‘Turtles’ (chelones) of Aegina, with ‘Owls’ (glaukes) of Athens and ‘Asses’ (poloi) of Corinth, were the international currency of classical antiquity. This article describes how ancient Athenian silver ‘owls’ helped establish traditions of coinage that were followed for the subsequent 2400-year history of Western coinage, up to the present day.
The Athenian ‘owl’ was a silver tetradrachm coin with an owl on one face. The first coin of this kind to be widely accepted in the Mediterranean region was the Aegina ‘turtle’ and though similar Hellenistic silver tetradrachms called ‘Alexanders’ would be later minted in much greater numbers and accepted over a wider geographic region it was silver owls that were the first truly imperial coins – the world’s first international trading currency. They retained their value because they were produced from a trusted source: they were 16-17 grams of shiny pure silver that fitted nicely into the palm of the hand and they were of sufficient exchange value to command immediate respect. But they were not just objects of economic exchange; they were also artistic creations familiar to all sectors of society that were used to promote geographic regions, religious and political interests.
American President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have carried an Athens Owl in his pocket, using this to persuade eminent American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848- 1907) to design the now famous 1907 High Relief Gold Double Eagle and Winged Liberty designs on American coins. Today, Owls have been commemorated on the Modern Greek 1 Euro coin.
The Owl – Attica, Athens – 449-413 BCE
Silver tetradrachm / 17 grams / c. 20 mm wide / 3-4 mm thick
Obverse: head of Athena (goddess of wisdom & war) rt-facing and wearing crown of laurel leaves
Reverse: owl of wisdom with crescent moon, and olive branch symbolising Athenian trade in olive oil
Legend: AƟE – Value today c. AU $1000
Around 500 BCE the ancient western world was divided into two major political and economic powers, the Greek world of the central Mediterranean and Aegean, and the Persian world of Darius the Great (c. 550–486 BCE), the third Persian King of the Achaemenid empire who reigned from 522 BCE until his death in 486 BCE over a vast empire that included much of West Asia, the Caucasus, Balkans (Thrace-Macedonia, and Paeonia) and most of the Black Sea coastal regions, and Central Asia to the Indus Valley. Greece and Persia were long-time bitter enemies in the ancient world.
The Greek triumph over the Persian forces of Darius at Marathon in 490 BCE heralded a 60-year Golden Age for Athens which lasted until the disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) when an internal war between the Greek city-states themselves led to Athenian subjugation by Sparta.
During this golden age Athens was rebuilt under a successful democracy led by statesman Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BCE), expanding its political and economic power across the Mediterranean, developing a vibrant trade network, and creating an environment in which artistic and intellectual activity could flourish as never before.
This was part of the 200-year Classical Period lasting from about the fall of the last Athenian king in 510 BCE to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE) when Athens was the centre of Greek learning, led by Plato’s Academy and Aristotle‘s Lyceum. Greek military, naval, and economic strength was underpinned by the copious silver mined just outside the city at Laurium, as well as payments of tribute by its subjects, and from the treasury of the Delian League, a political confederation of Greek city-states.
Though coinage is believed to have originated in the region of Lydia and Ionia in todays western Turkey around 650 BCE, from 550 to 480 BCE there was a proliferation of mints across the Greek world, most of these striking silver coins.
Athens was, at this time, the hub of Greek commerce across a vast Mediterranean empire. Within this empire, and under state ownership, were the silver mines that provided the bullion used in the production of silver coinage. By far the best known and most popular of the different silver denominations were the tetradrachms with an owl on the reverse face.
Laurium was a silver mine just outside the city and the many owl tetradrachms minted from its silver helped to finance Athenian projects such as the building the Parthenon and the Peloponnesian War.
The use of the tetradrachm as currency proved so efficient that it was soon adopted by many other city-states of Ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Magna Grecia and other Greek colonial cities around the Mediterranean Sea. With the armies of Alexander the Great its use spread beyond, to Greek-influenced areas of Asia.
The basic unit of Greek currency was the drachm, a coin weighing about a quarter of an owl. Lower denomination coins were usually minted in a cheaper metal, like copper or bronze and there were many denominations.
The Athenian ‘owl’ was first introduced by the Athenian king Hippias (born c. 547 BCE) and it was subsequently used on coins of many denominations.
The basic unit of ancient Greek currency was the drachm coin known to Athenians as glaukes (γλαῦκες or ‘owls’) while the Athenian tetradrachm (Gk – τετράδραχμον, tetrádrakhmon), four drachms, was known throughout the ancient world as the glaux (γλαύξ, little owl), a silver coin worth four drachmae (tetra = four).
Owls appeared on coins minted in denominations below the drachm (e.g. tetrobols, hemidrachms, diobols, trihemiobols, obols, tritartemorions, hemiobols, trihemitartemorions, tetartemorions, and hemiartemorions). These smaller denominations were used in everyday market transactions and, being more common, were hoarded less, often badly struck and those remaining today often in poor condition.
In Athens the tetradrachm replaced the earlier ‘heraldic’ tokens or didrachms (di = two) issued around 545 BCE either by Athenian aristocratic families or as part of the celebration of religious festivals, some of which had depicted owls on one face.
Tetradrachms were exceeded in denomination by the rare dekadrachms and gold staters. These were more substantial as treasured coins used as payment to soldiers, for international trade, and for storing wealth.
The transition from didrachms to tetradrachms occurred c. 525–510 BCE.
Silver tetradrachm Owls were widely circulated from c. 510 to c. 38 BCE although some Athenian bronzes featuring an owl continued well into Roman Imperial times until the end of ancient Athenian coinage c. 267 CE.
Tetradrachms changed over time – from crudely marked metal slugs to New Style broad flans tapered to the edges and engraved with some of the world’s most intricate and sensitive designs and miniature portraiture.
Though the Classical Owl tetradrachm was widely remembered and honored as a popular emblem, Owl iconography was used on ancient Greek coins for nearly 500 years, passing through several changes in style.
Four periods or styles are generally recognised: Archaic (650-479 BCE), Classical (479-336 BCE), Hellenistic (336-30 BCE), which is sometimes further divided into Intermediate and New Style. All coins except the New Style ones display an olive sprig on the reverse side symbolizing the Athenian trade in olive oil, which, along with silver and pottery, were the main the source of her trading prosperity.
The Classical coin was minted around 440-420 BCE and is simple, direct and realistic in design, reflecting the move to greater realism and detail.
The next series, c. 393- 94 BCE demonstrates the transition to the Hellenistic style with Athena more lifelike and human, her eye presented in profile rather than facing the viewer. The owl has a larger head and slightly different proportions, though precise dating is a contentious matter.
By 229 BCE Athens had lost its autonomy to Macedonia falling to Rome at the end of the third century BCE, the last of the original series of owls gone by 200 BCE.
In the second century BCE New Style tetradrachms were introduced with broader and thinner flans, lower relief and more detailed and realistic designs and Athena now has three crests to her helmet. Sometimes the symbols following the AoE are added denoting the magistrate(s) supervising coinage in the city.
It was the tetradrachm more than any other coin that likely consolidated the coin tradition of ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ since the owls paired an image of Athena on the obverse with the owl on the reverse and were issued c. 510 BCE at around the time of the establishment of Athenian democracy under Kleisthenes.
Athenian silver tetradrachms spread to Egypt, Palestine, Bactria, and Arabia. Tetradrachms generally depicted a deity on the obverse side until the owl was superseded by the ‘Alexander’ which represented the world-famous Greek military hero who insisted that his god-like qualities warranted his portrait on tokens of value used across the known world – one of a long line of rulers assuming power by divine acclamation.
When Alexander died, he left no clear heir, so his kingdom was peacefully divided among five generals. Four of these replaced Alexander’s image with their own on the coins struck in their territory, while Lysimachus retained Alexander’s image hoping that he might eventually rule over all Alexander’s former territories.
The owl traditionally accompanies Athena, thus becoming a symbol of wisdom and mascot of the polis of Athens. There are suggestions that Athena was herself an owl and could take on its form and that she is a representation of an early Indo-European prehistoric bird goddess. The biological species of the coin owl was probably Athena Noctua the Little Owl or Minerva Owl which ranged from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, only 15-20 cm tall and weighing 2.5 to 4.5 ounces. On the coin the owl stands with its body leaning to the right and head slightly tilted. There is a tuft of tail feathers, an olive sprig, and a crescent moon to the left: on the right the inscription AΘE, an abbreviation of ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, which may be translated as ‘of the Athenians’.
The obverse portrait of their patron goddess Athena is depicted in an interesting combination of femininity and intimidation through the presence of the war helmet, showing both sides of Athena’s character including her enigmatic Monalisa-like smile. She was often described as “flashing-eyed”, so it is likely that the archaic depiction of her large, almond-shaped eye was intentional and had mythological origins.
The Greeks did not consider birds to be divine, but many became the symbolic animals of various gods. The species depicted on the reverse of the Owl tetradrachms has been identified as Athene noctua, the Little Owl. They are found in the Mediterranean region and stand only six to eight inches tall, weighing between 2.5 and 4.5 ounces.
The inscription “ΑΘΕ” is an abbreviation of ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΝ, “of the Athenians”. These coins were so popular that they were often copied by other countries, they retained this inscription with the hope of having their currency associated with the positive qualities of the genuine Owl tetradrachms.
The olive sprig is a reference to olive oil, one of Athens’ primary exports while the symbolism of the possibly waning crescent moon is uncertain.’
The last of the Athenian owls were minted sometime during the middle of the first century BCE, though the exact date is unknown and is likely to remain in dispute. The series is amongst the most avidly collected within the world of ancient coins because of its familiar design and historical significance, and it is likely that this will remain the case for a long time to come.
Owls were widely minted through the classical period from around the 460s to the 290s BCE during an Athenian Golden Age when trade and intellectual pursuits flourished (including philosophy, art, architecture, poetry, literature, trade, law, and medicine), laying the cultural foundations for today’s Western world.
The wide appeal of these coins no doubt arose from their ease of exchange, beauty, and rich mythological symbolism. There was a tactile appeal to the thick, heavy, high-relief and shiny silver metal whose value commanded control over material goods. To modern coin collectors (numismatists) there the tantalizing thought that the coins they possess could have been touched by such great men as Pythagoras Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes who had such a momentous impact on Western culture. Owls proved so attractive that they remained thematically unchanged for half a millennium. They sealed the use of coins as not only currency but also soft promotion and there were seigniorage profits (the difference between the value of money and the cost to produce and distribute it) made on each one minted, whether the source was freshly mined silver from the mines of Laurium just outside Athens or the silver coins of other cities. Owls were extensively copied in Asia Minor, Egypt and Arabia, where both the originals and their look-alikes were standard currency.
‘Owls’ draw attention to many features they have passed on to the coins of today: they are round; of standard metal composition and weight; they are silver representatives of the trio of coin metals gold, silver and copper (bronze); they display faces recognizable as ‘heads’ and ‘tails’; they demonstrate political and economic power using the symbolism associated with sacred or earthly rulers and the geographic region and political unit that the coin represents. There is a simple line of numismatic evolutionary descent from the image of goddess Athena on the ancient Greek tetradrachm to the image of the female Britannia on the coins of the British Empire.
The character of the ‘owl’ coin was a template for the later Alexander the Great tetradrachms and staters, and Roman denarii. We see echoes of its style and extended global usage in the modern-era Spanish-American pieces of eight, Dutch lion dollars, Austrian Maria Theresa thalers, and American dollars. For the ardent numismatist the superb art that appeared on the coins of ancient Greece has never been surpassed and the owl is its most outstanding exemplar.
The obverse or ‘heads’ of the Owl is a depiction of the virgin patron goddess Athena (Athene, Pallas Athena), deity of Athens. She is the goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and excellence in Greek mythology known also under her Roman incarnation as Minerva.
She wears a crested helmet decorated with three olive leaves and a curling palmette. Her hair is in two even loops across her forehead and temple and she has a disk-shaped earring. The edge of the coin is beaded to the nape of the helmet.
Athena of Greek mythology was the daughter of Zeus and his first wife, Metis, her name translated to mean “wisdom.” She was the goddess of both wisdom and warfare and Metis warned Zeus that their first son would be more powerful than Zeus himself, such that when Metis became pregnant he swallowed whole Metis and their unborn child. He cured the ensuing headache by splitting his head open with an axe (Zeus may have been powerful but he wasn’t necessarily smart) and from the wound sprang Athena.
Athena had a precursor in the Eye Goddess of Neolithic peoples whose wide staring and flashing eyes were all-seeing and all-knowing, the almond-shaped eye on early Owls indicating this property and bearing a similarity to Egyptian portraiture of the same period. Athena is depicted in an interesting combination of femininity and intimidation through the presence of the war helmet, showing both sides of Athena’s character. She was often described as “flashing-eyed”, so it is likely that the archaic depiction of her large, almond-shaped eye was intentional and had mythological origins.
From Greece to Rome & the Western World
Romulus & Remus
Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE)
Emperor Constantine minted this coin in 330 CE to commemorating the legendary foundation of Rome by twins Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a She-wolf.
Bronze 2.0g/17mm – VF+ – c. AU $100
This Roman coin illustrates the continuation of Greek iconography on Roman coins in a tradition that has persisted on Western coinage up to the present. This is a commemorative coin minted by Emperor Constantine (who introduced Christianity to the Roman world and moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople – named after himself): instead of the helmeted bust of Athena there is the helmeted bust of Roma, and instead of the Owl of Athens the foundation of the city of Rome is suggested by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. sons of Mars (god of war) and Rhea Silvia (King Numitor’s daughter). Legend has it that the twins were thrown into the river Tiber by Numitor’s brother who usurped the throne. They were found and suckled by a She-Wolf and Rome was founded in the region where they grew up although Romulus killed Remus in a dispute over city boundaries. The obverse of Greek coins had, at first, portrayed Greek gods but this tradition was broken when Alexander of Macedon, who had god-like aspirations, insisted that it be his image on Greek coinage.
European colonial empires
The tradition of a substantial silver coin forming the basis of an imperial currency has continued through the modern era, adopted by European colonial empires as the major everyday unit of international currency. Following the Greek tetradrachm came the Roman denarius, the Spanish and Portuguese reale, Dutch guelder, German thaler, English crown and American dollar, all coins still popular with numismatists, not only for the intrinsic value of pure silver but for the iconography that has graced them.
One Greek iconographic device that has persisted is the anthropomorphic personification of a cities or regions as a female (goddess) – like Athena, Roma, Europa, Britannia, Germania, Gallia, Polonia .