The rape of Britannia
I shall be rather sad if Britannia does indeed, as the Prime Minister plans, disappear from British coins. After all, it’s part of the point of a modern coin design that it should include some hoary old symbol that is simultaneously easily recognisable and also not fully comprehensible (or not comprehensible without a bit of research, anyway).
After all one of the Greek Euros has the Rape of Europa on it: a frisky bull, about to run off with -- and worse – an innocent young maid. (Imagine what the New Labour moral police would have done with that one.) And what on earth was that little bird on the old farthing. Was it a wren or a robin? And why?
So Britannia fits the bill rather nicely. An appropriately antique goddess, invented by the Romans, as a symbol of their new province, and used on British coins since the seventeenth century. If she goes, I don’t hold out much hope, long term, for that nice bit of Virgil (decus et tutamen -- from Aeneid Book V) around the pound coin. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr Brown isn’t much of a fan of Latin.
But while the traditionalists lament Britannia’s disappearance, they might like to reflect on her first appearance in Roman art. As rape victim of the doddery old emperor Claudius.
She is first used on a coin under the emperor Hadrian in the second century CE, sitting on her usual rock. But her premiere, so far as we know, was on a large building put up in the town of Aphrodisias (in modern Turkey, not all that far from Ephesus): the so called “Sebasteion”, a building complex of temple and porticoes, probably finished in the reign of the emperor Nero, and dedicated to Aphrodite and the Roman emperors/gods (the ‘sebastoi’ in Greek).
It’s loaded with sculpture (in fact Aphrodisias, which is still being excavated, is the place where some of the best ancient sculpture has been discovered over the last few decades). There are personifications of the tribes and peoples of the Roman empire, scenes from myth (from Leda and the Swan to Orestes at Delphi). And then there are more specifically Roman images. One panel shows a heroically nude emperor Claudius shaking hands with his wife (and murderess, if you believe the stories) Agrippina. Another (on the right) has Agrippina crowning her son Nero with a laurel wreath.
Yet another is the Britannia panel (seen at the top). Claudius, naked again apart from a bit of weaponry is about to do something very nasty to a sprawling Britannia, whom he’s pulling back by her flowing hair. She’s dressed in a tunic already falling away from her breasts, and some little barbarian boots. We know it’s Claudius and Britannia because there’s an inscription going with it that names them both.
As a commemoration of Claudius' conquest of Britain, it's about as classic a version of the erotics of military victory as you could wish for. And it goes with another panel from the monument, which is an even more titillating picture of Nero having his way with Armenia (left).
It’s a useful antidote to the confident, bellicose Britannia, ruling the waves on British coins. She who is victor was once victim; empires rise and fall; power comes and goes.
Of course it’s exactly these ambivalences and mixed messages that make such old classical symbols so good for the coinage. Pity we cant celebrate that, rather than just chuck them out.