs and art styles. It was not “forced upon them” by the invading Romans.

Nonetheless, despite the increased interest in Roman culture, the centaur is a strange image to use, seen rarely on other coins even in the Greek and Roman world. The legend on the reverse reads “TAS…ONI…” (TAS[CI]OVA[NIF]), a reference to Tasciovanus, Cunobelinus’ father. Thus perhaps the centaur is being directly associated with Cunobelinus’ father. In Greek and Roman mythology, the centaur is often representative of drunkenness and barbarianism, not an ideal fatherly representation, so perhaps the British saw the centaur in a different way. The British had great veneration for horses, often depicting horses on their coins, so they were clearly a symbol of significance. They were probably representative of power, as horses are strong animals, and they also communicated wealth, as to own a horse costs a lot of money. Therefore a centaur, as a hybrid of horse and man, in British eyes may have represented a man being combined with this powerful creature. In this way, perhaps Tasciovanus is being displayed as the centaur, as a man with the great power and wealth associated with a horse. In this way, Cunobelinus depicts his ancestry as great, which would have made him popular with his people.

Some scholars have seen the Roman head on the obverse as representing the Roman Emperor, and thus the coin is designed to praise the Roman leadership. However, with the legend of “Cunobelin…” nearby, it seems the head is actually representative of Cunobelinus himself. Why he chose to do this can be seen in the Roman biographer Suetonius’ account. He states that the Emperor Caligula received the surrender of Adminius, who Suetonius describes as “Cynobellini Britannorum regis filio”: “the son of the king of the Britons, Cunobelinus” (Suetonius Caligula 44.2). Suetonius’ description seems to indicate that Cunobelinus ruled all the people in Britain, when in reality it was made up of many different tribes, each controlled by their own king. Either Suetonius has got his facts wrong, or perhaps he is buying in to Cunobelinus’ propaganda. There is no British equivalent of an Emperor, a man in charge of a huge amount of lands and tribes, so perhaps Cunobelinus is taking the imagery of a Roman Emperor in order to give the impression that he is even more powerful than just an average tribal chieftain, making him appear the most powerful man in Britain. In fairness, this may not be too far from the truth, as some scholars believe that during his reign, Cunobelinus was acquiring new territory in the South of Britain, so he may have needed to prove he was worthy of this large portion of land. While Cunobelinus probably was nowhere near the sole ruler of Britain, his representation of himself as an Emperor could well have convinced some Romans, as seen in Suetonius’ account, that he was, or at least a major player in British politics. This would help immensely to encourage trade, as Roman traders may have been deceived into seeing Cunobelinus as the most powerful, and thus the richest man in Britain, and thus the best person to go to with their desirable wares.

david_swanThis month's coin is chosen by David Swan. David is currently an undergraduate student of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His interests include numismatics, and prehistoric Britain.

(Coin image above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Mail bid Sale 66, lot 46) (

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