‘’not content with making incursions merely into the neighbouring provinces of Thessaly and Dalmatia, (they) penetrated as far as the Adriatic; checked by the boundary which it formed, since nature apparently stayed their advance, they hurled their weapons against the very waters’’.
(Florus, Epitome of Roman History XXXVIIII, iii)
In the year 114 BC a large Roman army, led Gaius Porcius Cato, marched into Thrace along the Valley of the Struma river. The campaign had a twofold purpose – to eradicate the barbarian threat from the north to the Roman province of Macedonia, and to expand the empires power into the territory of today’s western Bulgaria. After the successful conquest of Macedonia, it appears that Rome expected little resistance from the local Thracian tribes. In fact, the events which followed were to prove among the most embarrassing in Roman military history.
Along the Struma Valley the Romans were ambushed by the local Scordisci, (a generic term for the Celts tribes of Thrace (see ‘Scordisci Wars’). The battle which followed resulted in the destruction of Cato’s army and the subsequent massacre of the Roman garrison at Heraclea Sintica (Rupite), where 800 further Romans were wiped out by the Celtic cavalry. The victories of 114 BC appear to have motivated the Celtic tribes of western Bulgaria and attacks on Roman Macedonia by the Scordisci and their Thracian allies, notably the Maidi tribe, continued throughout the final years of the 2nd c. BC, and the first decades of the 1st c. BC, these raids extending beyond Roman Macedonia to Thessaly and Dalmatia, even reaching Epirus on the Adriatic coast (on these events see Florus, Epitomae de Titi Livio, Libri II, XXXVIIII, III, 4; Liv. Per. 63′a; Flor. 1.39, 1-4; Dio Cass fr. 88’1; Eutrop. 4.24.1; Amm. Marc. 27.4.4; Plut. Num. 9; App. Illy. 5; Eusub. II; Eutrop. V, 7,1; Plut. Sula 23; (St. Jerome, (Hieronymus) 170.1; Obseq. 43; Hieron. Chron. 1917; Flor. XXXVIIII, iii, 4; Cic. Pis. 61; Festus. Brev. 9’2).
In 76 BC Appius Claudius Pulcher, who had been governor in Macedonia since the previous year, led a large Roman army against the Celts in the Rila/Rhodope mountains area of southwestern Bulgaria. (Liv. Epit. XCI; Flor. II, 39.6; Eutrop. VI,2; Oros. V 23.19; Amm. Marc. XXVII, 4.10). This campaign, the last recorded attempt by Rome to directly eliminate the Celtic tribes in southwestern Bulgaria, resulted in a bitter guerrilla war in the Thracian mountains which ultimately ended in the death of the Proconsul himself, and the withdrawl of the Roman army (see ”Scordisci Wars” article).
The western Rhodope mountains
These turbulent events are reflected in the archaeological evidence, particularly in numerous hoards of Hellenistic and Roman ‘plunder coinage’ from Thrace found together with Celtic issues from this period, which bear clear testimony to the ‘barbarian’ attacks on Roman Macedonia and Greece (see Plunder Coins and Mystery of the Illyrian Cows). However, the most fascinating evidence has come with the publication of the coinage produced by the mountain Celtic tribes of south-western Thrace – a coinage and economic system which, according to recent analysis, was based almost entirely on plunder.
THE BOGOLIN HOARD
In the late 2nd and 1st century BC a distinct coinage in bronze was produced by the Celtic tribes of the south-western areas of Thrace bordering Macedonia. This coinage, concentrated along the middle region of the Mesta / Nestos river and Strouma / Strymon rivers and in the Western Rhodope and Pirin mountains (around the modern border of Bulgaria with Greece) consisted of only a single type – the Strymon/Trident type, imitating a Macedonian original of the time of Philip V or Perseus (Gaebler, AMNG III/2, no.14, taf 2, 25; SNG Cop. 1298; Paunov 2012).
Macedonian original of Philip V or Perseus (187 – 168 BC)
Celtic Strymon/Trident issues – Southwestern Bulgaria (late 2nd / 1st c. BC)
Most fascinating about these Celtic coins is that in most cases they were not produced from blanks, but overstruck on ‘Macedonian’ bronze issues (late royal or autonomous/Roman). The overstrikes are clearly visible and it is not hard to identify the host coin. Apparently, no attention was paid to the size, weight, denomination of the original host, or an attempt to adjust the dies of overstrikes. Host civic coins of Thessalonica, Amphipolis, and Pella, or Macedonian ‘autonomous’ issues, most dated to the period ca. 187 – ca. 50 BC, were used for the majority of these imitations (Paunov 2012).
Besides thousands of stray finds and smaller hoards, 7 larger hoards of such coins have been recorded in the Western Rhodope mountains and Struma Valley of today’s south-western Bulgaria.
Major hoards of Celtic Strymon/Trident type coinage recorded in south-western Bulgaria
(after Paunov 2012)
Celtic Strymon/Trident coins recently discovered by ‘treasure hunters’ at the village of Kochan (Blagoevgrad region) in the western Rhodope mountains
(see ‘Strymon/Trident’ article)
A particularly interesting case is that of the Bogolin 1989 hoard, which gives us a valuable insight into the phenomenon which was the Celtic economy in this area during the period in question. The Bogolin hoard initially consisted of circa 400 bronze coins, of which 100+ have subsequently been stolen. At the moment 285 coins from this hoard are reportedly kept in the Blagoevgrad museum (Prokopov 1991, 1997; Paunov 2012; Paunov, Filipova, Prokopov 2013).
Celtic AE Strymon/Trident from the Bogolin hoard (Blagoevgrad Museum)
(after Paunov et al 2013 (in print)
What is unique about the Bogolin hoard is the fact that, according to analysis, all 285 coins from this hoard are overstruck on Macedonian coins (either Macedonian royal coinage of that of the Roman Macedonian province), i.e. all these Celtic issues were struck on coins plundered during the ‘barbarian’ raids, once more emphasising the extent of the attacks on Roman territory during this period.
The nature of this and other similar hoards, and their geographical and temporal contexts, clearly indicates that the presence of such a large quantity of Roman/Hellenistic coins from the period in question in this part of Thrace is a direct result of the Celtic raids on Roman Macedonia (and Greece) in the late 2nd / early 1st c. BC (see Plunder Coins). This in turn logically indicates that the Celtic tribes of today’s south-western Bulgaria were one of the main participants in the conflict between the Balkan ‘barbarian’ tribes and Rome during this period, a fact which is confirmed in ancient historical sources.
However, as Rome discovered to her cost, to label those who produced these coins as mere ‘bandits’ would be to grossly underestimate the Celtic tribes of western Thrace. From a military perspective they were capable of mounting a successful and sustained resistance to Roman expansion in this region for over a century, in a number of cases defeating major Roman armies sent against them. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the archaeological and numismatic evidence from this area indicates a well developed market economy/state organisation, and despite the conflict conditions of the time, ‘’this Celtic state, in what is now south-western Bulgaria, was able to produce and maintain a controlled economic/monetary system’’ (Paunov 2012).
Paunov E. (2012)From Koine To Romanitas: The Numismatic Evidence For Roman Expansion And Settlement In Bulgaria In Antiquity (Moesia and Thrace, ca. 146 BC – AD 98/117) Phd. Thesis. School of History, Archaeology and Religion. Cardiff University. November, 2012
Paunov E., Filipova S., Prokopov I. (2013) CCCHBulg. 4, Blagoevgrad Museum (In Print)
Prokopov (1991) = И. Прокопов, “Монетно съкровище от с. Боголин, Гоце Делчевско”, ИИМКн, 3 (Kyustendil 1991), 69-77
Prokopov I. (1997) Imitations of Bronze Coins in Thracia during the 1st century BC. In: B. Kluge – B. Weisser (eds), XII. Internationaler Numizmatischer Kongress, Berlin 1997 (Akten – Proceedings – Actes). Volume I, Berlin 2000, 372-375
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