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 was featured in classic flowing robes with a spear and shield, seated on rocky crags which probably provided the invaders’ first view of Britain.
Much later Britannia became a fitting symbol on the reverse of the copper coins of Charles II (r.1660 – 1685) when, in direct allusion to the shipping war with the Dutch, her image portrayed her ‘sovereignty’ of the seas.
Thereafter Britannia was never absent from British coinage and in subsequent years she became still more obviously a maritime figure. On the famous cartwheel pennies and twopences of 1797 her spear was replaced by a trident and she was shown seated on rocks in the sea, with a ship in the background.
She continued to reign supreme on the copper, later bronze, pennies of every monarch up until decimalisation and was subsequently chosen to appear on the definitive 50p coin.
Available in Australia from The Perth Mint, this 2012 Britannia £2 coin is struck in 95.84% ‘Britannia’ silver, a higher standard silver than sterling. Britannia standard silver was introduced as part of the great recoinage scheme of William III from 1696.
The Royal Mint says Britannia’s powerful, charismatic persona has inspired poets and artists to create new depictions throughout the ages. The latest portrayal by Philip Nathan shows her standing proudly on the shore, hair and gown streaming in the sea breeze. Armed with trident and shield, her love of peace is symbolised by the olive branch she grasps in her left hand. Her helmet with elongated visor and plume recalls her Roman ancestry.