Symbolism has been a part of numismatics for almost as long as coins have been struck. It has also long been a part of propaganda, with national personification frequently used in literature and, even more frequently, imagery. This was especially true in print during the golden age of newspapers before television took over in terms of visuals. While these national personifications are used far less frequently today than they were prior to the introduction of other forms of media, some of them stuck and continue to be used on coinage to this day.
Many of the allegorical figures that represent entire nations are based on the Greek goddess Athena. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war. Goddesses based on this figure include Britannia, Germania, Helvetia, and Hibernia. Each of these figures has appeared on precious metals coins, and some continue to do so.
The best known of these figures among collectors is Britannia, for whom Great Britain’s annual gold and silver coins are named. The name originated in Roman times and was originally used for a group of islands. Britannia then came to mean Britain specifically, the island that includes England, Scotland, and Wales. The personification of Britannia emerged in the second century. She wore a Corinthian helmet and bore a shield and a trident, just as she does in most modern numismatic depictions. Today, the shield usually has a Union Jack, the British flag.
Although neither as famous nor as frequently used on coins, Germania is another recognizable figure who appears on coinage. She was recently featured driving a four-horse chariot on a half-ounce Silver Germania Quadriga from the Berlin Mint. Her associations are mainly with the Romantic Era, the Revolutions of 1848, and Imperial Germany, though those are not her only associations. In 2013, she appeared on the Burgemunze Germania, where she was depicted with her sword and a shield that bears a golden eagle.
One figure whose association may be confusing to some is Helvetia, the personification of Switzerland. Like Britannia, the name has its roots in Latin. Helvetii was what the Romans called the Gaulish tribe that lived on the Swiss Plateau before it was conquered by the Romans. Helvetia is often depicted with a wreath, which in this case symbolizes confederation. While other figures are often shown with a sword and a shield, she traditionally bears a shield and a spear. Recent depictions of her, by contrast, show her with a gun. The reason for the change is that she appears on the country’s increasingly popular Shooting Thalers, the national celebration of marksmanship. The wreath in her hand is also more reminiscent of traditional awards given to the winners at the festival, which at that time symbolized confederation.
One of the more complex figures depicted on coins is Hibernia. Coming from the Classical Latin word for Ireland, the figure was first used by unionists in Punch, a pro-union magazine. She was depicted as vulnerable to Irish nationalism and in need of her big sister, Britannia, to protect her. As a result of these early depictions, Irish nationalists turned to other figures, namely Erin and Kathleen Ni Houlihan, to replace her. Even so, the name continued to be used by Irish nationalists in other contexts. One of the most famous depictions of Hibernia stands atop the General Post Office in Dublin, which was the focal point of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was that image that appeared on Ireland’s 2016 centennial commemorative coins, which were issued in gold and silver.
Not all allegorical figures used on modern coins are based on Athena. Two of the most popular, Liberty and Marianne, are based on Libertas, the goddess of Liberty. Marianne debuted in 1775 when Jean-Michel Moreau painted her as a young woman holding a pike on which sat a Phrygian cap. It took some time for her to grow in popularity, but her rise to prominence began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. A few years later, she was chosen as a symbol of the Republic. The French chose a woman in part to demonstrate a break with the historic rule of kings. Marianne came to symbolize freedom, reason, and democracy. She currently appears on French coinage, including a trilogy of gold and silver coins dedicated solely to her.
At about the same time that Marianne made her debut, so too did her American counterpart, Liberty. In 1792, she made her debut on American coinage on the half dime. Likely designed by Robert Birtch, the coin had about .04 oz. of silver and was .892 pure. Personifying America’s newfound Liberty from Britain, her popularity would explode over the next century and beyond. Those who do not collect coins most closely associate her with the Statue of Liberty, which was dedicated in 1886. For collectors, though, she is a central figure on some of the country’s most important pieces, including the Morgan Silver Dollar and the Saint-Gaudens double eagle.
These allegorical figures are some of the most prominent in numismatics and many of them have been around for centuries. The varied depictions of women, the symbols that they hold, their age, etc., illustrate the diversity of the histories and the cultures with which they have come to be associated. In short, an understanding of these prominent ladies of numismatics provides a rudimentary understanding of millions of people and their values.
Getting this type of an understanding of the coins that you are collecting – and ones that you are considering adding to your collection – can add to your appreciation of your favorite hobby tremendously. Not only do you get to own art and history, but you also grow in your appreciations of both. You can also get some insight on things that you may want to look for as you grow your collection, as well as find new ways to capture the interest of those with whom you share your favorite hobby.