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Invasion and Triumph? Links between Roman Britain and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt

Six Roman coins were found in the town of Tiddington, which was once the site of a Roman industrial town. Emily Millward relates this discovery back to Shakespeare's Roman plays and one remarkable Egyptian queen: Cleopatra.

Emily Millward
A coin found at Tiddington showing the head of the Emperor Antonius Pius, c.154-155AD (STSRT SBT 2004-57/10)

This week’s ‘Shakespeare on Show’ blog post was written by Museum Collections Assistant Emily Millward and discusses a set of Roman coins currently on display in the Shakespeare’s Top Ten Characters exhibition at Nash’s House.

All six coins in this set were found during archaeological excavations at Tiddington near Stratford-upon-Avon, an area which was previously the site of a Roman industrial town. Roman coins make up the largest single artefact recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme with over 140,000 coins currently on its database. They are, of course, particularly valuable to archaeologists in helping to identify the date of a site. However, they can also help us to understand trade and economy in Roman Britain and the control that imperial Rome had over the lands which it invaded.

This set of coins truly shows a variety of Roman mintage dating from a wide time period, beginning with a coin dating from the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54AD) to an example minted during the reign of the Emperor Constantine II (337-340AD). All 6 coins show the head of the relevant emperor (in profile) on the obverse, but they have varying representations on the reverse. Roman coinage commonly displayed a deity or particular virtue on the reverse and examples in this set show the goddess Minerva and the virtues Annona (personification of the grain supply of Rome) and Virtus (the personification of virtue itself).[i]

Cleopatra display case in Shakespeare’s Top Ten Characters Exhibition at Nash’s House

So what, you may ask, do Roman coins discovered in Britain have to do with a queen of Egypt? The indirect answer is the single-minded ‘invade and triumph’ mindset of the Roman imperial war machine. Contrary to what many believe, Claudius was not the first Roman emperor who set foot on British soil. Many years before (in 55 and again in 54BCE), Julius Caesar had sailed for Britain. He did not plan or execute a successful invasion as his successor later did and indeed this may not have even been his intention. However, Julius Caesar’s expeditions do show that imperial Rome had an interest in Britain decades before the Claudian invasion of 43AD.

Similarly Rome had held a long interest in Egypt, a country that, like Britain, was rich in resources and therefore a prime target for the Roman Empire to invade and control. When Claudius (the grandson of Cleopatra’s lover Mark Antony through his wife Octavia) executed his invasion of Britain in 43AD he met with immediate opposition, an issue also encountered when Claudius’ predecessor the Emperor Augustus attempted to gain control of Egypt. This opposition was namely the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra; a strong and independent character who had fought hard to gain the throne entirely for herself - supposedly having her younger brother and husband murdered to do so. Cleopatra may have wanted to work with Rome and benefit from their political aid - she infamously seduced Julius Caesar before his murder in 44BCE – but she did not wish to be ruled by them. Shakespeare brings out Cleopatra’s formidable personality in his play Antony & Cleopatra and her determination to keep the throne of Egypt is a strong theme throughout.

Antony & Cleopatra Act I, Scene I
Cleopatra: Call in the messengers, as I am Egypt’s queen . . .

Roman coinage such as this is found across Britain and in other invaded countries like Egypt; it was a way of Rome having a part of the trade and industry in its conquered countries, virtually putting their brand on the economies of Britain and Egypt. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra alludes to the many commodities introduced by the Romans, their own coinage been just one of these.

Antony & Cleopatra Act II, Scene V
Cleopatra: The merchandise which thou hast brought from Rome . . .

Roman military forces had left Britain by 410AD and outposts of the empire such as Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned. However, the cultural influence of Rome in Britain continued and the country did not revert completely back to its previous traditions as many have believed - according to the Roman author Tacitus Britain was ‘completely conquered and immediately abandoned’ (Histories I, 2). Egypt was similarly taken over by the Romans and their influence in the country continued for centuries. Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s infamous defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31BCE was considered a great victory for the Romans at the time. However, the strength of the Egyptian queen was undiminished despite her defeat. As was custom, the leader of a conquered nation would be taken to Rome and paraded in a public spectacle known as a ‘triumph’. For Cleopatra, the thought of being paraded in chains through the streets of Rome was unthinkable, so she followed her lover Mark Antony and took her own life.

Antony & Cleopatra Act V, Scene II
Cleopatra: With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate. Of life at once untie; poor venous fool, be angry and dispatch.

And so the Romans may have invaded and conquered countries like Britain and Egypt, leaving their mark in the form of ancient ruins, beautiful mosaics and coins engraved with images of their victorious emperors, but with formidable rulers like Cleopatra, whose legacy represents defiance to Roman rule, can we truly say that the Romans ever triumphed in Egypt?

[i] For further information and detailed images of other examples of the images that appear on Roman coins see the Portable Antiquities Scheme website.