An Introductory Essay
I've been a serious collector of Roman Republican denarii for some 25 years. (Well, I think I'm serious anyway; if others disagree, I won't insist.) While my interest in the "official" coins of the Roman State hasn't waned, more recently I've been focused on imitations of Republican denarii made by various "barbarous" peoples beyond the political control of Rome, but to a greater or lesser degree within her economic sphere of interest. I'm not the first to have made this transition; it seems in fact to be a common progression. But interest is one thing, systematic study is quite another. That has been lacking in recent years, especially in North America and Western Europe. Individual imitations of particularly outlandish style sometimes realize strong prices at auction, but cataloguers are mostly indifferent to the question of who actually made these coins. They seem content to describe them on general but undefined principles,
as "Celtic", or more vaguely, as products of the Danube Basin. (Note that I'm discussing throughout this essay primarily good silver imitations; I see no reason why good silver imitations and plated coins necessarily have a common origin.)
My article in the April, 2004 issue of The Celator was a preliminary attempt to address at least some of this confusion. I hope in this web site to clarify matters a bit more, if only by presenting a substantial sample of examples. As I'll argue below, there seems little doubt that only a minority of imitations are actually Celtic; most were almost certainly struck by Dacians.
The broader question of the circulation of Republican denarii in Dacia was the subject of a flurry of scholarly activity in Eastern Europe, especially Romania, some 25 years ago, culminating in the extended visit of Michael Crawford to Bucharest in the mid-70's and the somewhat acrimonious exchange of articles which this visit engendered. I won't attempt to more than quickly recapitulate the various arguments here. Very briefly, the consensus among Romanian numismatists was (and is) that most of the some 25,000 Republican denarii found in Romania, (roughly, ancient Dacia,) had in fact been produced there. Some of these are obvious imitations, no doubt minted locally, but many seem to be official Roman products. In the Romanian view, most of these are also Dacian. The Romanian scholars Constantin Preda and Maria Chitescu and others advanced various stylistic and statistical arguments in support of this position. Crawford rejected this, maintaining instead that the official-appearing denarii were just that, coins struck in Rome and exported to Dacia, perhaps mostly in conjunction with the slave trade.
The Romanian view was largely discredited, or at any rate not accepted, because it seemed part and parcel of Communist-era Romanian nationalism. The Ceausescu government, in its efforts to maintain a measure of independence from the Soviet Union, (dominated of course by Slavic Russia,) emphasized in its propaganda the direct descent of modern Romania from ancient Dacia and Rome. This was encapsulated in the evocative slogan "A centralized, unified Dacian State." A large local coinage would of course be a strong argument in favor of the existence of such a state. (I bravely plowed through a 1978 pseudo-biography of the Dacian king Burebista by I. H. Crisan, which essentially depicts that shadowy figure as the George Washington of his country.)
More recently, Kris Lockyear has subjected a large sampling of Republican coin hoards to sophisticated statistical analyses, which I'm unqualified to properly evaluate. His results seem to support the Romanian view that there are meaningful differences between the coins found in Romanian hoards and those from elsewhere in Europe. I don't question his methodology or its results, but it does occur to me that another conclusion might be possible, that shrewd Roman merchants and bankers systematically "dumped" their smaller, lighter denarii on unsuspecting "barbarians".
What all of these studies have in common is an emphasis on the economic development of Dacia, and the circulation within Dacia of Roman denarii and imitations of them. It occurred to me that no one was looking at the coins themselves, especially at those which obviously are imitations. In my naiveté, I hoped that a more numismatic approach to imitations might yield fruitful results. (I'm skewing my personal chronology here somewhat, in the interests of clarity. In fact, most of my awareness of the scholarly debate regarding Republican denarii in Dacia came after my initial investigation of imitations.) Might, for example, the legends on imitations of Republican denarii be meaningful? This is clearly the case with a well known series of imitations struck by the Eravisci, a Celtic tribe in Pannonia. (Fig.1) Many of these coins offer variable but unmistakable versions of the tribal name; others may reveal the names of tribal chiefs. Might other imitations contain a similar sort of code? (I'm not the only one tempted by this notion. The cataloguer of Lot 3 in CNG 67 tentatively attributes the coin to the Ausci, a Celtic tribe from the headlands of the Upper Danube, on the basis of a few letters of the reverse inscription. I'd love to accept this, at least as a working hypothesis; unfortunately though, I think it's only a guess, with no real basis whatsoever.)
I quickly discovered that most legends on imitations contain no independent content; they range from garbled but recognizable versions of the legends on the prototype to mere abstractions of writing such as VVVVV. (Fig.2) A few, such as Fig.'s 3 & 4, seem so clear and original that it's hard to believe they weren't attempts at conveying meaning. Perhaps someone with a deeper knowledge of tribal society in antiquity can discover that meaning, but I've had no success at all.
I also had hopes of being able to identify distinct groups of imitations. Ideally, I anticipated being able to identify various series of die-linked coins. This has successfully been accomplished with Eraviscan coins, as well as another group of coins, also from Pannonia, termed the "uninscribed series" in the British Museum Celtic catalogue. (Fig.5) Isolating groups this way would represent a clear advance, even if it remained uncertain where and when they were made, or by whom. But finding die links or die identities in the broader category of imitations has proven to be elusive. I've identified no more than a handful of such links, nowhere near enough to be of much use. This failure has been particularly frustrating. I've been diligently searching for imitations for some time now, and have access to over 300 coins, either in the "flesh" or in photos. Since these coins are scarce as a class, I believe this is a quite representative sample. I have no good explanation for my failure to find more interconnections. My best guess is that the dies simply didn't last very long and were discarded before very many coins were struck from them, but this idea is not at all satisfying or persuasive. It's been suggested that my sample isn't large enough; with that in mind, all I can do is soldier on looking for coins.
It might seem possible to isolate groups of imitations based on unambiguous similarities of style and fabric. It may indeed be the case that certain coins are the products of the same engraver (Fig.'s 6,7 & 8), but the similarity isn't so strong as to compel the identification. These criteria, especially style, are notoriously subjective. Even the Eraviscan coins, which are proven by hoard evidence and die links to be a single coinage, exhibit a discouraging variety of fabric and style. Only vague distinctions can really be made. It's reasonable, I think, to associate pieces like Fig.9 and Fig.10 with each other, and to distinguish both from a coin like this (Fig.11), although both 10 and 11 are derived from the same prototype struck by C. Naevius Balbus in 79 BC. The first two, well-made and of fine though not quite "official" style, are perhaps the products of a central minting authority; the last, very "barbarous" piece, might be a more local creation, the output of a sort of coinage cottage industry.
Until such time as the identification of groups based on die linkages is feasible, only knowledge of the findspots of imitations, whether hoards or isolated pieces, can truly advance our understanding. Unfortunately, such information is hard to come by, at least regarding coins in the market. But when I have been able to ascertain the source of coins in my collection, without exception they've turned out to have been found in Romania. I've indicated such coins in the catalogue on this site. The published hoard evidence reinforces this. To the best of my knowledge, all hoards of imitations of Republican denarii, and all mixed hoards of imitative and official pieces, have been found in Romania or in neighboring countries also within the Dacian sphere of influence.
It's probably an oversimplification to describe all imitations of Republican denarii (other than the two Pannonian groups) as Dacian. This is a very diverse class of coins, and may well reflect diverse origins. (The recent emergence on the European market of two types of silver Koson drachms is an interesting development. I'm among those who have questioned the authenticity of these pieces, but for now, I accept them as ancient.) Nonetheless, "Dacian" remains my fallback attribution for a new imitation, unless I see a cogent reason to describe it differently. At least this is a conscious choice, not a casual ascription, and I think it quite likely at least approximates the truth. The coins are found in Dacia, and nowhere else. The Dacians had a well-established affinity for Republican denarii, and used them in enormous numbers. No eastern Celtic group, so far as I know, had a similar predilection. The Dacian tribes coalesced from time to time into a sort of proto-state that may well have been capable of large scale, centralized minting operations. Again, to my knowledge no Celtic tribe or group of tribes in Eastern Europe or the Balkans achieved this level of political organization. That a particular imitation is Dacian can't yet be proven (although I still have hopes!), but there's virtually no reason at all to describe such a coin as "Celtic".