In the 5th century BC, Athens was ushering in a glorious, golden age. It was a burgeoning epicentre of political, economic, and cultural influence — including the birthplace of democracy and Plato and the building of the Parthenon — unlike anything the world had seen before.
Amid this explosion of ideas, discovery, and creation, Athens produced something else that left a significant mark on the world. It began minting what became the first mass-circulated coin, the Athenian Owl Tetradrachm. Today it’s one of the most iconic and popular ancient coins in classical antiquity.
An owl and a goddess
It’s an immediately striking four-sided silver coin, with two prominent symbols of wisdom stamped in heavy, high-relief on either side. On the obverse is the right profile of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, and the patron god of Athens. Depicted with a large, almond-shaped eye — the typical style of this coin type — Athena also wears a crested Attic helmet with three olive leaves and a floral scroll, symbols of Greek influence.
[Read our blog: 10 Most Valuable Coins in the World]
On the reverse side is a Little Owl, an emblem of Athens and the symbolic animal of Athena. The owl embodies the goddess’ wisdom, representing the value of learning and knowledge. The bird is also a mark of Athenian prosperity and pride; at that time Athens was the most important city in Greece.
The front-facing owl is depicted with the same large round eyes as Athena. Its three tail feathers and wing are especially detailed. To the left is a two-leafed olive sprig and in the bottom right is the inscription ΑΘΕ, an abbreviation of ATHENAION, meaning “of the Athenians.”
A wise move
Creating the coin was a smart move on the Athenians part — and this goes beyond the symbols of wisdom physically stamped into the silver. First, the coin represented a high value. Drachmas, one of the world’s earliest coins, were already in circulation. The tetradrachm was worth four drachmas. One tetradrachm paid the week’s wages of a skilled labourer or soldier.
The owl coin was also minted from pure silver, which happened to be one of Athens’ most important exports at the time. So as the tetradrachm eventually became the international trade currency of choice, it was also a way to export Athenian silver — a clever economic play. Wisdom was part of the medium and the message.
And Athens definitely got the message out. The Athenian Owl Coin became the first widely-used international coin in the ancient past. People were excited by the explosion of new western civilization and the prosperity of Athens — the coin itself came to represent those riches. The widespread exchange of the owl coins helped to spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean.
Standing the test of time
The coin’s artist and maker remains unknown. Starting from the late 400s BC, it was minted in some form for the next 450 years. During that time the design went largely unchanged, with both wide-eyed embodiments of wisdom stamped prominently on each side: Athena facing the future with knowledge and heroism, and her symbolic animal facing forward, encircled by marks of Greek wealth and success.
[Read our blog: What Makes a Good Coin Investment]
The Athenian Owl Tetradrachm is well-known to collectors, and has been popular for centuries. It’s believed that the U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt carried an Athenian Owl Tetradrachm as a lucky charm, one that influenced him to redesign American coins.
What to look for
- Quality of strike, signs of wear (e.g. less definition of owl’s feathers) and centering
- Test cuts (chisel marks used to confirm the quality of silver) can diminish the coin’s value
- Well-executed fakes — there are many
- A “full crest” that shows the complete plume of horsehair on Athena’s helmet can add 50% or more in value
Start your own collection of ancient coins
If you’re interested in starting your own coin collection, we can help. Century Stamp & Coin has a huge collection of coins and a knowledgeable and experienced team to support you with building your own coin collection. Get in touch today to find out more.