Ancient Greek Coins Are Works Of Art

In the late 7th century BC the first coins were produced in the eastern mediterranean. By the early 5th century Greek minting city-states were commonplace. This rapid spread is a clear testament to the newly found usefulness of coinage (money) and that fact alone is enough to justify interest in their study.

But these coins were so much more than an economic convenience. These early coins were produced with a care and artistic craftsmanship on par with all the great artistic productions of the ancient Greek world – these coins are indeed pieces of art. And, in my opinion, the 5th and 4th century coins are the most beautiful coins ever produced.

To create these coins, the artists, called engravers, had to carve their subject matter into metal dies.  The dies were then used to strike a heated metal flan, thereby stamping the coin. Eventually the dies would break from repeated use and needed to be engraved again. This explains why so much variation is found in the finer details of these ancient coins, even when the overall subject matter of the coins remained consistent over time.

As an example, these authentic silver Athenian Owls were both minted contemporarily in Athens sometime during the last half of the 5th century BC. A detailed comparison reveals many subtle differences between the two versions (ignoring that somebody, presumably much later, scratched out the identifying letters alpha-theta-epsilon on the upper reverse). They are both beautiful and display an advanced level of craftsmanship and yet one Athena is slightly more beautiful than the other.

The Athenian Owl

It is generally agreed that the first minted coins came from Lydia in the late 7th century BC (Lydia is located now in western Turkey). Coinage spread quickly and by the 5th century most major Greek city-states were minting their own coins. Of the many beautiful coins minted in the ancient world, one coin stands above the others, and that is the Athenian Owl.

This Owl, a silver tetradrachm (four drachma) of standard weight (16.7 grams), was minted in Athens sometime in the latter half of the 5th century BC.  The obverse displays the patron of the city, Athena in her helmet. The reverse depicts an owl, a symbol of Athena’s knowledge and wisdom. As was typical, a tip of an olive branch and a half moon reside to the left of the head of the owl.  To the right are the letters alpha-theta-epsilon, “Athe”, an abbreviation for “of the Athenians’.

The owl was first minted in the 6th century BC and continued for centuries afterwards.  Due to the profound influence of Athens it was probably the first “internationally” recognized form of money.

Not surprisingly really, as soon as money was invented, in the form of minted coins that conformed to standard weights published by the minting cities, the debasement of currency was quick to follow. Thus, at some point on its ~2400 year journey to my collection this particular coin was tested for its silver purity as is evidenced by the deep cuts into its reverse side (it passed).

Perspective On A Cycle


This picture was taken at sunrise 7 days before the 2015 winter solstice which occurred on 12/22/15. We are looking southeast towards the Oakland hills from above Eureka Valley in San Francisco. The lone, tall redwood tree marks the approximate location of the terminus of the sun’s journey south on the horizon, after which, the sunrise will move northwards again until it reaches its summer terminus in six months to come. That point will occur quite a bit to the left of the frame of this photo!