Tag Archives: Roman Soldiers

Rise and Shine

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April 21, 2014 · 09:13

What did the Romans Really Think about Britain? (from “Prehistoric Shamanism”)

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In 2008, a metal detectorist found a copper Roman knife handle in a field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t very large and sold for a mere £1,000 but is now the centrepiece of the Roman galleries in Lincolnshire Museum. It has already caused quite a stir. You only have to look at the handle to see why. In the straight-laced way of museums, it is being described as an “erotic scene”. In reality, it shows a naked woman straddling an aroused man while she holds onto another naked man clasping a severed head. I am sure we have all experienced parties like that. But this handle is particularly special as it is not just an erotic scene but may also cast light on what late Roman soldiers thought of their posting to Britain.

The largest figure on the handle wears a distinctive cap with a flat top rather like a pork-pie hat. From carvings and frescos in other parts of the Roman world, the headgear would suggest he is a Roman soldier from around the late 3rd or early 4th century. Such flat-topped caps were very popular and the fact the soldier is shown larger than the two other figures supports the identification. Moreover, the crudeness of its manufacture and the cheap metal used suggests the handle was not grand; this knife was for a common sort. It was likely a soldier’s knife and, fittingly, it’s owner took the starring role upon it.

The man holding the severed head is clearly a Celt. The Romans often portrayed Celts as headhunters and this man, completely naked, is living up to his stereotype. Unlike the soldier, this man is not aroused.

The woman who straddles the Roman soldier is naked but for a few lines on her body. One, around her neck, may be a torc, possibly a crude sign of royalty perhaps. The draped lines across her body may represent chains (they do not take the form of clothing), suggesting the woman has been defeated and humbled. The most obvious identification is Boudicca, the warrior Queen who provided a genuine military threat to Roman conquest of these isles. Portraying her in chains and sexually available brutally demonstrates her utter defeat and the ensuing dominance of the Roman military.

But, and this is curious, the penis of the Roman soldier does not point towards Boudicca but between the two figures (or even at the man holding the severed head), as if the soldier would happily give it to them both. Perhaps he would.

A more nuanced interpretation is that this is not an erotic scene – no actual intercourse is going to take place – but a triumphalist scene showing Roman domination over the Celts and their most famous Queen. In this sense, Boudicca stands for Britannia, the country of Britain.

Possibly, the Roman soldier is about to give the island of Britain and her inhabitants a good seeing to, and perhaps this is the message contained in the knife handle. It may have been a satirical comment of Roman rule and carried by an indigenous Briton, but I think it’s more likely to have belonged to a Roman soldier, doing his bit visibly to “stick it” to the Celts. Following the famous words of Caesar, perhaps he would even describe his role as “Veni, vidi, futuō”.

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Wilson’s Nails

Wilson runs a nail factory and decides his business needs a bit of advertising. He has a chat with a friend who works in marketing and he offers to make a TV ad for Wilson’s Nails.

“Give me a week,” says the friend, “and I’ll be back with a tape.”

A week goes by and the marketing executive comes to see Wilson. He puts a cassette in the video and presses play. A Roman soldier is busy nailing Jesus to the cross. He turns to face the camera and says with a grin “Use Wilson’s Nails, they’ll hold anything.”

Wilson goes mad shouting: “What is the matter with you? They’ll never show that on TV. Give it another try, but no more Romans crucifying Jesus!”

Another week goes by and the marketing man comes back to see Wilson with another tape. He puts it in the machine and hits play. This time the camera pans out from a Roman standing with his arms folded to show Jesus on the cross. The Roman looks up at him and says ‘Wilson’s Nails, they’ll hold anything’.

Wilson is beside himself. “You don’t understand: I don’t want anything with Jesus on the cross! Now listen, I’ll give you one last chance. Come back in a week with an advertisement that I can broadcast.”

A week passes and Wilson waits impatiently. The marketing executive arrives and puts on the new video. A naked man with long hair, gasping for breath, is running across a field. About a dozen Roman soldiers come over the hill, hot on his trail. One of them turns to camera and says ‘If only we had used Wilson’s Nails

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