Athenian Owl silver tetradrachm is considered to be one of the most recognizable coins in history because they were the first widely used coins in international trade. For this reason, the classical Owl silver tetradrachm was trusted from kingdom to kingdom and were used by noted individuals such as Pythagoras, Democritus, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes.
The first generation style tetradrachm is famous for its portrayal of Athena, with her almond shaped eye, archaic smile as well as for the charming owl reverse produced around 6th century. Around 480 B.C. a wreath of olive leaves and a decorative scroll were added to Athena’s helmet. On the reverse a crescent moon was added. During the period 449 – 413 B.C. enormous quantities of tetradrachms were minted to finance expansive wonders and building projects such as the Parthenon and to cover the costs of the Peloponnesian War.
Early in the fifth century BC Athens became the foremost naval power in the Greek world. This was partly due to the discovery of silver in her territory. According to the historian Herodotus (ca. 484-425 BC), there was a debate about what to do with the newfound wealth: ‘…Build? Expand? Party like the Romans? The revenues from the mines at Laurium had brought huge sums of money into the Athenians’ treasury. The hero Themistocles persuaded them not to distribute it, but rather to use the money to build two hundred war-ships.’ (Herodotus, Book 7, Chapter 144) Themistocles advice turned out to be spot on–It was largely due to the Athenian fleet that the Greeks won their war at this time against the Xerxes and the Persian Empire, they secured the mainland of classical Greece from Persian invasion
In ancient times, the story goes, Athens had no patron, but both Poseidon and Athena wished to take the city under their protection. To settle matters, Zeus proposed a contest – whichever of the two could give the most precious gift to the city would be allowed to be its patron. On the day appointed by Zeus, Poseidon and Athena met on the plain outside the city. Poseidon presented his gift first – he struck his trident into the ground, and from the trench it made a well of water sprang up. The water, unfortunately, was salt, and not much good for drinking or irrigating.
When it was Athena’s turn, she knelt and dug a small hole in which she planted an olive branch. The branch began to grow, and within moments, it was a towering tree bearing rip fruit. Her gift was judged far more useful, and indeed it was. Though the olive is widely seen now as a symbol of peace, at the time it meant survival. The olive tree provided food, oil, shelter and fuel for fires. Thus, Athena became the patron goddess of Athens and took the city under her protection.
On the Athens Owl, she is most often depicted wearing a warrior’s helmet. In the earliest version of the coin, her face has few distinguishable features, and the helmet is more suggested than drawn. As time went on, her visage became far more detailed, and the helmet drawn in all its glory. One mark of the latest period of Ancient Grecian coins is the shape and orientation of Athena’s eyes – open corners, giving the face a more lifelike appearance.
The ancient slang names for the coins of Athens were “owls” and “ladies” (in Greek). “Owls” were so popular as a “work-horse” currency of the ancient world that the design remained essentially unchanged and somewhat archaic long after other cities began to produce coins of a more refined artistic style. The Athenian Owl is still very popular many people consider the Athenian owl to be “the” ancient coin–the most important, the most beautiful, the most historic, the one you need to own.
What made the Athenian silver tetradrachm popular and long lasted status as trusted money? The people on the street, that’s who. They hustled from town to town, selling goods in the Greek world. They knew that they could trust the Athenian silver tetradrachm as payment because it contained full weight of the best silver. Athens was the strongest economic force in the Greek world. Their mines provided the Athenians with an abundance of fine silver for coin production.
The Owl tetradrachm belongs to a large group of issues of the 480s-440’sBC, the period of the construction of the Athenian fleet. The two designs on the Athenian coins both allude to the patronage of the city by the goddess Athena. On the front of the coin is the head of the goddess herself, and on the reverse is her bird, the owl. These design remained unchanged on Athenian coinage for over three hundred years. Athens carefully regulated the manufacture of its silver tetradrachm. In fact, the penalty for counterfeiting the Athens Owl was death, but that didn’t stop counterfeiters from trying.
The coin’s reverse is equally intriguing, portraying Athena’s symbol, the owl, now an international symbol of wisdom. The letters ‘AOE’–or more precisely, “Alpha Theta Epsilon” or “Athe”–form an abbreviation of “Athens”.
Stories have been said that President Theodore Roosevelt loved the Athenian Owl and kept one in his pocket for inspiration. His love of the Owl coin was primarily responsible for the Golden Age of American coins during the early part of 20th century. Working with the talented Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most renowned American sculptor at the time. They ushered in the $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold piece. Many American and Europeans consider the coin, which features classical Greek design elements, to be the most attractive ever minted in the U.S.
A little history for the day.