The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 24, Number 49, December 5, 2021, Article 24


In a blog post, Stack's Bowers Numismatist Nicholas Fritz discusses the history of the great city behind the classic Athenian Owl coins. Here's an excerpt - see the complete article online. -Editor

  Owl coins of Athens

No ancient Greek city state can capture the modern imagination quite like Athens. Though the whole of the ancient Greek world is known as "the cradle of Western Civilization," it is Athens that has come to symbolize the fullest fruition of reason and democracy in the ancient world. The legacy of the Athenian Polis lives on, in both tangible artifacts like coins, and the intangible heritage of critical reasoning and the questioning of assumptions.

Athens was not always the center of the known world. Archaic Athens, characterized by tacit laws and blood oaths, was little more than an outpost on a rocky hilltop before the 7th century B.C.E. when the citizenry of Athens requested that Draco give a written code of laws to be enforced by a court. Though appointed on popular demand, the citizenry was shocked by the harshness of the laws that Draco had implemented, with the death penalty being common; his name inspired the word draconian. After Draco, a man named Solon came to be chief magistrate of Athens, and his liberalizing reforms gave him an honored status as a reformer and the most famous of Athenian legislators. His legacy is preserved today by a sculpture on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. While Solon spearheaded economic reform, it is likely that Athens had no coinage of their own until well after Solon's reforms. Among the earliest of Athenian coinage was the "Wappenmuzen" Tetradrachm struck starting circa 545 B.C.E. This design features a striking gorgoneion on the obverse.

The new system of governance in Athens, though called democracy, was really a precarious balance between democracy and oligarchy. At best, probably only a quarter of Athens' populace was given political agency, with slaves, women, and foreign-born persons being excluded from governance. Still, this system of government allowed men of non-aristocratic birth to rise to great prominence. Chief among them was Themistocles, a talented politician and soldier. Themistocles played a leading role in repelling the threat of Persian invasion, as the decisive victory at Marathon by Athens over the Achaemenid Empire elevated Athens to the position of one of the most prominent states.

Themistocles demanded a naval buildup, which was crucial to the repulsion of a second Persian invasion 10 years after Marathon at the naval battle of Salamis. The wealth that Athens needed to build such a strong navy arose from silver mining at Laurion, the foundation of Athenian economic strength and the progenitor of most silver used in Athenian coinage. It was during this period that Athens started issuing a newer Tetradrachm. This style of Tetradrachm featured the head of Athena on the obverse, and an owl with an olive sprig and crescent on the reverse; all iconography that was symbolic of Athens and the goddess Athena, namesake of the city.

Athens became and remained the intellectual center of the world for centuries and spawned many imitators. Rome, Thebes, Egypt, and even Sparta all took note and advice from Athens. Even the famed owl Tetradrachm was counterfeited, as shown in the ancient Fourree pictured. After time under Macedonian rule, Athens became a free city in the Roman Empire as it was admired for its schools and culture. During this period of Roman conquest Athens issued its final Tetradrachm), struck on a broad flan, but still featuring Athena and an owl. In addition to the coins pictured here, a large collection of Athenian and many more ancient coinages will be offered at the New York International Numismatic Convention by Stack's Bowers Galleries. The entire sale will be available for viewing and bidding at

To read the complete article, see:
The Wise Owl of Athens (

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Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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