Athens, Attica (Greece)

Silver Tetradrachm, ca. 450-440 BCE
weight: 17.0g, width: 2.32cm

Athens OBVAthens REV

OBV.: Archaic head of Athena facing right. Her Attic helmet is decorated with a diadem of three olive leaves. Test cuts in Athena's throat and cheek.
REV.: Archaic owl, slightly off-center to the left. In upper left, sprig of olive with two leaves and one berry in the center and a crescent touching shoulder and head of the owl. Inscription on the right: "AQE" (= ATHENAION, “of the Athenians”).

HFMA nr. 2006.010.006. Ref.: Kraay (1976) 65 and 67 [nr. 198].


The famous "owls" of Athens, introduced at the end of the sixth century BCE and minted from the rich silver deposits at Laurium in southern Attica (map), became one of the first international currencies. Athens imported goods from all over the Mediterranean, and the conservative design of its coins, which hardly changed for several hundred years, promoted their reliably high and unchanging silver content.

The obverse of this coin shows the helmeted head of Athens' patron deity, Athena. Even though the coin was minted in classical times, this head still preserves its archaic smile and almond eyes. The stylized olive wreath on the helmet may commemorate the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, in which the Athenian navy under Themistokles inflicted a decisive defeat on the fleet of Xerxes during the second and last Persian attempt to invade Greece.

Owls were reputed to be wise, and thus the Little Owl on the reverse is sacred to Athena as the goddess of wisdom. The olive sprig in the upper left is also a reference to Athena. The olive tree was a gift of Athena to the city, and at the Panathenaic games in honor of Athena, amphorae filled with gallons of olive oil from the sacred grove of Athena were given as prizes to the winners.

O.K.

Literature:
Kraay, Colin M., Archaic and classical Greek coins. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.
idem, "The Archaic Owls of Athens: Classification and Chronology." The Numismatic Chronicle, 6th Ser. Vol. 16 (1956), p. 43-68, pl. 13.
Starr, Chester G., Athenian Coinage 480-449 BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Back to HFMA Coin Catalogue