Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Emperor Says "Rule, Britannia"

Another anniversary for you today. On this day in the year 117 Trajan, the Emperor of Rome, died. He was succeeded by the man he adopted as his son only two days earlier (who was also the son of his cousin), a 41-year-old soldier called Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known to us all as Emperor Hadrian.

In celebration of this 1900th anniversary of Hadrian’s accession let’s have a look at his links to the UK, and specifically his influence on the creation of the very personification of the nation itself, Britannia.

Britannia was a name given to the British Isles by the Romans long before the female figure of the same name was created. Throughout the empire the Romans adopted allegorical personifications for their conquered provinces. None have survived as major figures into the modern era except Britannia.

It all started not long after Hadrian became emperor. He was an inveterate traveller. He was probably Spanish-born, of mixed Roman colonial and native Hispanic heritage. He trained as a soldier in Spain and served as a military commander in Germany, France and Dacia (modern Romania, which took its name from the empire itself). Hadrian was in Syria when he succeeded as emperor and it took him almost a year to return to Rome. He was there only three years before he set off again on a kind of royal tour of his empire that lasted another four years. In his 21 years as emperor Hadrian spent only 8 of them in Italy.

This “royal tour” was the period during which Hadrian visited Britain. There had ben several native rebellions around the whole empire and he was keen to examine the defences. The success of the suppression of a revolt in Britain was celebrated with the issue of new coins, not unlike commemorative coins today. On the heads side was a portrait of Hadrian himself, complete with his famous beard (he was the first Roman emperor to have one). On the tails side was the figure of a seated women with the name “Britannia” beneath her feet. This is regarded as the first personification of the nation as a woman and has influenced every representation of her to the present day. The coin pictured below is from a few years later in around the year 134.
Roman coinage was only issued on the orders of the emperor, so we can be sure that Hadrian himself would have had a say in the design. We’ll probably never know for sure. But we can be sure that Hadrian perpetuated and encouraged this representation on his visit to Britain in 122.

Hadrian arrived in Britain to inspect the defences after a rebellion in the north of the country. Considering how to improve them he ordered the building of the famous wall across the country which bears his name. He never saw the wall completed because he went off on his travels again and spent the remaining years of his reign in the southern half of his empire, and falling in love with the gorgeous young Antinous.

Before he left Britain Hadrian went to York, or Eboracum, as he would have called it, and he had built the only known temple to the goddess Britannia, thereby sealing her place as the patron goddess of the nation.

Britannia continued to appear on Roman coins into the 3rd century. She reappeared during the late Tudor period, and when the crowns of England and Scotland were united as Great Britain by the predominantly gay King James I Britannia’s place as the personification of the united crowns became secure. Since then she has appeared everywhere – coins, medals and banknotes, paintings, sculptures and corporate logos, satirical cartoon and propaganda posters, village pageants and the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Nowhere can Hadrian’s choice of Britannia as the national allegorical figure be more fervently heralded than at the annual Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The patriotic song “Rule, Britannia” is a constant feature and is always sung with enthusiasm. Many, many times the singing has been led by a leading soprano dressed as Britannia herself.

So, what more can I say on this 1900th anniversary of Hadrian becoming Emperor of Rome but “Rule, Britannia”.

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