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Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain by JOHN CREIGHTON
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2000. 249 pages, 45 half-tones, 2 tables, 4 graphs, 34 figures, 6 maps. ISBN 0 521 77207 9 hard cover (£55)

It is rare for a book to appear that everyone interested in a given period must read and should have an opinion upon. Coins and power in Late Iron Age Britain is one of those books. It is essential reading for anyone studying the Later Pre-Roman Iron Age or Early Roman period in northern Europe, and has much to offer anyone interested in the question of the social organisation of middle ranking societies.

The book looks at the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age in southern England from essentially 100 BC to the Roman Conquest in AD 43. This is a period of major social change that has recently been explained in terms of external forces, be they migration or cross channel trade. John Creighton brings together archaeological, historical and, particularly, coin evidence to provide a synthesis that concentrates on political developments. It places the transformations in south east England at this time in the context of the contemporary political developments within the Roman world, especially Octavian’s rise to power after the murder of Julius Caesar and his creation of the Roman Empire and himself as Augustus.

After setting the scene, the book considers the early coinage of Late Iron Age southern England, which now is recognised as starting in the middle of the 2nd Century BC (i.e. in the Middle Iron Age). In particular, John sees the abstract imagery on these ‘Gallo-Belgic’ and other ‘British’ coins as imagery drawn from trance experiences. The main argument of the book essentially begins with Julius Caesar’s invasions of southern England in 55 and 54 BC. John sees these events as leaving a direct and profound immediate political effect in southern England. He argues that Caesar left behind political clients, having de facto conquered south east England for Rome and that these political clients were more than just a convenient set of words. They were and continued to be rulers tied to and dependent upon the Roman political machine.

The rest of the book develops this thesis and what consequences it has for southern England. It especially looks at how the political institutions and ideologies that developed in south east England developed as part of a larger changing Roman political discourse. Most of the argument of the book is derived from a study of the imagery and language on southern English coins. These show a marked change in the last decades of the 1st Century BC with the appearance of the names of rulers and classical inspired imagery. That these changes take place at the same time that Augustus is establishing him as ‘emperor’ with new political institutions and a new, changing ideological language is not a co-incidence for John. An important part of the book is the detailed study of coin imagery showing how key elements on the English coins are derived from major themes in the ideological imagery employed on Augustus’ coins. These images are also found on the coins of other ‘friendly kings’ around the limits of the Roman Empire, such as the kings of Numidia and Armenia. John explains these links as the direct result of client kings and members of the their families from around the edge of the empire having been in Rome as hostages, guests or exiles where they received an education and inculcation into Roman political ways. This is the central part of the argument; that the rulers of southern England were members of the Roman world; had been educated in Rome; adopted many aspects of Roman elite lifestyles; and were the clients of the empire whose positions and major actions were dependent, or prescribed, by Rome.

Above all this is a speculative straightforward narrative about political change. It is only really about the rulers of south east England, and then really about them through their coins. It takes one important thesis about Rome’s ‘Friendly Kings’ and runs with that idea far, furious and fast. Too which it is right to ask if it goes too far, furious and fast?

Other reviews from the perspectives of Ancient History and Numismatics have raised important questions about the thesis, as do I from the perspective of the archaeology. This book is, in essence, a new attempt to write history from coins, and like previous attempts to write the history of Late Iron Age Britain from the coins, it does not get to grips with what these coins were actually made to do. It is also essentially focused on the ‘southern Kingdom’, a polity in West Sussex and East Hampshire. The larger and ultimately more powerful ‘eastern Kingdom’ in Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent and surrounding areas features from time to time, but is not considered in any depth. There is no discussion of what was happening in any other part of Britain, nor is there much detailed discussion of what was happening before these two polities emerged c. 30-10 BC. These are important qualifications. The ‘eastern Kingdom’ comes out of a very different archaeological background than the ‘southern Kingdom’. The changing social and political conditions in Hampshire and Sussex in the 150 years before the southern kingdom are also only treated in a cursory manner. New work suggests that social developments in East Anglia, the Midlands and the south West of England all contributed to the shape of developments in the two polities. But these regions are barely mentioned in the book. While, the specific developments in southeast England are just one of a diverse, but presumably related, set of changes across the whole of Britain and Ireland from c. 200 BC onwards. As a book focused on coins and contacts with Rome there is also no discussion of other classes of evidence such as settlement, burial, agriculture or economy from the south east of England from 50 BC to AD 43, except when it directly relates to the main thesis.

For me, the book ultimately tries too hard to make everything fit into the hostage/client king model. But then I am sure I, and others, are equally guilty of this crime on occasions. This may detract from many worthwhile ideas the book throws up and the central importance of its contributions. The book makes us look at coins and ask why they have what they have on them. John Creighton clearly shows that the rulers of southeast England after 40-30 BC exercised and justified their power in a very different ways than previously, ways that show a close understanding of and contact with the political life, manners and ideological practices of Rome. The question for everyone reading this book to ask is whether this could only be because these rulers had been hostages in Rome and were client kings closely tied and dependent on the Empire. Indeed, at the end of the book, this reviewer was left with the impression that these British rulers were really ‘puppets’ of Rome in all senses of the word. They are painted as people incapable of their own creative thoughts, actions and improvisations. These people are cast as incapable of being exactly the same astute and creative political operators in Rome, who as hostages they are supposed to have learnt from. Whatever the final resolution of the debate John Creighton has started, the Late Iron Age of Britain cannot and should not be the same again.

JD Hill
The British Museum

Review Submitted: April 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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