By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
A long time ago, the goddess Athena purchased the naming rights to the town now known as Athens. Coins had not yet been invented so Athena could not pay cash for the naming rights, but she did have something valuable to offer instead: she gave the Athenians the olive tree, which has been associated with Athena and Athens ever since.
The Athenians struck their first coins circa 560 BCE. These are known today as Wappenmünzen (“badge coins”), due to Seltman’s (1924) theory – now rejected – that the designs on the coins represented the heraldic badges of important Athenians. Over the span of about 40 years, the Athenians minted several series of Wappenmünzen using 14 different designs. The first Athenian tetradrachms appeared around 515 BCE as part of the last series of Wappenmünzen, using the last of the 14 designs.
The First Athenian Tetradrachm
The obverse of the very first Athenian tetradrachm depicts the head of a Gorgon, known as a Gorgoneion, which Athena herself created. Athena’s uncle Poseidon raped the beautiful priestess Medusa in one of Athena’s temples; Athena was outraged over the desecration of her temple, but she had no power over the mighty god of the sea so she instead punished the victim, transforming Medusa into a Gorgon, a hideous monster with snakes for hair. The hero Perseus later slew Medusa and gave her head to Athena, who wore it on her breastplate (or shield).
The reverse of the tetradrachm shown here depicts the head and forepaws of a panther (some writers identify the beast as a lion). There is a very rare variety whose reverse displays the head of a bull.
The Wappenmünzen tetradrachm was probably the first coin ever struck to have an engraved design on both obverse and reverse. Prior to this time, the reverse designs of coins consisted solely of incuse punches.
Early Archaic Tetradrachms
The Athenians struck the first of their iconic “Owl” Tetradrachms around 510 BCE. The obverse portrays the helmeted head of Athena facing right while the reverse depicts Athena’s owl and a sprig of olive, with the inscription AΘE (an abbreviation of AΘENAION, meaning “of the Athenians”). Athena is depicted with an almond-shaped profile eye and the “archaic smile” characteristic of Archaic art. The owl is literally the owl of Athens – its scientific name is Athene noctua or “Athens’ Owl”. The owl is closely associated with Athena in her capacity as the goddess of wisdom.
This was the first Athenian coin to portray Athens’ patron goddess and the first to have an inscription. The owl became so commonly associated with Athenian tetradrachms that the coins themselves came to be known as “Owls”.
Later Archaic Tetradrachms
The design on the Archaic Owl became more rather than less crude over time, with Athena’s portrait growing coarser, and the owl’s head becoming almost a caricature of itself. This development coincided with the time of the First and Second Persian Wars (499-479 BCE), during which the Persians leveled Athens.
Surprisingly, the silver content of the coins does not seem to have diminished to any significant extent.
The Athenians took great pride in their ultimate success in the Persian Wars: their victories on land at Marathon and on sea at Salamis are remembered to this day. As it happens, Athens became extremely wealthy due to the vast veins of silver ore found in the mines of Laurion in 483 BCE. This led to the Athenian mint churning out huge numbers of tetradrachms, which were used both to celebrate the greatness of Athens and to finance the rebuilding of the city.
The design of the Early Classical Owls generally followed the same pattern as that of the Archaic Owls, but the style changed dramatically. While Athena continued to display the archaic smile and the almond-shaped profile eye of the earlier Owls the technique is completely different, and Athena’s head takes up most of the planchet.
The Athenians also made a few small changes to the design details. Athena’s helmet is now decorated with three olive leaves over the visor and a spiral palmette on the helmet’s bowl. The palmette may be a subtle reference to the victory in the Persian Wars, while the olive leaves could both mark the new peace and serve as identifiers of Athens and Athena.
As with the earlier coins, the reverse of the Early Classical Owl depicts the owl standing right, its head facing the viewer, with a sprig of olive behind and the inscription AΘE to the right, all within an incuse square. New to the reverse is the crescent moon just above the owl’s shoulder. Some writers have suggested that the moon hints at the owl’s nighttime activity.
Another suggestion is that the moon commemorates the Athenian victory at Marathon, but that seems unlikely as that battle took place during the time of the full moon. The Battle of Salamis took place in late September 480 BCE, and while the precise date is unknown, it was probably during the time of a crescent moon; insofar as the device was added to the coins minted after the Battle of Salamis, that seems more likely to be the event it commemorates.
Sometime in the middle of the fifth century BCE the Athenian mint began producing Owls with a subtly modified version of the basic design of the Early Classical Owls. These coins were struck in such huge numbers that they have come to be known as “Mass Classical Owls”. They are the most common and most popular of the Athenian tetradrachms, as a result of which they are also known as the “Standardized Owls” or “Conventional Owls”.
Athena’s portrait on the Mass Classical Owls differs from the earlier portrait in that locks of her hair now flow across her forehead in two symmetrical curves and the archaic smile is less prominent; she does however retain the almond-shaped profile eye. Her portrait is also a bit smaller, allowing for more of her helmet and its crest to appear. On the reverse the owl stands straighter and his tail feathers are less detailed.
The Mass Classical Owls financed the construction of Athena’s temple in Athens, the Parthenon (from parthena meaning “virgin” – one of the attributes of Athena) and other projects of the Athenian Age of Pericles (c. 461-429 BCE). The silver for the coins came in part from the seemingly inexhaustible mines in Laurion but also from the treasury of the Delian League, which Pericles looted after transferring it from Delos to Athens in 454 BCE.
The Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens broke out in 431 BCE. The following year an epidemic (the “Plague of Athens”) broke out in Athens, ultimately killing one-quarter of the Athenian population, including Pericles himself. In 404 BCE, after 27 years of grinding war, Athens surrendered, losing its walls, its fleet and its status as the first city of Greece. The Athenians continued to mint Owls through most of this period, but the silver content of the coins was reduced as the war dragged on, until eventually the coins were nothing more than silver-plated bronze tokens.
Athens slowly recovered from the disasters of the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens, but never regained its pre-eminence.
In about 393 BCE, the Athenians resumed minting tetradrachms – ironically, with silver obtained from Athens’ ancient enemy, Persia. These tetradrachms are usually identified as “Late Classical Owls”, but the terms “Intermediate Style Owls”, “Hellenistic Owls”, and “Transitional Owls” are also used. The Late Classical style held sway for almost two centuries, although there was an intermission of unknown length during the time when Macedon dominated Athens (c. 330-225 BCE).
The Late Classical Owls use the same basic design as the earlier Owls, but the style is more refined in some respects, and more crude in others. Athena’s eye is far more naturalistic: it no longer has the archaic shape of the past, and like the portrait itself the eye faces right rather than facing the viewer. On the other hand, Athena’s hair and the owl’s feathers are less detailed than before, Athena’s face has a “lumpy” appearance, and the owl’s proportions are rather odd, to say the least.
Early New Style
Sometime around 165 BCE after a hiatus of about 30 years, Athens began striking tetradrachms again. The “New Style” Owl was quite different from the Owls that preceded it. While it continues to portray the helmeted Athena on the obverse and her owl on the reverse, the style of portraiture completely changed, as did the subsidiary design details.
The obverse depicts Athena wearing an elaborate triple-crested Attic helmet which is decorated with the foreparts of four horses above the visor, a Pegasos (or Pegasus) flying to the right on the raised earpiece, and a curvilinear ornament on the helmet bowl. Athena also wears a single-pendant earring and necklace. She has completely lost the archaic smile of the past, perhaps because she and the Athenians no longer had anything to smile about.
The owl on the reverse stands on an amphora (jug), surrounded by an olive wreath. The Athenian identifier AӨE is split at the top of the field, monograms appear to the right and left of the owl, and an ear of grain is at the lower right.
Pegasos was the mythological winged horse who, according to legend, was born when drops of Medusa’s blood fell from her severed head into the sea; Athena was credited with taming Pegasos and delivering him to the Muses. The amphora and olive wreath on the reverse represent Athens’ international olive oil trade, and the two monograms identify the magistrates responsible for minting the coin (their “responsibility” may have been only honorary in nature).
The Early New Style Owls are usually beautifully engraved and well-struck, but the image of Athena seems less “alive” than on the previous Owls.
Late New Style
As time passed, the images on the New Style tetradrachms grew more and more coarse, and less and less lively. At the same time the imagery provided more and more information about their minting – although we often cannot determine precisely what the information means.
Athena’s helmet on the obverse of this Late New Style tetradrachm is still decorated with a palmette, but Pegasos and the horses have been replaced with a griffin. The owl continues to stand on the amphora on the reverse, but his pose is much more awkward than in the past. The AΘE identifier of the Athenians continues to appear but it is forced into a triangular format in order to fit the crowded space. The magistrates are now identified by their full names (Amphias and Oinophilos) rather than by monograms. One letter (A) appears on the amphora, and two (AP) appear faintly below the amphora. The agricultural goddess Demeter stands to the right of the owl, facing it while holding a long torch in both hands.
The griffin on Athena’s helmet imitates the griffins on the helmet of the statue of Athena that stood in the Parthenon. The A on the amphora indicates that this coin was struck during the first lunar month of the year (the Greek numbering system used the letters of the Greek alphabet, beginning with “A”); if we knew with certainty the year in which Amphias and Oinophilos served their magistracies, then we could date the coin precisely. The letters “AP” may indicate the source of the silver used for the coin, but this is uncertain.
The End of Athenian Tetradrachms
The Romans began exercising direct power over Greece around the time the Athenians began striking New Style Owls. Rome allowed Athens to continue to mint Owls until the middle of the first century BCE. The Athenian tetradrachm very likely ended its long run in 42 BCE when the Roman triumvir Mark Antony arrived in Athens after the Battle of Philippi.
Collecting the Tetradrachms of Athens
Svoronos (1926) gives good coverage of the entire range of Athenian tetradrachms. Seltman (1924) is almost a century old but is still useful and is the most cited source for Archaic Athenian coinage. Starr (1970) is a useful source for the study of the Classical tetradrachms. Thompson (1961) is an excellent study of the New Style tetradrachms; her dating of the coins is at least 30 years too early–which she herself later recognized–but her analysis is a masterpiece of numismatic research.
The sequence of design styles in which Athens minted its tetradrachms is well understood, but there is no agreement as to the dates when individual coins were struck, or when the different design styles appeared. The dates given for the coins shown in this article should be taken as suggestions rather than facts.
The Mass Classical Owls are by far the most popular of the Athenian tetradrachms. The Athenians struck the coins in the millions, and the coins dominated trade in the eastern Mediterranean for over a century. The coins were extensively imitated throughout the region, and while it is sometimes difficult to determine precisely where a particular imitation was struck, it is usually fairly easily to determine if a coin is an authentic Athenian tetradrachm or if it is one of the many imitations.
A large hoard of Mass Classical tetradrachms, numbering perhaps as many as 30,000 coins, entered the market in late 2018. The sudden influx led to major price drops, in some cases as much as 50%. This has provided an excellent buying opportunity for collectors, but a rather unpleasant situation for sellers who acquired stocks before 2018.
The key to collecting Athenian tetradrachms is how much of the design appears on the coin.
Due to the irregular shape of the planchets, the large size of the obverse design elements relative to the planchet, and the difficulty mortal human beings had when they tried to center a die thousands of times during a work day, some part of the design is almost invariably off-planchet. If the upper portion of Athena’s breastplate is fully struck on the bottom of the planchet, for example, it is likely that the upper portion of her helmet’s crest will be missing from the top of the planchet. If her full nose is fully struck on the right side of the planchet, then the back portion of the crest of her helmet will probably be missing from the left side of the planchet.
All other things being equal, a tetradrachm with a full crest will usually cost half again as much as one missing some or all the crest.
Mass Classical Owls are often found with what are probably test cuts (small marks chiseled into the coin surface to determine if the coin is solid silver or just silver-plated copper). The coins circulated widely and were apparently counterfeited quite often, to the extent that foreign (non-Athenian) bankers and merchants may have found it necessary from time to time to cut the coins “just to be sure”. The Archaic and New Style tetradrachms did not enjoy such wide circulation and were less likely to be counterfeited and are less likely to show test cuts.
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Beall, Michael. “Being Wise About Owls: The Athenian Owl Tetradrachm“, Coin Week, July 23, 2020.
Goldsborough, Reid. Athenian Owls.
Seltman, C.T. Athens, Its History and Coinage Before the Persian Invasion. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1924.
Starr, Chester G. Athenian Coinage 480-449 BC. Clarendon Press: London. 1970.
Svoronos, J. Les monnaies d’Athenes. F.Bruckman: Munich. 1923-26.
Thompson, M. The New Style Silver Coinage of Athens. ANSNS: New York. 1961.