History does not record the name of the engraver who first depicted Britannia on coins. She appeared for the first time during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and is presented as a rather forlorn figure, with one hand resting on her chin as if she is contemplating her fate under Roman occupation. In some coins she appears to be wearing a rainproof, hooded woollen cloak known as a birrus Brittanicus, which was popular amongst native Britons to protect them from the inclement weather. Britannia sits with her foot on a pile of rocks, holding a spear and with a large spiked shield at her side.
Hadrian is, of course, best remembered for building the impressive 73 mile stone wall across the north of England, which ran from coast to coast and marked the northwest frontier of his Empire. Perhaps this is what Britannia is guarding on the coin, ready to repel any invaders who try to breach the defences.
Hadrian’s decision to depict Britain as a female warrior may have been inspired by events that took place in Britain fifty-six years before his reign began. In 60-61 AD, Rome was left reeling from a series of devastating attacks that killed many thousands of their citizens living in this remote outpost of the Empire. The uprising was led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who achieved what the Romans had thought impossible and united previously warring Celtic tribes against their common enemy.
Under her command, the Celts fought with a ferocity that took the occupiers completely by surprise and had burned down the thriving cities of Colchester, London and Saint Albans before the Romans could assemble a sufficient number of soldiers to crush their revolt.
During the final battle, it was reported that Queen Boudica drove her war chariot between the tribes shouting encouragement and spurring them on. When all hope of victory was lost, legend has it that she took poison rather than be captured. Her inspirational leadership, daring to challenge the might of the Emperor and refusal to take prisoners or become one herself earned her the respect of Rome, who considered her a worthy adversary, made all the more remarkable because she was also a woman.
Looking again at Hadrian’s coin, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see Britannia seated next to the large wheel of a sythed war chariot, which Queen Boudica is believed to have driven.
A similar design appeared on coins issued by Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) who, unlike Hadrian, never visited Britain. His army successfully pressed further north and built the 39 mile long Antonine Wal. It spans what is today known as the Central Belt of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Constructed primarily in turf and timber, the Antonine Wall took about twelve years to complete and was abandoned after only eight years.
On some coins, Britannia is depicted holding a Roman military standard alongside her spear. This arguably reflects the Emperor’s pride in securing this remote region of his empire for the glory of Rome.
Britannia continued to appear intermittently on Roman coins throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. During the reign of Commodus (177-192AD), she was depicted standing with a sword in one hand and a helmet in the other. However, after the Romans withdrew from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, it would be more than a millennium before she would appear on a coin again.