There are so many published studies about the origin and history of the ancient Vascones that it is impossible to include all the information available in this short article. Especially, because some of those studies do not even have a scientific basis.
The Vascones were an ancient tribe, who used to live in a region that coincides with present-day Navarre, part of the province of Zaragoza and some areas of Southern Alava and Northern Burgos. However, these frontiers were not static, as their first location got larger or smaller, depending on the advances or retreats in their territorial fights, and besides they counted with areas of influence such as La Rioja, the Basque Country and Northern Burgos.
In this modest work, we will take a look at the image of the Vascon shown on the coins minted in the period between 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD, approximately.
The men portrayed on the coins inspiring this article look rough, have a long thick beard, a large nose and abundant hair in a very particular hairstyle. All these features are shared with other peoples represented in many of the Hispanic coins from that period, but when the piece is Vascon, it has a special profile which distinguishes it from others.
On the reverses of the aces of these Vascon mints, there is always an armed horseman, who may hold a sword, a war sickle?, a spear, a double axe, a dart. There is even a rare coin from the Ontikes mint with a “triquetra” whose meaning is uncertain. Maybe a messenger bringing the death to his enemies?
Somehow, when you are familiar with the Vascon pieces and happen to hold one in your hands, there is no need to give it too much thought, you know for sure that it belongs to this tribe.
There are some factors which must be considered, when you make this kind of comments. For instance, if someone is not familiar with this kind of minting, it will be difficult for this person to understand what I mean. He or she will think: “How come that a simple look at the obverse is enough to know that I have a Vascon piece in front of me?” But I am sure that many others know exactly what I mean.
Below some information which may help understand better, how it feels having one of the pieces of these Vascon mints in your hands.
In Leandro Villaronga’s work “Corpus Nummum Hispaniae Ante Augusti Aetatem”, he considers that the following Hispanic mints belong to the Vascon tribes:
Barskunes – Baskunes. Probably the same mint.
Arsaos. Unknown location.
Arsakos. Unknown location.
Bentian. Unknown location.
Kaiskata. Cascante, near Tudela.
Kueliokos. Unknown location.
Olkairun. The first reference about it dates from 1965. It was published by Aldecoa in Numisma 73. Unknown location.
Unanbaate. Unknown location.
Tirsos. Oteiza de la Solana?
Turiasu. Currently known as Tarazona (Zaragoza).
For reasons I am not going to explain, because they would result in a long and complicated work beyond my intention, I allow myself to include some other mints, which at some time might have been in the area under the Vascon influence:
Uarakos. Varea? (La Rioja)
Iaka. Jaca. (Huesca)
Sekia. Ejea de los Caballeros. (Zaragoza)
Gracurris. It is the most ancient Roman town in Spain, founded by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 179 BC, near Calagurris. Currently Alfaro (La Rioja). It minted coins in the time of Tiberio.
The Vascon profile can be seen in all these mints. We could also add the following to this list:
Ercavica, Sekia and Alaun, as listed by Ptolemy according to the list shown below. However, I consider that the Celtiberian type is much more obvious than the Vascon one.
Ptolemy’s reference to a series of Vascon towns: Oiasso, Eturissa, Pompaelo, Bituris, Andelos, Nemeturissa, Curnonium, Iacca, Gracurris, Calagurris, Cascantum, Ercavica, Tarraga, Muscaria, Sekia y Allauona.
Eques Collection. Lot 6018. Arsaos. Denarius. 120-80 BC. Area of Navarra. (Abh-139). (Acip-1663). Rev.: ARSAOS. Ag. 3,84 g. Rare. Almost XF. Starting bid: 220€ – Estimated: 350€
Note that Iacca and Sekia, whose mintings show Vascon features, can be found in our list of four mints under Vascon influence. This is a significant support to our thesis. We imagine that Iacca is our Iaca, currently Jaca in Huesca, but we cannot be sure about this.
This stylistic similarity does not imply any evidence of ethnical identity. But it cannot be denied that there is a Vascon style in the coinages of the towns and peoples represented by these mints. It is neither a barbaric style, as the one found in the mintings from Teitiakos, nor a degenerated and barbaric art, as in some of the mintings from Titiakos. But the mintings have some parameters with a distinctive personality which has lasted through the coins until our days.
It is very likely that these mints shared some itinerant artists, who knew how to make stamps and might have worked under the orders of those who had entrusted them with the design. Or maybe they worked for a school, using that style to give a fierce look to their pieces in order to frighten the enemies of the person, who had commissioned the work. That was the speaking role played by the coins in those times.
Regarding the language, we must say that the same one is used in all the mints and was also spoken by almost all the tribes living in the Iberian Peninsula. From a numismatic point of view, in this period we must exclude the group of the Southern Latin area, who basically used Latin characters, the mints presenting Phoenician and Libian-Phoenician epigraphic characters and, of course, the mints using a Southern Lusitanian writing. We know of previous mintings with Greek legends, as the case of Rosas, but no coins were issued at the time we are dealing with. There is a rare issuance in Edetania that we know as Neptune – Victory, some with Hellenistic characters and some others with Southern Iberian characters, which include mints like Ikalkusken, Kelin y Urkesken (North) y Kastilo, Obulco, Abra, Iltiraka, Ilturir and Iliturgi (South).
This reminds me of the Basque-Iberian theory pointed out by Strabo, who stated in the 1st century AD: “Aquitanians (the Basque belonged to this group) and Iberians were very similar and spoke the same language.” This is a solid theory but with a phylogenetic origin, which is difficult to prove.
Saying that the Basque comes from the Iberian or the opposite is probably an eternal excuse for an exciting argument. Hopefully, the archaeology will contribute with new research material, which will end up resolving all our doubts.
Another aspect to be highlighted about the Basque is that he was probably a magnificent warrior, who set aside his pride and remained more practical than other heroic tribes, who showed unusual courage and fierceness throughout the Iberian Peninsula, but could not compete with the Roman political and military machinery, which had colonized the Peninsula. The Basques cooperated with the Romans in their military campaigns. They were one of the first peoples who were colonized and introduced Latin in their everyday language without renouncing to their own language. The fights they kept with some of their neighbors (the Varduli, Caristii and Autrigones) were solved, when they joined forces with the Romans against these tribes, which were also Vascon, or spoke “Vascuence”, according to some researchers.
Little by little the Vascon tribe prevailed in their area and expanded throughout the adjacent lands. We can say that they managed to adapt themselves better to the Roman domination than other peoples.
The extraordinary Pyrenees barrier separated Aquitaine from the rest of the Vascon tribes. In that part of France, the language spoken was very similar to the one spoken on the other side of the mountain range. Currently, the Basque is one of the official languages in Spain. However, it has no official status in France.
It is evident that there are many mysteries to be cleared and some issues will remain unclear forever. A Basque from the 1st century BC could take his horse and visit his girlfriend from Arsaos, his uncles from Unanbaate and spend some days with his friends form Olkairun. Today no one could do such a thing, simply because we do not know where to find those ancient villages, where the beautiful coins were minted.
What we can do is hold one of those pieces which one day were made in those lost villages, whose names are still kept in their ancient language. We can ask them: “Where is the village, where you were minted?” Maybe you get an answer from them, but I have not been successful so far.