An Athenian Owl

"Like taking owls to Athens" went the phrase I heard as a kid. If you asked what it meant, you were likely to be told "Like taking coals to Newcastle." The idea was that some places had enough of a commodity that it made no sense to bring in more. The owls in plentiful supply in 5th century BC Athens were not the feathered variety; they were silver.

Throughout antiquity, Athena and her companion owl served Athens as city symbol and primary coin type. With a few exceptions, Athenian silver coins show a head of the goddess facing right on the obverse and an owl on the reverse. Style changed slowly from the globular coins of the 6th century to the sleek "New Style" coins that were made until replaced by Roman issues of the 1st century BC.

What made the Athenian silver so popular and long lasting was its status as the definition of good money. The man on the street anywhere in the Greek world knew that he could trust the "owl" to contain full weight of the best silver. Athens was the strongest economic force in the Greek world. Their mines provided the Athenians with tons of fine silver so there was never a reason for them to produce bad coins. Well, almost never.

Athens, Attica, fourree tetradrachm - c. 430 BC - 23 X 27 mm diameter, 16.5g
Athena head right / Owl, olive spray, small crescent moon - A theta E
Plated version similar to style of Svoronos, Corpus of the Ancient Coins of Athens, Plate11?

Toward the end (c. 406 BC) of the Peloponnesian War (with Sparta) , Athens found itself cut off from the silver mines at Laurion. Lacking enough silver to push forward the war effort the decision was made to issue a series of silver plated (fourree) copper coins that could be redeemed after the war for the regular, good silver product. I wish I could tell you that this week's was one of those Emergency of 406 BC issues. It is not. This series of coins has been extensively studied and dated by style so most coins can be place within a few years of their issue. To be a true coin of the emergency, an owl needs to be of a style current at that time. This example is too early. My guess places it around 430 BC .

The technology for making silver plated coins was as old as coinage itself. Few people involved in coin production would not have known how to wrap a copper core in silver foil and bond the layers with heat and the force of striking. Whether this coin was produced in the mint, on the "sly" by mint workers or by counterfeiters is similarly unclear. It is interesting that this coin weighs 16.5g which is a acceptable weight for a full silver tetradrachm. To allow for the difference in weight of silver and copper, this flan was made slightly oversize so the coin would have the correct weight. It is possible that this excessive size may have betrayed the coin to whoever decided to cut it in search of the copper core. The smaller cut below the tail that failed to break through to the core may have been an attempt by the maker of the coin to make the coin appear to have been tested and previously passed. Plated coins even exist with fake test cuts made as part of the die! The second cut across the body of the owl left no doubt that this coin was bad.

The wide acceptance of these coins led the mint to be slow in updating the style of the artwork on the coins. The portrait of Athena continued to use the Archaic style "almond" eye long after popular art style had passed into the Classical period. Care was taken not to do anything to hurt the acceptance of the coins. What was good money for the Athens of old still seemed good a century later.

Owls exist in a wide range of denominations. The Featured coin, a tetradrachm, is the most common size. Many tetradrachms actually saw little circulation. The denomination represented a lot of money so many coins were minted and stored in bulk for use in large transactions or accounting. Daily commerce used several smaller denominations (shown here at 8 X 10 mm and .7g is an obol or 1/24th of the tetradrachm). These frequently can be found in worn condition for a fraction of the price of their large, popular and more common cousins. Whatever the denomination, the popularity of the owls of Athens is a stronger market factor than is rarity. These tetradrachms exist in numbers far exceeding the number of collectors but demand keeps the price high. The coin is popular with non-collectors both as a curio and as jewelry. Some collectors specialize in this one type and a grouping of 1000 minor varieties would be far from complete. Many people consider the Athenian owl THE ancient coin: the most important, the most beautiful, the most historic, the one to have if you could have but one. There certainly is something appealing about the smiling goddess and her cute little owl.

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(c) 1997 Doug Smith