diameter). Die axis, 315˚.
Author's collection. Ex
Spink, NCirc, August 2000, 2843. Cf. Starr, 196.
Obv. Head of Athena r.,
wearing helmet decorated with three olive leaves and a curling
palmette. Hair in two even loops across brow and temple. Disc
shaped earring. Beaded edge to nape of helmet.
Rev. Owl standing r., body
leaning to r. with facing head slightly tilted. Conjoined tuft of
tail feathers. Olive sprig and crescent to left and AΘE to
The Athenian tetradrachm is
possibly the best known and most illustrated of all ancient Greek
coins. Its reverse - to choose but one example - graces the cover
and spine of Hammond's history of ancient Greece.
This is not surprising. The defeat of the
Persian orces of Darius, at Marathon in 490 BC, heralded a
golden age for Athens which lasted until the disastrous
Peloponesian War led to its subjection to Sparta in 404 BC. In the
intervening period Athens consolidated a successful democracy,
expanded its political and economic power across the Greek world
and created an environment in which artistic and intellectual
activity could thrive as never before or since. Military and naval
might was underpinned by the copious silver mined at Laurium, as
well as payments from tributary powers and from the treasury of the
Thus, Athenian coinage
symbolised political dominance and was, itself, a tangible
expression of economic power. There is, however, a third ingredient
which has helped the coinage to achieve a unique status. That is
the vigorous image conveyed at this period by the design and
execution of the coins themselves. The impact was sustained by
continuing the design over decades with only the subtlest of
change, maintaining - in
modern parlance - a
consistent message, as befitted an issue of international
importance. The greatly inferior evolution of the Athena/owl
designs in the following centuries would have been unthinkable in
the fifth century BC. Figures C and D show one of the 'New Style'
tetradrachms struck in 164/3 BC.
Obv. Head of
Athena, wearing a drop earring and triple crested helmet
embellished with an image of Pegasus and foliage, and the forepart
of four horses r. on the visor. Curls by cheek and nape of neck.
Border of pellets.
Rev. Owl turned
partly r., with facing head, perched on an amphora (the usual
letter erased by wear). A/ΘΕ on either side of bird. Extensive
lettering in the field and, to the right of the bird, the forepart
of a lion r.
16.98 (30mm diameter).
Die axis, 315˚.
Author's collection. Ex
Here the portrayal of
Athena is executed with careful attention to detail but drained of
character. In contrast, the owl on the reverse is surprisingly
crude compared with Figure B and whatever impact the design might
have had is choked by the clutter of lettering in the
Unerringly the obverses of
Athenian tetradrachms bear the head of the goddess, the only Greek
deity to give its name to a city or state . She was
the patroness of crafts and warlike protectress of cities.
 The helmet and olive leaves in Figure A stress
her latter role. Her portrayal in that Figure is in assured archaic
style, and manifests a disturbingly arresting and mysterious face.
This is partly brought about by the eye being engraved to face the
onlooker instead of being in profile and with this die Athena's
teeth being visible, accentuating her uncompromising
The contrast with the
reverse is remarkable. The owl is a friendly creature. He (if
indeed he is such) could easily be imagined aboard a pea-green
boat. His posture on the coin illustrated is of an alert little
bird looking out upon the world with expectant
Although the Greeks did not
consider birds to be divine, many were associated with the gods.
Athena takes the form of various species in Homer but her link with
the owl appears to be later.  Its effigy was on the
state seal of Athens and on the coins complements the inscription
AΘE. The species portrayed is that known to ornithologists as the
Little Owl (Athene noctua). Florence Nightingale found one on a
visit to the Acropolis and kept it as a pet.  It
may have been a remote descendent of those nesting there in ancient
times.  The olive is also associated with Athena
and with Attica as an important producer of oil. 
Interpretation of the crescent is more precarious. It may
simply represent the waning moon, companion to the nocturnal bird.
Its introduction has been linked to the Panathenaic Festival in
July - August 514 BC,  but this does not accord
with more recent research, dating the addition to c. 478 - 470
BC.  It has also been linked to the state of the
moon at the time of the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, but as Starr
has observed, this is 'extremely hypothetical.
Once introduced, the crescent nevertheless remains
a feature of the design well into the third century
underlining the importance, in particular, of the Athenian
tetradrachm was its sturdy shape. The dies used to strike the plump
flans created a convex obverse prone to wear in use, but a reverse
with the owl in high relief, protected within a deep concave frame.
Curiously, as usually occurs on these coins, the bust of Athena on
the coin illustrated is so large that the crest of her helmet is
lost off the edge of the flan.
The weight of the coin
illustrated, at 17.18g, corresponds with the Euboeic/Attic standard
of 17.20g for a tetradrachm and 4.30g for a drachm.
 N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to
322 BC, 3rd edition (Oxford,
 The Oxford Classical
Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth,
3rd edition revised
(Oxford, 2003), p.202.
 Iliad, 5.
 John Pollard, Birds in Greek
Life and Myth(Plymouth, 1977), p.144; Oxford Classical Dictionary,
 At Claydon House in
Buckinghamshire, there is a silver owl given to her by the
7th Duke of Devonshire in memory of her pet.
 Pollard, Birds in Greek
Life, pp. 39, 143.
 Oxford Classical
 Barclay V. Head, Historia
Numorum (Oxford, 1911), p.370.
 Chester G. Starr,Athenian
Coinage, 480 - 449 BC(Oxford, 1970), p.19.
 Ibid., p.11.
 C. M. Kraay and Max Hirmer,
Greek Coins (New York), p.17.