Two major groups of regional coinage are to be identified among the Bulgarian Celts in the 3rd – 1st c. BC – the Strymon/Trident coinage, and the Zaravetz lead and bronze issues. Unlike the silver Thasos, Philip II and Philip III models, which circulated over a wide geographical area (see relevant sections), the Strymon/Trident and Zaravetz coinage circulated within limited geographical areas – the former mostly in the region of today’s southwestern Bulgaria, and the latter among the Celtic tribes of northeastern Bulgaria and southeastern Romania.
As with all Celtic coins from the territory of today’s Bulgaria, the Strymon/Trident bronze issues are almost unknown in scientific publications, and information on them comes exclusively from collectors, ‘treasure hunters’, or secondary sources. The coins themselves are based on a rare Macedonian issue of Philip V or Perseus, dated 187 – 168 BC. (Fig. 1)
Macedonian original of Philip V or Perseus (187 – 168 BC)
The Celtic models (Fig. 2-3), like the Macedonian originals, feature the head of the river-god Strymon on the obverse, and a trident on the reverse. From an artistic perspective these coins show few of the trends evident on the other Celtic coins from this period. They are what they appear to be – rough, functional coins, loosely based on Macedonian originals, intended for everyday use as low denomination currency units by the Celtic tribes of this area.
They have been found mostly in the area of today’s Bulgaria stretching from Serdica (Sofia) in the north, to the Bulgarian-Greek border in the south. A particularly high concentration is to be noted in the latter area (s-w Bulgaria) where ‘many thousands’ of these coins have been discovered. (1)
SNG cop. 1299
This is particularly true of the area of the western Rhodope mountains and especially in the upper Struma and Mesta river valleys. In this area hoards of these coins have been discovered around the towns of Kyustendil (map 6n #1), Blagoevgrad (map 6n #2), Gotsche Delchev (map 6n #3), and Razlog (map 6n #4)(2). Further examples have been recorded from the areas around the villages of Kochan (Fig. 4) (map 6n #5)(3), Bansko (map 6n #6), Eleschnitza (map 6n #7), Belitza (map 6n #8), Babyak (map 6n #9), and Jakoruda (map 6n #10)(4). Numerous finds have been recorded from the Serdica area (map 6n #11) (5), while the largest hoard of coins of this type has been discovered at Ognyanovo in the Pazardjik region (map 6n #12)(6).
Fig. 4 – Celtic Strymon/Trident coins recently discovered by ‘treasure hunters’ at the village of Kochan (Blagoevgrad region) in the western Rhodope mountains (7)
The Circulation of Celtic Thasos model tetradrachmas in this area during the same period (II-I c. BC) has already been noted (see Thasos model – numismatic section). However, while the silver Thasos models circulated throughout the area of today’s Bulgaria, the Strymon/Trident type appears to have been produced by, and circulated only among, the Celtic tribes who dominated southwestern Bulgaria in the pre-Roman period. The archaeological and numismatic evidence also links this Celtic population with the cult complexes in this area such as that at Babyak (see also the ‘Cult firepots’, ‘Evil Eye and Little Glass Men’, and ‘Killing the Objects’ articles)
So who exactly were the Celtic tribes who produced the coins in question, and how do they fit into the historical context of the region?
Confirmation of Celtic settlement in this area, as well as the recent identification of Rupite (Pernik region) as the site of ancient Heracleae Sintica, clarifies the geographical context of the historical events mentioned in classical sources. In 117 BC the Celts launched a major attack on Roman Macedonia along the valley of the river Struma (the same route which had been taken in the previous century by Brennos’ central army during the invasion of Greece), penetrating all the way to Thessalonika where Pompey, the Roman governor, was killed. It appears certain that this attack and those which followed were carried out by the Celtic tribes who lived in today’s southwestern Bulgaria, i.e. those who produced the Strymon/Trident coinage outlined above. This is logical not only from a geographic and logistical perspective, but also supported by the fact that in subsequent attacks the Celts were accompanied by other ‘barbarian tribes’, notably the Thracian Maedi and Bessi, both of whom also lived in the Rhodope mountains area of Bulgaria. The attacks on Roman Macedonia were also certainly facilitated by the fact that, according to Livy (XLV, 30), a Celtic population was already settled during this period in Macedonia itself – around the towns of Beroea, Pela, and Edessa.
Southwestern Rhodope Mountains
THE RHODOPE MASSACRES
Despite the escalating attacks on the Roman province of Macedonia, the empire continued its expansion towards the central Balkans. A Roman fortress was established on the upper Struma river at Heracleae Sintica (Rupite, Pernik region), and two cohorts of Roman soldiers were stationed there under a commander called Lucullus (Front. Strat. 3,10,7). This fortress was on the border of, or even possibly within, the territory of the Celtic tribes in Thrace, and appears to have been intended as a staging post for further Roman expansion northwards. In 114 BC a Roman army, led by the consul Gaius Porcius Cato, marched into Thrace (Liv. Per. 63’a; Flor. 1.39, 1-4; Dio Cass fr. 88’1; Eutrop. 4.24.1; Amm. Marc. 27.4.4). The purpose of this attack appears to have been twofold – to eradicate the barbarian threat to Roman Macedonia, and to expand the empires power into the territory of today’s Bulgaria. The events which followed were to prove catastrophic for the Romans.
This heavily afforested and mountainous area of the western Rhodope mountains is ill suited for the conventional military tactics of an imperial army, but perfect terrain for the surprise attacks and ambush tactics used by the Thracian Celts in this period. It would appear that the Roman consul completely underestimated the situation both in terms of the terrain, and the military potential of his enemy. The invading Roman army was wiped out, and the Celts counterattacked.
After the destruction of Cato’s army the closest Roman target was the garrison at Heracleae Sintica. The ensuing events are described in detail by the Roman historian Frotinius (40 – 103 AD) in his work Strategemata (3,19,7):
Scordisci equites, cum Heracleae diversarum partium praesidio praepositus esset Lucullus, pecora abigere simulantes provocaverunt eruptionem; fugam deinde mentiti sequentem Lucullum in insidias deduxerunt et octingentos cum eo milites occiderunt.
The attack on Heracleae was marked, not by the headlong barbarian charge often associated with the Celts, but by a much more subtle and successful tactic. A small group of Celtic horsemen were first dispatched and, pretending to drive off the livestock, provoked Lucullus into a fatal error. No sooner had the Roman force emerged from their defenses to hunt down the ‘barbarians’, than the main body of the Celtic cavalry attacked. What followed was less a battle than a massacre, in the aftermath of which the Roman commander and 800 of his soldiers lay dead.
The events of 114 BC – the destruction of Cato’s army and the subsequent massacre of the Roman garrison at Heracleae, taught Rome a costly lesson. Further attacks by the Romans on the Thracian Celts, such as that in 109 BC by the consul Minucius Rufus, were launched along the valley of the Maritza river, or other routes more suitable for a Roman army. (11) Roman expansion on the Balkans continued unabated over the next century. (See ‘The Scordisci Wars’ article) However, no further attacks were ever directed at the Celtic tribes of the western Rhodope mountains. It is interesting to note that even during the Roman period the road system built by the empire in this region of Bulgaria shows unexplained diversions in order to avoid certain areas, (12) indicating that some parts of this inhospitable region never fell under Roman control.
(Does not include Celtic coins from the 3rd c. BC Tyle state, Zaravetz issues from northeastern Bulgaria, or Celtic imitations of Paeonian coins (4th – 3rd c. BC)
- Filipova, Prokopov 2008 = Филипова Св., Прокопов И., Монети от Светилището при Бабяк. In: Тракийското Светилището При Бабяк И Неговата Археологическата Среда. Sofia, 2008
- Filipova, Prokopov op cit; Тонкова М., Гоцев А., Резултатът от археологическите проучвания на тракийското светилище при с. Бабек. – Археологически открития и разкопки през 1994, Смолян 1995, 54 – 56; Prokopov I., Imitations of Bronze Coins in Thracia during the 1st c. B.C., in Proceedings of the XII Internationaler Numizmatischer Kongress, Berlin 1997, 369-377; Прокопов И., Варварски подражания на македонски бронзови монети. – ИИМКН, V/2, 1998, c. 357 – 360
- See Fig. 4
- Filipova, Prokopov op cit
- FIlipova, Prokopov op cit
- Filipova, Prokopov op cit
- Kazarov 1919: 76; Mac Congail 2008: 20-21
- Loc cit
- 11. Mac Congail op cit, with relevant lit. (attached Pdf.); ‘Scordisci’ appears to have been a generic term used by the Romans for the Thracian Celts. For more on this see ‘The Scordisci Wars’ article.
- Filipova, Prokopov op cit.