Earliest Written Reference to Britannia? September 12, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Female personifications of nations…. There is frigid Italia (with towers growing out of her head), France has psychotic Marianne drinking aristocratic blood, Uncle Sam sometimes flirted with French Liberty and Eriu (Ireland to Sassenach neighbours) was a hag who bedded warriors, but best of all there is sweet Britannia with a shield, trident and snooty outlook on the world and ‘the little peoples’ that live across her sea. Britannia… To see one of those Victorian statues, or Edwardian coins, it may seem that she dropped out of a nineteenth-century comic book but she has, as those same maiden aunts who worshipped her in the 1880s and 1910s would have put it, ‘a history’: the equivalent of five illegitimate kids with as many fathers in a ‘moral’ society. The earliest reference to Britannia comes, unpromisingly, in a freize from Turkey that shows the poor thing being raped by Claudius, not really that bad an approximation of the Roman invasion of the island: ‘ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant’, the bastards.
There are subsequently several Roman coins minted with Britannia on, exposing a breast in a number (why?). But the first proper written description comes right at the end of the Roman period when Claudian, a mediocre ‘bronze’ poet gives Britannia (who incidentally was about to go through hell, with Saxons, Scotti and Picts) a walk on role in his poem Stilicho’s Consulship. Beach loves this reference because it gives us not the automaton of Last Night of the Proms, but a savage warrior princess from beyond the limes.
Next spake Britain clothed in the skin of a Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak, rivalling the swell of ocean, sweeping to her feet
Inde Caledonio velata Britannia monstro/ ferro picta genas, cuius vestigia verrit/ caerulus Oceanique aestum mentitur amictus
In the same poem several Roman provinces are personified. Africa has wheat in the hair, Italy has grapes, Gaul a necklace… To read this little census of the Roman west you remember how barbaric the British were for the Romans at Empire’s end. Britannia is a wild biker with tats and furs, appalled to be in the same room as these middle class kids (the other provinces…) whose idea of a good time is cutting each other at the local Methodist dance. Before Britain became a land of shopkeepers, it was the wildest corner of occupied Europe. Other wild or unusual personifications: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com
PS The Caledonian skin will be a bear: references in a couple of other Roman poems.
24 Sept 2014: Lehmansterms adds, ‘In addition to the numismatic foreshadowing image of the woman seated upon a rock at the sea’s edge on the coins of Hadrian and Antonionus Pius, (although generally “in an attitude of dejection” rather than, as you so colorfully put it: “… sweet Britannia with a shield, trident and snooty august outlook on the world and ‘the little peoples’ that live across her sea…” as she would become on the coins with which we are more familiar) the coins begin to pick up the name, at least, as early as Claudius. Of course, the epithet “BRIT” – short for (I believe – my Latin is not all that good) Britannicus, was appended to any number of the laundry-lists of abbreviations of emperors’ official titlature in the obverse legends of coins going back as far, if I’m not mistaken, as Claudius. He at least had some “DE BRITANN” reverses of which I am certain, although he may have forgone naming himself Britannicus on his coins while he was still striking coins in the name of his short-lived son, Britannicus.’ Thanks!