Monday, November 18, 2013

The Eagle and the Serpent: Reflections on a Recent Discovery

by Mark Patton

In September of this year, excavations in the Minories area of East London revealed a sculpture of an eagle with a serpent in its talons. Already on display at the Museum of London, experts consider the sculpture, made of limestone from the Cotswolds, to be one of the very finest pieces of stone-carving ever found from Roman Britain.

                 The Minories Eagle. Photo: David Holt (licensed under CCA).

It would once have stood either on the roof of a tomb, or in a niche inside of one. The site on which it was found lies just outside of the eastern limits of Roman Londinium. By law, all Roman tombs had to be placed beyond the city limits, and this tomb (the foundations of which are believed to have been found in the course of the excavations) would have been one of a series of very grand tombs lining the main road from London to Colchester, much as the tombs of the wealthy lined the Appian Way, leading south from Rome.

Tombs on The Appian Way. Photo: Nicolo Mosmeci (image is in the public domain).

The imagery of the eagle and serpent was already an ancient one when Britain became part of the Roman Empire. In Book 12 of Homer's Iliad, the Trojan seer, Polydamas, spots a "fatal bird-sign" just as Hector and his warriors are about to attack the Greek ships. An eagle flies above them, clutching a bloodied and struggling serpent, which the eagle then flings to the earth among them. Hector ignores Polydamas's advice to turn back, thereby initiating the chain of events that will lead, ultimately, to his own death. The theme recurs in Greek imagery, for example on a 4th Century coin of Elis-Olympia.

Silver coin of Elis-Olympia, c340 BC. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (licensed under CCA).

The imagery is not unique in the Roman world, but neither is it especially common. A similar sculpture was found in Jordan (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum), and another (much damaged) at Keynsham Roman villa in Somerset. What are we to make, however, of the significance of this imagery in the specific context of Roman London?

The Minories eagle seems to date to the later First or early Second Century AD. It is hardly likely to be earlier than the Boudiccan Revolt of 60/61 AD, and the tomb of which it formed part seems to have been broken up when the city's defensive walls were built in the mid-2nd Century AD.

That some elaborate tombs, at least, were built on the eastern approaches to London in the years immediately following the revolt (long before any serious attempt seems to have been made to reconstruct the city itself) is demonstrated by the monument to Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, the fragments of which are now in the British Museum.

The tomb of Classicianus. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (licensed under CCA).

Classicianus was the Procurator (Finance Minister) of Britannia, appointed following the desertion of his predecessor, Catus Decianus, during the course of the revolt. The circumstances of Classicianus's death are not recorded, but he must have died in office in 64 or 65 AD. As with the more recently discovered Minories tomb, the fragments of his monument were incorporated in the 2nd Century defensive wall.

If the tomb with the eagle sculpture was that of a civil or military official who died during, or shortly after, the Boudiccan Revolt, some clue as to its significance might be found in the verses of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the fourth book, he describes the encounter between the nymph, Salmacis, and a youth, a son of Mercury. The rape and/or seduction of nymphs by demi-gods is a common theme in the Metamorphoses, but this story is unique in that it is the nymph, the female character, who is the aggressor. The youth rejects her kisses, but dares, nonetheless, to bathe in her pool.

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, by Francesco Albani. The Louvre. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (image is in the public domain).

"'The Prize is won,' cried Salmacis aloud, 'he is mine own'" (I am quoting from Arthur Golding's translation in the Penguin Classics version). She dives into the pool with him, but still he resists: " ... she clung unto him fast, and wound about him like a snake which, snatched up in haste and being by the prince of birds borne lightly up aloft, doth writhe herself about his neck and gripping talons oft, and casts her tail about his wings displayed in the wind."

The fight all but lost, Salmacis calls upon the gods, urging that she and the youth might never be parted. This they grant. "The bodies of them twain were mixed and joined both in one; to both of them did remain one count'nance." She wins the fight, but loses her identity. The youth is, of course, Hermaphroditus, the son of Mercury and Venus, fully divine and (until his encounter with Salmacis) fully male.

That the eagle should be used as a symbol of Roman military and civil power is not remotely surprising, but might the snake here represent Britannia or, more specifically, Boudicca and her rebellion? Certainly, in the years and decades following the revolt, the Roman authorities did their best to submerge Britannia's distinctive identity, sweeping away the Britain of separate tribes, with client kings and queens, and forging it into just one more western province of the greater Empire. But perhaps we see also, here, some hint, before moving on, of the shame felt by dint of the fact that, in Cassius Dio's words, " ... all of this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman ...".

Mark Patton blogs regularly at His novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

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