Britannia is a symbol of British success and power. I’m sure everyone reading this magazine will be all to familiar with her depictions on more recent British coins. But Britannia didn’t always rule the waves. She was an all too Roman invention. Personifications were the Roman way of giving a face to an idea, place or people. The Romans loved personifications and could use them for almost anything. Prosperity, peace, faith, manliness and other political ideals important to the Romans all had their own personifications and so did the many kingdoms and domains the Romans conquered, or added to their growing empire. Even important rivers including the Tiber and Danube had their own personifications.
The Romans used personifications across their coinage. This silver denarius of Trajan depicts Dacia, (modern day Romania) which had recently been conquered. RIC 219. Image: Baldwin’s.
Cultures, cities and kingdoms were usually embodied as females, dressed in and holding items relevant to that particular culture or civilisation. Egypt was often depicted holding a local musical instrument, the sistrum, on Roman Imperial coinage. Hispana, or Spain, is depicted with a rabbit at her feet. The emperor Hadrian’s ‘travels’ coinage displays these fascinating Roman personifications in amazing artistic style. Hadrian visited every province of the empire at that time, and showed off to his subjects by issuing the remarkable series. Coins of Hadrian’s ‘travels’ were issued in bronze, brass, silver and gold, for all levels of Roman society to see. This is also where Britannia appears on coinage for the first time.
Hadrian’s ‘Travels’ series depicts a massive variety of personifications based on regions across the empire. Also featured is a coin showing the ship he travelled in. Image: Baldwin’s.
From what we know, the concept of Britannia was invented during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD). She is depicted on a contemporary frieze discovered at Aphrodisias, being ‘subdued’ by the emperor, but by the time of Hadrian the personification had evolved into more than a loosely clothed and helpless victim. The Britannia of Hadrian’s coinage is more of a warrior. Extremely rare today, copper asses and brass sestertii depict the figure seated beside a pile of rocks (or as some like to interpret it; Hadrian’s Wall). Britannia is armed with a spike-tipped shield and a spear. Her weapons might hark back to the fearsome revolt of Boudica around 70 years earlier. She appears solemn, likely due to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which was probably intended to put an end to damaging barbarian raids from Scotland. To defeat a weak enemy is easy, there was little glory in that. The Romans preferred to depict their conquered enemies as strong and powerful – which the native British no doubt were.
Hadrian’s base metal currency features the first depiction of Britannia in coinage. Note the spiked shield on this copper as minted in Rome. Rare. RIC 577. Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s successor, issued a larger Britannia coinage. It may even have been locally produced, or at least intended for circulation in Britain. Large quantities of Britannia asses, which feature an updated design of the solemn Britannia, have been discovered across the country and in significant numbers at Bath Spring. Antoninus’ reign saw the construction of a new frontier north of Hadrian’s Wall. The Antonine Wall was constructed in turf and timber. Its construction seems to have given precedence to a new Britannia coin, celebrating the conquered province. The Antonine Wall, however, seems to have been abandoned only eight years after its completion in 154 AD. These Britannia coins are much more accessible to the modern collector and are popular with ancient and British enthusiasts alike. Generally quite crudely struck, possibly due to local production, they are difficult to find in nice quality, compared with other base metal coins issued during Antoninus Pius’s reign.
A particularly well struck copper as of Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). These may have been produced by a moving mint in Britain c. 154-155 AD. RIC 934. Image: Baldwin’s.
Commodus is one of the best-known Roman Emperors, mainly due to his appearance in two Hollywood blockbusters – The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)and Gladiator (2000). Unfortunately for him, Commodus is portrayed as somewhat of a power-crazed lunatic. Historians have not been kind to him and he seems to have been even more bizarre in real life than in the films. By the end of his reign the emperor was dressing as Hercules and fighting in the Colosseum. The first few years of Commodus’ power were shared with that of his father, Marcus Aurelius and these years seemed promising for the young ruler’s future. Commodus adopted the title of ‘Britannicus’ in 184 AD, abbreviated as BRIT in much of his coinage issued thereafter. It is not difficult to find a coin of the vain emperor featuring BRIT as one of his many titles. According to Cassius Dio (Historiae Romanae (LXXII.viii.1-6) serious troubles erupted during the last few months of Marcus Aurelius’ life, the time when Commodus was joint emperor. Caledonian forces invaded Roman Britain across the frontier of Hadrian’s Wall and the ensuing conflict even resulted in the death of a Roman governor in battle. Cassius Dio suggests this was among the worst military crises of Marcus Aurelius’ reign.
Commodus acted to resolve the problem in Britain and dispatched the general Ulpius Marcellus to deal with the troublesome Caledonians. The reign of Commodus brings us a very rare and interesting depiction of Britannia, one which I wasn’t aware of until it was bought to my attention at Baldwin’s a few months ago.
The extremely rare sestertius of Commodus featuring a standing Britannia. Note her helmet held in the left hand. Rome Mint c.184 AD. RIC 473. Image: Baldwin’s.
Britannia as a personification is depicted on an extremely rare sestertius dating to 184 AD. Since Commodus adopted the title of Britannicus in 184 AD we can safely assume that the troubles were indeed quelled, and that Marcellus did a good job of tidying things up – so much so that coins issued depicting a seated Victory, celebrating Victory over the Britons are not too difficult to come by today. The coin in question, however, depicts Britannia in a way we haven’t seen her before. She is shown standing upright, majestic, holding a sword downward in her right hand and a helmet upright in her left. This is the first time we see Britannia with a helmet, the modern trademark we associate with her today. In this depiction, she is very much the Greek warrior goddess. The standing depiction of Britannia here is not unlike the English silver florins of Edward VIII, as, up until his reign, depictions of Britannia on English coins had generally been seated in a manner similar to her earlier depictions on Roman coinage.
The Edward VII Florin, dated 1905. A popular standing depiction of Britannia. Image: Baldwin’s.
Only three examples of this issue have come to the market over the last few decades. Banti does not even include an image of this extremely rare coin, though it does appear in the Roman Imperial Coin index.
Perhaps this sestertius of Commodus was intended to depict a Britannia finally Romanised, in tune with the classical world and its ideals. Commodus’ brutal death in 192 AD would usher in the Severan Dynasty, and though title ‘BRIT’ appears on coins over the coming years, Britannia herself would not appear on coins for another hundred. Commodus’ reign would see relative peace in the province, bar another campaign in Scotland by Septimius Severus, until the ravages of plague and barbarian invasions during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Rare Third Century depicition of Britannia on this silver denarius of Carausius (286-293 AD). Britannia can be seen on the right, greeting the usurper. Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme.
It was not until the end of the Third Century that the Roman world treats us to the final depiction of Britannia on its coinage. Carausius’ revolt (286-293 AD) brings us a Late Roman interpretation of Britannia. Carausius, a Roman naval leader gone rogue, made himself emperor of Britain and parts of Northern France. He set about introducing his own coinage, minted in Rouen, London and possibly Colchester. Rare coins struck during his reign feature the would-be emperor being crowned by a somewhat crude figure of Britannia. Appearing somewhat more similar to her pre-Commodus depictions, she holds Carausius by the hand, welcoming him. Surrounding the scene is the inscription ‘EXPECTATE VENI’ or ‘Come ‘o Awaited One’. The coin, a silver denarius of purity which had not been seen since the Second Century AD, would likely have circulated amongst high status individuals in Roman Britain and intended to show them that Carausius was the just the kind of leader that a plague-infested and barbarian ravaged Late Roman Britain needed.
The advent of modern milling technology heralded a new depiction of Britannia on English coinage. Charles II, halfpenny, 1673. Image: Baldwin’s.
Britannia would never appear on a Roman coin again, and only return to circulating coinage during the reign of King Charles II, when it was decided to incorporate the icon on the base-metal coinage of England. The proud Britannia of the Modern Period encompassed everything that an increasingly more powerful England wanted to be, and remains on the country’s coins to the present day.
Hadrian As recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database, https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/626508, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence CC by 2.0; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Carausius Denarius recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database, https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/254630, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence CC by 2.0; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
All other images sourced from the Baldwin’s archive.