Guy de la Bedoyere writes to The Times on the new coins

Some solid facts about the image of Britannia on British coins, from the Roman Britain expert Guy de la Bedoyere:

Sir, Britannia on coins was a Roman invention. Anna Dixon (letter, April 5) has confused the use of a female personification with the specific identity of Britannia.

The Romans first utilised the Greek idea of the seated female figure to represent Roma on the coins of Nero, though Roma’s helmeted bust had appeared centuries earlier on the silver coins of the Republic. The coin of Elagabalus in fact shows Roma, not Athena. It was struck at Rome in AD218.

Seated female forms were used by the Romans to represent a number of goddesses and to personify places. They always have distinctive characteristics.

Under Hadrian, the female form represented a number of Roman provinces, all of whom have very specific attributes. Britannia was represented by an unhelmeted female, head in hand, holding a spear and seated on a pile of rocks to depict a remote and warlike province. Incidentally, Hadrian’s coins were struck at Rome.

Under Antoninus Pius in 143, a new form of Britannia was introduced where, still bare-headed, she holds a military standard and spear, and again under Commodus in 184. Britannia did not appear in that form again under the Romans and had to wait until Charles II’s Breda medal of 1667 (Pepys, 25 Feb, 1667) and the new halfpennies and farthings of 1672 when she took on most of her modern form. However, the helmet was not added until the reign of George IV.

Guy de la Bedoyere
Grantham, Lincolnshire

This and other letters on the subject here.

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