The tradition of using the image of a powerful woman to depict a country goes back centuries. Even in pre-Christian times, the city of Athens was personified by Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. The Romans also used strong maidens to personify their territories and conquests and when they invaded Britain, they used Britannia to depict the colonised country on their coins.
Britannia first appeared on Roman coins around AD 119, during the Emperor Hadrian’s reign. Hadrian spent most of his reign touring the Roman Empire and strengthening its borders, and the wall that he ordered to be built on the Scottish borders still bears his name today. Hadrian’s Britannia wore flowing robes, held a spear and shield, and was seated on rocky crags, which probably represented the invaders’ first view of the island.
On Hadrian’s coins, Britannia looked like she was being held captive. The writer Marina Warner compared her to a ‘pensive, even forlorn goddess … fallen before the might of the Roman Empire’. Later Roman coins showed Britannia dressed for war, wearing clothes of the ancient Britons. Perhaps the Romans were using her to pay tribute to the fighting spirit of the ancient Britons and to show that they had captured and subdued this mighty warrior.
Britannia didn’t appear on British circulating coins again until 1672 – some 14 centuries after the Romans had left our shores – and was a useful symbol for Charles II. However, this Britannia wasn’t a warmonger and the olive sprig in her right hand symbolised her love of peace. It also harked back to the ancient past as legend says that Athena gave the first olive tree to her city of Athens. In modern times, Britannia remains a universally recognised personification of Britain and still stands proud on our coins today, appearing on some of the United Kingdom’s highest denomination coins.