Athenian Coins: The Owls

This is an Athenian coin. Every coin minted in Athens was stamped with this design.
The bird is a Minerva owl, the sacred bird of Athena, patron Goddess of Athens. Athenian coins were universally known as owls. If you bought something at the agora, the stallholder might say, "That'll be three owls." The birds were always printed looking at you sideways with those huge eyes.

There are three letters down the right hand side. The funny O with the dot in the middle is a capital theta, which carries a th sound. Alpha Theta Epsilon spells out as A(TH)E, the first three letters of the word Athenai (Athens) in Greek.

The pattern in the top left is olive leaves and an olive, the olive plant being Athena's special gift to Athens.

Between the owl and the olives is what looks like a banana but is actually a crescent moon. The moon doesn't appear on any coins before the Battle of Salamis, but does on all coins shortly thereafter. The assumption is Salamis was fought under a crescent moon, but no one really knows.

The obverse side btw had a picture of Athena. I haven't bothered showing the obverse because it's not all that interesting. It's worth noting though this is the first commonly accepted coin to have heads (Athena) and tails (the owl).

Athens didn't have a logo like the famous SPQR of Rome. But to anyone in the ancient world, this coin face instantly screamed Athens.

Athenian coins were the first in history to be accepted across national borders. In those days every city minted its own coins, except for the Spartans, who were convinced this newfangled money stuff would never catch on and stuck with small iron bars as a unit of currency.

In general people in one city would not accept the coins of another. Your average vendor in, say, Mytilene, was unlikely to know the relative value of coins from, say, Thebes, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn't know the relative values of the 20+ other major Greek cities. If that doesn't sound sensible, try this quick quiz: off the top of your head, list the current exchange rate for every major currency in the world relative to the US dollar.

Right. People in the ancient world had exactly the same problem. If you turned up at one city with another city's coins, your first stop was the moneychanger at the local agora.

The moneychangers actually had a tough job. They were effectively setting the exchange rate between city economies. They had to judge largely by the amount of precious metal, usually silver, in the coins, but also had to be wary of cheats. There are plenty of surviving coins that have been chopped so a moneychanger could check what's inside.

But everyone accepted owls (except the Spartans). This coin was the ancient world's equivalent of today's US dollar, until the Roman currency took over, and even then owls were still good as a trading system.

There are people who could glance at this coin and tell you in what year it was minted, because the design of the owl changed subtly over time. I am not one of those people.

This coin is a tetradrachm. 4 drachmas. There were smaller and larger denominations, but the tetra seems to have been the common unit for commercial trading. Its value though is far too high for normal everyday use. For that you wanted a smaller coin called an obol.

1 drachma = 6 obols

An average workman earned about a drachma a day. So most things you bought in the agora would have cost a couple of obols at most. There was even a half-obol coin for small purchases. When you died, the obol was the coin placed under your tongue to pay Charon the Ferryman to get you to the afterlife. The obol had exactly the same owl design as the drachma, but smaller and thinner with less precious metal. Obols were tiny. Here are some pictures I took in the British Museum:

Athenian coins drachm obol
These are all made of silver. The important difference is the size.

#2 & #3 are each side of a tetradrachm
#4 is a didrachma (2 drachma piece)
#5 & #6 are each side of a drachma
#7 is a half drachma (3 obols)
#8 is a quarter drachma (yes, I know that's not an even number of obols)
#9 & #10 are obols
#11 is a half obol
#12 is a quarter obol

Athenian coins drachms

Athenian coins obols

There were units higher than the drachma:

1 mina = 100 drachmas
1 talent = 60 minas = 6,000 drachmas

Only the very wealthy and governments dealt in talents.

Why were owls so successful? For much the same reason the USD is ubiquitous today. Because they were so very successful a large number of owls survived. Many have been placed on chains. Theodore Roosevelt is said to have kept one in his pocket.


Chris Eldin said...

This is such an interesting post! Okay, I will show my ignorance because I want to learn more. How old are these coins? How much are they worth? Do people collect them?

Chris Eldin said...

P.S. I'm not going to be on Twitter as much. It's too spastic for me. But I want to visit you over here...

Gary Corby said...

Hi Chris!

All the coins in these pictures are Classical Period, dated to the 400s BC. So they're just short of 2,500 years old.

There certainly are coin collectors, and many of them would have an owl. Any collector would know far more about this stuff than I do.

To answer your question I googled some online vendors, and it seems owls can be bought for $300 to $1,000+. The cheaper ones all seem to be cut, or are poor quality minting.

If anyone reading this is thinking about it, I'd be *very* cautious about buying old coins online. This is the sort of thing that could be faked well enough to fool almost anyone. But I'm sure there are reputable stores where you can have a look at owls and buy them. You'd need to ask an expert.

Travis Erwin said...

those crazy Athians. I don't care what they say. I'd still take Hercules over Theseus in a heads u battle anyday.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks Gary. I have a small scene in my first book where the kids go back in time, and I have them say "copper pieces" instead of coins. It was only a couple of sentences, so it wasn't something I researched. But now I actually am quite curious!

uppington said...

Okay, I'm not into history much, but those coins are just really cool. I want an Owl to carry around in my pocket. Just because. You really are a wealth of interesting information - I always learn something when I stop by, even if I wasn't planning on it.

Reid Goldsborough said...

Hey. Good blog post, which I just happened across in Googling around. Please excuse what follows for being picayune and me for being a party pooper, but let me throw out some small corrections to an otherwise excellent treatment of these fascinating old coins.

It's very unlikely that Owls were used much if at all in the Athenian agora, or marketplace, as their value was far too high for the goods typically sold there. They were used for international trade, to pay mercenaries, and for other larger transactions. The smaller denominations were used in the agora (the term "Owl" refers to tetradrachm even though the smaller, and larger, Athenian denominations at the time also featured owls on their reverse side). As you later point out, obols and other fractions were used for everyday commerce, with them showing up in far greater frequency in archeological digs at the agora.

The three Greek letters on the reverse don't stand for "Athens" but for "Of the Athenians." The genitive or possessive case was used on this and most other ancient Greek coins.

The obverse side *is* interesting, featuring Athena, goddess of both wisdom and warfare, combining qualities we find incongruous today but that's interesting commentary about the way of life in ancient times. This isn't a correction, just an opinion.

Owls weren't the first coins accepted across international borders, but not far behind. That coin would have been the Aegina Turtle. Athenian Owls, however, were minted in far greater numbers, traveled much further, and were imitated all over the known world at the time.

The coin that replaced the Owl as the most commonly used international currency wasn't the Roman denarius (that happened later) but Alexander the Great's silver tetradrachms and gold staters.

The coin whose reverse you illustrate is the most common Owl variety and the most celebrated, a "mass" classical Owl that's most frequently dated c. 449 to 413 BC. The attraction is not only the impossible age of the coins, their beauty, their mythological symbolism, and their wide appeal in ancient times, but also the fact that they came from where Western civilization originated, where individualism, democracy, and science were born.

Theodore Roosevelt, as you point out, kept one of these Owls as a pocket piece, and it helped inspire him to order the redesign of U.S. coinage in the beginning of the 20th century, leading to among other coins the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece, widely considered the most beautiful American coin ever minted, with very pronounced classical influences.

Again, sorry if I seem pedantic. There's more informational content on the Web about these coins, which a Google search ("Athenian Owls") will quickly locate. I'm a collector, not a dealer, but vetted and reliable dealers selling these can be found online among other places at VCoins ( eBay is another option, and good deals can be had there, but it's considerably more risky, and if you don't know ancient coins (or anything else that can be faked) you really should buy there only from sellers recommended to you by reliable sources to avoid the risk of getting taken by the legions of forgery crooks who have set up shop there.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, thanks Reid. That's pretty amazing stuff, all of which goes to prove I was right when I said there are people out there who know much more about coins than I do.

Let me know if you ever want to do a guest blog about Spartan money. I'm planning to write about it one day but it sounds to me like you might be an expert.

sunny said...

Hi Gary,
Do you know if there's other type of Athenian Coins with one owl opens its wings and looks straight (not side way). If there is, can you estimate its value?

Thank you.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sunny,

There were indeed coins with the owl in other poses. The owl changed shape over the centuries.

As to their value, you're asking the wrong person, I have absolutely no idea. I know the coins because I have to describe them in my stories, not because I trade them.

You need to ask Reid (check his comment), or someone like him, or consult one of the reputable traders.

dipylon said...

An "obol" is literally a spit, a metal rod. In the beginning obols were just that, ingots in the shape of the rod, and their value was the value of the metal they were made of. The Spartans stuck to this "coinage" long after it was replaced by coins. It was meant as a means to discourage greed. My guess is that it was also a way to have plenty of iron always handy for weapon making.

Ameilia Nguyen said...

Hi interesting information about the Athenian owl coin when was the Athenian owl coin discovered? Where was it found?