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Ancient Coin Profiles: Greece – Athenian New Style Tetradrachm

Athenian New Style Tetradrachm

New Tetradrachm Overview

The new style of Athenian “owl”–so-called due to the iconic image of an owl on the reverse–originated in a Greece newly conquered by the Romans. While retaining a profile of the Greek goddess Athena on the obverse and an owl (one of her symbols) on the reverse, several elaborate additions had been made to the older style of tetradrachm coinage’s design.

The most noticeable change in the new tetradrachm is the fact that Athena now wears a helmet with three crests, emphasizing the fact that she was the goddess of war as well as wisdom. A mythological creature, which can be either Pegasus or a griffin, is to be found on the side of the helmet. A visor sits across her forehead, above which are portrayed horse’s heads in a frontal view. An earring dangles from her ear.

The clean simplicity of earlier owl reverses is gone. Athena’s owl now perches upon an amphora–a large, often ceramic vessel, used to transport and store a variety of products such as wine or olive oil–that serves as a symbol of Athen’s prowess in the olive oil trade. Inscriptions recording the date of issue and the city magistrate that produced the coins were also added.

The New Style Athenian tetradrachm was produced from approximately 164 BCE to about 42 BCE. In the year 42 BCE, Rome ordered a halt to silver coin production in Athens, perhaps to force the Athenians to use the silver Roman denarius.


The “Cradle of Western Civilization” and the “Birthplace of Democracy”–the city of Athens–is named for its patron deity Athena, the Ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, war, olives and weaving.

Athenian New Style Tetradrachm Her worship predates the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in the Balkan Peninsula, which means Athena is older than what we casually understand as Greek culture – with some, like the late Martin Bernal, reminding us of her possible roots in Africa and the Middle East. But the “classic” story of Athena is as follows:

Metis, the goddess of prudence, was the counsellor and first wife of Zeus. As luck would have it, she was with child. Unfortunately, her mother-in-law the Earth itself (Gaea) prophesied to Zeus that if Metis had a son that this son would one day overthrow him.

Taking heed of his mother’s warning but unable or unwilling to do without Metis’ advice, Zeus devised a plan.

He convinced her to play a game with him: the two would change themselves into different kinds of animals and challenge the other to change into a new animal in order to one-up the other’s previous form. Eventually, Metis transformed herself into a fly. Zeus seized the moment and swallowed her whole.

From then on, she dutifully guided his actions from her seat in his head (but judging from the other stories told about Zeus’ behavior, perhaps she got her revenge after all).

Athenian New Style Tetradrachm In the meantime, as Metis’s pregnancy went on, she fashioned a battle helmet for her future child, giving Zeus terrible headaches. The pain was too much to bear, and his tortured cries brought the Olympian gods racing to his side. Zeus’ son Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith and inventor (whom Zeus had crippled by throwing from Mt. Olympus like so much lightning when he dared side with his mother Hera during an argument), split open his father’s head.

In this way was the fully-formed Athena born.

As for being the patron goddess of Athens, this was the result of a contest between Athena and Poseidon, Zeus’ brother, her uncle, and the god of the sea. The rules were simple: each god would give the city one gift, and whichever gift the citizens liked better would determine the winner. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, whereby a mighty salt-water spring arose from the crack.

Athena gave the city the olive tree.

The pride Athens took in its olive farming industry is evinced on the reverse of practically every “New Style” silver Athenian tetradrachm coin ever produced.


hjb_logoThe following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.


The obverse of this new style tetradrachm features the head of Athena Parthenos (“Virgin Athena”), facing right. She wears an Attic-type helmet with three crests. Frontal view images, known as protomes, of four horses decorate the space above her visor. Pegasus flies above her right ear. The back of the helmet contains varied repetitions of a curvy, plantlike motif. A dotted border runs along the edge. Athena wears both an earring and a necklace. Locks of hair are visible exiting out the bottom of the helmet and in front of her ear.


An owl of the species Athene noctua stands on an amphora. The foreparts of a lion are to its left. Inscribed around the owl (L to R) are the Greek letters Α – ΘΕ, ΔΩΡΟΘΕ-ΔΙΟΦ ΔΙΟΚΛΕ. Under the amphora in the exergue are the Greek letters ME. The Greek letter B is inscribed on the amphora. A wreath of olive branches encircles the entire design, almost but not quite closed at the top immediately above the owl’s head.

Coin Specifications

Nationality:  Greek
Issuing Authority:  Athens
Date:  ca. 164 BCE – ca. 42 BCE
Metal/Alloy:  Silver
Denomination: Tetradrachm
Weight:  approx. 16.5 to 17.5 grams
Diameter:  approx. 28 to 33 mm



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