It was perhaps Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and of war, who set the pattern for the powerful maidens who, like Britannia, personify the traits and characteristics of the nation they represent. But it was the Romans who, to depict their colonisation of a conquered country, first portrayed Britannia on their coins.
On the coins of Hadrian in AD119, observes the writer Marina Warner, she is shown as a captive leaning like a ‘pensive, even forlorn goddess… fallen before the might of the Roman Empire’. But, as Marina Warner goes on to show, later Roman coins picture Britannia in the war gear of the Ancient Briton, perhaps symbolising a queen who resisted the invasion of the Roman Empire with indomitable courage whilst at the same time paying tribute to the fighting spirit of the island’s inhabitants. From this, of course, the greater might of the Romans was to be inferred.
Much later Britannia was to become a fitting symbol to grace the reverse of the copper coins of Charles II when, in direct allusion to the shipping war with the Dutch, her image portrayed her sovereignty of the seas.
Yet her love of peace was indicated in the sprig of olive clasped in her left hand. This perhaps harked back to her ancient past, for it was Athena who, according to her myth, gave the first olive tree to her city of Athens.
In modern times, Britannia remains the universally recognised personification of Britain and it is entirely appropriate that, in glorious 22 carat gold, she should grace the coins of highest denomination in the realm.
It was the practice of the Romans to personify continents and countries as female figures and for the Province of Britannia they used the seated figure of Britannia. On coins of the emperor Hadrian (117-138AD) she is featured in classic flowing robes with a spear and shield, seated on rocky crags which probably provided the invaders’ first view of Britain.
This sestertius of Antoninus Pius (138-161AD), illustrated above, gave Britannia a spear and spiked shield.