If you are interested in ancient coins, you have probably heard of the Athenian owls, the silver tetradrachms that feature the head of Athena and her owl on the reverse. These coins are not only beautiful and iconic, but also rich in history and symbolism. In this blog post, I will tell you more about these coins and why they are so popular among collectors and enthusiasts.
In our collection you will find and example of an Athenian Owl.
The Origin of the Athenian Owls
The owls were first minted in Athens around 525 BC, shortly after the city adopted democracy and became a major naval power in the Mediterranean. The coins were named after the owl, which was the attribute of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The owl symbolized wisdom, intelligence and vigilance, qualities that the Athenians valued and aspired to.
The obverse of the coin shows the helmeted head of Athena, facing right. The helmet is decorated with olive leaves and a horsehair crest. The reverse shows an owl standing on an olive branch, with a crescent moon above its head. The inscription “ΑΘΕ” is an abbreviation of “ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ”, which means “of the Athenians”. The owl and the olive branch also refer to the myth of how Athena won the patronage of Athens by offering an olive tree to the citizens, while her rival Poseidon offered a saltwater spring.
The owls were made of silver, which was abundant in the mines of Laurion, near Athens. The coins weighed about 17 grams and had a diameter of about 24 mm. They were worth four drachmas, which was equivalent to a week’s pay for a soldier or a sailor. The owls were widely used as currency, not only in Athens, but also in other Greek city-states and colonies, as well as in foreign lands. They were recognized and accepted as a symbol of Athenian power, prestige and culture.
The Athenian owls were the first widely used international coins. In places where they were used commercially, some peoples began to mint their own versions, usually 100% imitating them, but sometimes not in every detail.
The owl of Athena
The owl of Athena is a symbol of wisdom, strategy and warcraft in ancient Greek mythology. It was the sacred bird of the goddess Athena, who was the patron of the city of Athens and the daughter of Zeus. The owl was believed to sit on Athena’s blind side and reveal the whole truth to her. The sight of an owl was also considered a sign of Athena’s favor and blessing.
The owl of Athena became a prominent motif in Athenian art and culture. It was depicted on many coins, vases, statues and reliefs, often alongside the goddess herself. The owl was also associated with the olive tree, another symbol of Athena and Athens. The Athenians called their silver coins “glaukes”, meaning “owls”.
The Evolution of the Athenian Owls
The owls were minted for over four centuries, from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. During this time, they underwent several changes in style and design, reflecting the artistic and political developments of Athens and Greece.
The earliest owls are known as the “archaic” style, which lasted until about 480 BC. These coins have a very stylized and geometric appearance, with thick outlines and almond-shaped eyes. The helmet of Athena covers most of her face, leaving only her nose and chin visible. The owl is also very schematic, with large eyes and a small body.
Around 480 BC, after Athens defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, the owls entered the “classical” style, which is considered the peak of their artistic quality. These coins have a more naturalistic and realistic look, with more details and expression. The helmet of Athena is pushed back, revealing more of her face and hair. The owl is also more lifelike, with feathers and claws.
The classical style lasted until about 404 BC, when Athens was defeated by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War. After this, the owls entered the “late classical” style, which lasted until about 165 BC. These coins have a smaller flan and a lower relief than their predecessors. The helmet of Athena is tilted forward, covering most of her face again. The owl is also smaller and less detailed. Around 165 BC, after Athens was conquered by Rome, the owls entered the “new style”, which lasted until about 50 BC. These coins have a larger flan and a thinner fabric than their predecessors. The helmet of Athena is adorned with various ornaments, such as wings, horns or stars. The reverse shows a different design: instead of an owl standing on an olive branch, there is an owl facing an amphora (a jar for storing oil or wine), with two monograms (letters or symbols) on either side. The new style owls also have magistrates’ names on them, which can help date them more precisely.
The Legacy of the Athenian Owls
The owls are among the most famous and influential coins in history. They have inspired many other coinages, such as those of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, or even some modern nations (such as France or Israel). They have also been admired by many historical figures, such as Julius Caesar, who reportedly collected them; or Theodore Roosevelt, who allegedly carried one as a lucky charm and used it as a model for his coin reform.
Today, the owls are highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts around the world. They are widely available in various grades and prices, depending on their rarity, condition and quality. They are also a great way to learn more about the history and culture of ancient Athens and Greece, as well as the origins of coinage and money.