Britannia on a copper coin of Hadrian

Made at Rome, AD 119-20

The ancient origin of the Britannia coin design

Modern British coins often feature the figure of Britannia, the personification of the island of Britain. She has been on British coins continuously from 1672 to 2008, but is much older than that.

Britannia is Roman and first appears on copper coins (then known as asses) of the Emperor Hadrian (reigned AD 117-38), who visited Britain in AD 122 and ordered the building of the famous wall. But she appears to have been created before the emperor had set foot on the island. Although the combination of the emperor’s titles indicates that it was made between AD 119 and 128, the style of coin suggests it was unlikely to be after AD 121.

The Romans visualised their imperial provinces as figures equipped appropriately to their region. Britain was a military province located on the frontier, so she is on guard with spear and shield. She is well wrapped up in a cloak against the northern cold and appears to be drawing up her hood – identifying the garment as the Birrus Britannicus or hooded cloak which, as the name suggests, was considered a sort of national costume of the rainy island by the Romans. She also sits on a pile of rocks. Other mountainous Roman provinces are depicted sitting on or holding rocks, so perhaps Britannia sits on the Scottish Highlands that had been the furthest reach of the Empire (The rocks are unlikely to represent Hadrian’s Wall as it had not yet been built).

Why Britannia should appear in AD 119/20 is curious. Fighting in Roman Britain is reported about this time but she does not obviously celebrate any sort of victory. Interestingly, this coin is almost always found in Britain or the near part of the continent and forms one of several batches of coppers apparently deliberately supplied as small change for the area in the late first - second century AD. Most likely it was simply known at the Roman mint where the shipment was destined early enough to create an appropriate design. After this chance event Britannia occasionally reappeared on Roman coins and centuries later was adapted for modern British coins.

The modern adaptation appears more regal and has naval overtones (she wears a fancy helmet and her spear is replaced by a trident). This befits the centre of an eighteenth - nineteenth century maritime empire but it is worth remembering her origin was a foreign view of a subjugated land.

P.J. Casey, Roman Coinage in Britain, (Princes Risborough, 1980)

R. Reece, The Coinage of Roman Britain (Tempus, 2002)

D.R. Walker, ‘The Roman Coins’ in The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath Vol 2 The Finds from the Sacred Spring ed B. Cunliffe (Oxford, 1988), 281-358

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