War of Words – ‘Britannia’

with Marc DeSantis

Ancient Britain was known to the Mediterranean world. The Greeks called the island Pretannia, but the Romans named it Britannia, and made it part of their empire. The term ‘Britannia’ therefore figures prominently in military history.

The Roman conqueror Julius Caesar twice invaded Britannia, landing in Kent in 55 BC, and then again in 54 BC, but each time his visit was short-lived. In AD 43, Emperor Claudius, eager for military glory, mounted a more determined invasion. Four legions under the command of Aulus Plautius landed and defeated native armies at the Medway and at the Thames.

Caesar’s first invasion of Britain. Lithograph by W. Linnell after E. Armitage. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Trust Images

Claudius was subsequently awarded a triumph by the Senate, as well as the title ‘Britannicus’, that he would give to his son. A dramatisation of the invasion era may be found in the 2018 television production Britannia.

To prevent incursions into the province of Britannia by barbarians from the north, Emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138) ordered the construction of the eponymously named wall. Built in the 120s, the roughly 73-mile-long fortified structure stretched from Wallsend-on-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway.

Later, Britannia found employment as a poetical label for Britain, eventually being personified as a seated warrior woman, wearing a helmet and bearing a trident to represent the nation’s mastery of the sea.

Seapower is also central in the anthemic song ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Debuting in 1740 in the masque Alfred by Thomas Arne, it was a glorification of British naval might, including an exhortation to the nation to ‘rule the waves.’

Several of the Royal Navy’s first rate ships of the line were named after the old Roman province, including Britannia, launched in 1682, that took part in the Battle of Barfleur ten years later. She was followed in 1719 by a new Britannia, which was in turn succeeded in 1762 by another that saw service in the Napoleonic Wars.