The Britannia Sestertius (141-143 AD)

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The character that became symbolic with our nation’s identity 1400 years after its invention.

This Sestertius, a large Roman coin struck in brass, features one of the earliest depictions of Britannia. This example is one of the finest known specimens, probably the finest in private hands, and a truly important piece of British history. Issued during the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138 -161), Britannia was designed to personify the British as fierce and threatening, a worthy opponent that was defeated by Rome. She has featured on countless coins over the past 300 years. But Britannia didn’t always rule the waves. She was an all too Roman invention.

Antoninus Pius’ rule saw relative peace across the Roman empire, with no major revolts or military incursions during his reign. A successful military campaign in southern Scotland early in his reign resulted in the construction of the Antonine Wall. It ranged from the Firth of Clyde to the Forth – further north than the wall built by Hadrian. It was constructed in turf and timber rather than stone, and was abandoned some years later.
This coin celebrates the campaigns and construction of the wall, and the subsequent peace.

It is one of the earliest and most impressive depictions of the Britannia, and a very rare piece. The female figure of Britannia appears seated, facing left, on a pile of rocks, which may be a depiction of the newly built Antonine Wall. She wears a birrus Britannicus (a type of cloak worn by the native Britons to protect them from the harsh weather). She is resting on a spiked shield, and holds a Roman military standard and a spear – three objects which reflect Roman Britain as the edge of the empire, and a domain of immense military importance. BRITANNIA appears as an inscription around the main design, leaving no doubt as to the nature of the figure.