World Coins

Britannia influences Seated Liberty design

Editor's note: this is the second part of a story about the influence, imitation and intersection of American and world coin designs. The story was originally published in the February 2016 monthly issue of Coin World.

In 1836, Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design debuted on the first silver dollars struck since 1804, and it would eventually be used for six different denominations, the most uses of an American coin design for the largest number of denominations.

Gobrecht’s work, based on motifs by Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, shows Liberty, seated, with a pole and Liberty cap in her left hand and a shield beside her.  

Read the rest of this feature on how world coins inspired notable U.S. coins:

Following the half dime and dime in 1837 were the quarter dollar in 1838, the half dollar coin in 1839 and the 20-cent coin in 1875 (a second dollar coin bearing the Seated Liberty design paired with a new reverse debuted in 1840).

The Trade dollar, issued from 1873 to 1885, features a slimmer Liberty facing left, the opposite direction from Gobrecht’s Liberty, in a design by William Barber.

The influence of the United Kingdom’s Britannia on both U.S. designs is unmistakable.

Britannia has a long and storied history on coinage of what is now the United Kingdom. Rooted in antiquity, the figure has become synonymous with Great Britain, and now the United Kingdom of Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

The Roman habit of personifying continents and countries as female figures introduced Britannia on the coins of Emperor Hadrian (responsible for Hadrian’s Wall, across the north of England) in A.D. 119 and upon those of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161) and Commodus (180 to 192).  

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Coins of earlier rulers mention Britannia but do not show the allegorical figure. 

The Romans were the first to give the name Britannia to the island of England, Scotland and Wales. 

The first verified allegorical representation of Britannia on a coin is on the reverse of Roman coins of Hadrian. His famed defensive fortification stretched across more than 100 kilometers in northern Britain. The wall was built to keep the aggressive Scots out of England, and much of it remains visible today. 

Some Roman coins circa A.D. 119 and 120 mark Hadrian’s visit by depicting Britannia as the goddess of Britain for the first time. The coins show Britannia seated and facing with one foot on a pile of stones. She rests her head on her right hand and holds a scepter in her left hand. A large shield is at her right. 

Britannia is also seen on bronze coins issued by Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ordered the creation of the Antonine Wall circa A.D. 140.  

One design view, believed to mark military victory and expansion, shows Britannia seated, left, on a large rock holding a military standard and spear while reclining against a shield. A variety of the same issue depicts Britannia wearing a helmet while holding a spear and shield in a scene that could have inspired the modern image of Britannia today. 

Other times she is depicted seated on a globe, waves lapping, possibly indicating the belief that Britain was at the edge of the recognized world. 

An issue of A.D. 155 depicts Britannia seated in a more subdued manner, holding her head with her right hand, the shield and military standard behind her. This coin marks the Roman victory over the Brigantes, a northeast British tribe that appears to have broken through two fortification walls before being defeated. 

Britannia’s first appearance on coinage for Britain as we would recognize the nation today came in 1672. 

Although the figure of seated Britannia originally was used to indicate Roman rule over the island that is now Great Britain, Kenneth Bressett (in Milestone Coins) notes that the figure eventually “came to be seen as a representation of Britain,” so that in 1672, when Charles II of England revived the design for farthings and halfpennies, Britannia’s depiction was seen as a “patriotic” usage. 

She soon became an representation of England’s growing greatness as a world power. 

Since that first issue in 1672, Britannia has appeared in various guises and manners, often found seated. 

By the time Gobrecht’s design was created, it was no surprise that a seated allegorical figure could represent a nation. Whether intentional or not, the similarities are again unmistakable.

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