Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

Sometimes throwaway remarks -- suggestions that seemed reasonable at the time -- are picked up by other writers, and what began as a good idea becomes a theory, and finally a fact.

This process has, I think, occurred in the case of the Britannia coins of the Roman empire. And I am grateful to a recent visitor (Fvrivs Rvfvs) for prompting this latest reflection of an old emperor, once again demonstrating the value of a blog in firing up new ways of thinking about old problems.

Hadrian's Provincial Coinage

To begin with the facts, it seems that the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) issued a series of "provincial" coins, celebrating his famous tours of the provinces. He certainly had cause to celebrate, for not one of his predecessors had managed to work his way around the entire empire, visiting each frontier in turn.

Hadrian's coinsHere are the reverse "tails" sides from a few of the coins, showing (from left to right) Africa, Britain, Dacia, Germany, and Spain. Each province was personified by a deity, displaying some of the stereotypical attributes of the land. Thus, Africa wears the elephant-skin cap and, leaning against a basket of grain, reclines beside a lion.

Dacia, on the other hand, is seated on a pile of rocks, symbolising the mountainous terrain, and holds in one hand a standard and in the other the long, curved falx which was the characteristic weapon of the Dacians.

Germania, the scene of much Roman campaigning, is depicted as a proud warrior maiden, standing in defiant pose with spear and shield. And Hispania, another land of plenty like Africa, reclines holding an olive branch, while the rabbit motif at her feet symbolises fertility.

Britain, or Britannia, is a warrior maiden like Germany, with spear and shield, but her pose, like Dacia, is seated, indicating that, again like Dacia, she has been tamed by Rome, and her rocky seat is the stereotype of a mountainous province.

Frustratingly, none of Hadrian's coins can be dated accurately, but the Britannia coin (issued at some point during the years AD 119-127) is often said to date from AD 122 and to symbolise the commencement of Hadrian's Wall in that year. This standard interpretation probably began somewhere as "a good idea" and has become "a fact" which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and Hadrian's Wall.

Antoninus Pius and Britain

Having originated the personification of the various provinces under Hadrian, the Roman moneyers continued periodically to use the same characters whenever deemed appropriate. Thus, when Lollius Urbicus reconquered lowland Scotland for Antoninus Pius (your very own blogger, r. AD 138-161), coins were issued during the period AD 142-144 displaying Britannia on the reverse. The coin depicted below-left is an example of this.

Britannia coinsHowever, coins issued during AD 155 (see above-center for an example) are usually said to depict a "dejected" Britannia, symbolising a disaster in the province. Perhaps the mauling of a legion, as Fvrivs Rvfvs seems to suggest. No doubt, this "dejection" theory began as somebody's good idea, but has now become a fact which you will find in the standard books about Roman Britain and the Antonine Wall. But the "sad" Britannia is really just a slight variation on the original personification found on Hadrian's coinage (pictured above-right).

Roman coins have been likened to the news agencies today. The reverse images carried topical messages around the empire. No doubt the depiction of a province like Britannia meant that something was going on there. But this old emperor would suggest that it was successes that were celebrated on coinage, and the "depressed" Britannia of AD 155 is really just the standard depiction of the deity. Of course, emotion is in the eye of the beholder ...


  1. My Prince - I perhaps was less than clear intended previously. I am no expert on the history of the Legions(or their movements) but am a great fan of the writer Gwynne Dyer whose book "WAR" I have read several times and which was good enough to be serialized by PBS/BBC some twenty years ago. From this work it is clear to me that a disorganised barbarian "army" stood a zero percent chance of success against a well trained Roman Legion on an open battlefield. The constant training and drill instruction (aka brainwashing) recieved by infantry allow them to manoeuvre in formation and and advance in ways even while under attack that an untrained soldier never can.That said I am skeptical that a Legion could be wiped out by the bravest undrilled army altho the possibility of attrition from unconventional warfare or from ambush is always a possibility.In the four hundred years between the defeat of Varus (while on march between camps - strung out for many miles through dense forest with no room to manoeuvre or assemble formations)and the disaster at Adrianople (which involved a hasty march by Valens from Asia - a blazing hot August day - "peace talks"with the Goths which left the Legions to dehydrate in full armor and a much more sophisticated enemy than realized) the Legions never suffered catastrophic defeats exept when facing Roman Legions of "usurpers" (Magnentius comes to mind)or relying on auxilliaries.I would want concrete evidence of such a thing to believe it and doubt that it would be covered up completely (the only thing to vanish without trace at Adrianople was Valens! No trace of the Emperor was ever found.Not even a greasy spot. The great Edward Gibbon states without hesitation that the Empire of the Romans ended that day. As to the BRITANNIA coinage I must differ my Prince as I see significant changes in the two depictions - the former is an ally and the later is subjegated. It perhaps would have been better if you had immitated the great Trajan some of whose best reverses certainly leave no doubt about it - Trajan on horseback spearing Dacian - Dacia seated on pile of arms with hands bound behind - or my all time favorite "Trajan in military attire standing over Dacia,Mesopotamia and Armenia" with foot planted firmly on Mesopotamia. A veritable "Mission Accomplished" without the aircraft carrier.

  2. << It perhaps would have been better if you had imitated the great Trajan some of whose best reverses certainly leave no doubt about it ... A veritable "Mission Accomplished" without the aircraft carrier. >>
    Ah, that's just not my style, Fvrivs.
    (Now, if only I could lay my hands on that memo sent to the imperial mint in AD 154 ... I'm sure I asked for "pensive" -- definitely not "dejected"!)

  3. I had intended to imply'better'for those of us who seek to interpret the meanings of the message after so many years have past. The Optimo Principi/Generalissimo Extraodinaire Trajan had his role and place - While the honor of the name PIVS belongs to the few who exercise restraint. 'To every time there is a season'

  4. More of your ignorant B.S. antonius....LOL LOL