Pretania – The 6,000 British Isles

The first writer to use a form of our name was the Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas in the 4th century BC. Pytheas referred to Prettanike nesoi, Πρετανικαι νησοι, a group of islands off the coast of North-Western Europe. In the 1st century BC Diodorus Siculus referred to Pretania, a rendering of the indigenous name for the Pretani people whom the Greeks knew inhabited our British Isles. Following the Greek usage, the Romans referred to the Insulae Britannicae in the plural, consisting of Albion (Great Britain), Hibernia (Ireland), Thule (Iceland),”six days’ sail north of Britain, and […] near the frozen sea”, and many smaller islands.

The classical writer, Ptolemy, referred to the larger island as great Britain (megale Brettania) and to Ireland as little Britain (mikra Brettania) in his work, Almagest (147–148 AD). In his later work, Geography (c. 150 AD), he gave these islands the names Alwion , Iwernia, and Mona (the Isle of Man), suggesting these may have been native names of the individual islands not known to him at the time of writing Almagest. The name Albion appears to have fallen out of use sometime after the Roman Conquest of Great Britain, after which Britain became the more common-place name for the island called Great Britain.

So, over time, Albion specifically came to be known as Britannia, and the name for the group was subsequently dropped. That island was first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, and the Roman conquest of the island began in AD 43, leading to the establishment of the Roman province  known as Britannia. The Romans never successfully conquered the whole island, building Hadrian’s Wall as a boundary with Caledonia, which covered roughly the territory of modern Scotland, although in fact the whole of the boundary marked by Hadrian’s Wall lies within modern-day northern England. A southern part of what is now Scotland was occupied by the Romans for about 20 years in the mid-2nd century AD, keeping in place the Pretani or Cruthin to the north of the Antonine Wall. People living in the Roman province of Britannia were called Britanni, or Britons.

An As coin from the reign of Antoninus Pius struck in 154 AD showing Britannia on the reverse

The Emperor Claudius visited Britain while it was being conquered and was honoured with the agnomen Britannicus as if he were the conqueror; a frieze discovered at Aphrodisias in 1980 shows a bare breasted and helmeted female warrior labelled BRITANNIA, writhing in agony under the heel of the emperor. She appeared on coins issued under Hadrian, as a more regal-looking female figure. Britannia was soon personified as a goddess, looking fairly similar to the goddess Minerva. Early portraits of the goddess depict Britannia as a beautiful young woman, wearing the helmet of a centurian, and wrapped in a white garment with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a spear, and with a spiked shield propped beside her. Sometimes she holds a standard and leans on the shield. On another range of coinage, she is seated on a globe above waves: Britain at the edge of the (known) world. Similar coin types were also issued under Antoninus Pius.

“Britannia” remained the Latin name for Great Britain. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, variations on the term appear in the titles of the 9th-century Historia Britonum (History of the Britons), commonly but not universally attributed to Nennius, and the 12th-century Norman propaganda work Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which became tremendously popular during the High Middle Ages. The term Britannia also came (from at least the late 6th century) to refer to the Armorican peninsula in France, because of the large-scale migration to the area by Celtic-speaking Britons. The modern French name for the area, Bretagne (“Brittany” in English) is a variant of Britannia. The term Grande Bretagne (Great Britannia, or Great Britain) has served to distinguish the island of Britain from the continental peninsula.

In the Medieval period it had still been common to refer only to the Britonnic speaking inhabitants of Britain as the “Britons”, as opposed to the “English”. However, increasingly the English were included within the category of the Britons. This gained new symbolic meaning with the rise of British influence, and later the British Empire, which at its height ruled over a third of the world’s population and landmass.

In the Renaissance tradition, Britannia came to be viewed as the personification of Britain, in imagery which was developed during the reign of Elizabeth I. With the death of Elizabeth in 1603 her Scottish cousin, James VI, King of Scots, succeeded to the English throne. He became James I of England, and so brought under his personal rule the Kingdoms of England (and the dominion of Wales), Ireland and Scotland. On 20 October 1604, James VI and I proclaimed himself as “King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland”, a title that continued to be used by many of his successors. When James came to the English throne, some elaborate pageants were staged. One pageant performed on the streets of London in 1605 was described in Anthony  Munday’s Triumphs of Reunited Britannia:

On a mount triangular, as the island of Britain itself is described to be, we seat in the supreme place, under the shape of a fair and beautiful nymph, Britannia herself…

During the reign of Charles II, Britannia made her first appearance on English coins on a farthing of 1672 .With the constitutional unification of England with Scotland in 1707 and then with Ireland in 1800, Britannia became an increasingly important symbol and a strong rallying point among Britons.

Britannia Triumphant, poster celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar.

British power, which depended on a uniquely democratic political system and the supremacy of the navy, lent these attributes to the image of Britannia. By the time of Queen Victoria, Britannia had been renewed. Still depicted as a young woman with brown or golden hair, she kept her Corinthian helmet and her white robes, but now she held Poseidon’s three-pronged trident and often sat or stood before the ocean and tall-masted ships representing British naval power. She also usually held or stood beside a Greek hoplite shield, which sported the Union Flag: also at her feet was often the British Lion, found on the arms of England, Scotland and the Prince of Wales.

The term British Isles remains controversial in Ireland, where there are objections to its usage due to the modern association of the word British. The Government of Ireland, trapped as it is in retrogressive and reactionary nationalist ideologies, which have been promoted by partisan academics, does not recognise or use the term and its embassy in London discourages its use, As a result, Britain and Ireland is used as an alternative description. Atlantic Archipelago has had limited use among a minority in academia although British Isles is still commonly employed among the more intelligent. Within them, they are also sometimes referred to as “these islands”, and this is a convention in the Queen’s University of Belfast. Such Britophobia can also be demonstrated throughout the  Liberal Leftist Press and the Mediacracy in general.

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