Britannia, a symbol of British success and power, first appeared on a coin issued by Roman emperor Hadrian.
Personifications were the Roman way of giving a face to an idea, place or people. 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. Coins of Hadrian’s ‘travels’ were issued in bronze, brass, silver and gold, for all levels of Roman society to see. This is where Britannia appeared for the first time.
The Britannia of Hadrian’s coinage is a warrior, armed with a spike-tipped shield and a spear, harks 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.
Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s successor continued to depict Britannia on coinage. While those coins are now much more accessible to the modern collector, it was Commodus that altered the depiction of Britannia on coins.
The power-crazed emperor adopted the title of ‘Britannicus’ in 184 AD, abbreviated as BRIT in much of his coinage issued thereafter. 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.
It is 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 during his reign feature the emperor being crowned by a somewhat crude figure of Britannia. She holds Carausius by the hand, welcoming him. Surrounding the scene is the inscription ‘EXPECTATE VENI’ or ‘Come ‘o Awaited One’.