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.
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).
Back again in Athens. It’s our last day of the trip and so we climbed up to the Acropolis to take in the Parthenon once again.
The extensive multi-year restoration looks to be nearing its final stages. Practically the entire structure has been taken apart and put back together to replace failing restoration attempts from the early 20th century. It’s looking great!
As the sun set we headed over the the neighboring Filopappos Hill to catch the last light before retiring early for the flight home. We had a great trip!
Another casual day in Athens strolling about, fighting jet lag. We visited the National Museum, Temple of Zeus, Ancient Stadium, the Parliament gardens, and capped the day off with live Greek music and outdoor dining next to the Roman forum (pictured above). Since we were heading to Santorini next, and later Crete, I especially wanted to visit the Minoan pieces displayed at the National Museum that came from the ruins at Akrotiri, Thera. One favorite piece is pictured below and dates to approximately 1600 BC.
We arrived to our hotel about 2 AM in the morning and actually got some sleep. First up was lunch next to the Agora, gazing up towards the Acropolis. Next we explored the Agora, including its splendid museum pottery, and then hiked up and around the Acropolis to visit the Theater of Dionysus and the Acropolis museum.
Afterwards a casual stroll through the flea market led us eventually to Syntagma Square where a hailed cab took us atop the Lycabettus for sunset photos of sprawling Athens and the bay of Salamis. Walking back down, dinner and drinks followed in the Plaka. Yea, we stayed up all day!
The new Acropolis museum is fabulous and truly first class (pictured above). Constructed to showcase the antiquities found on and around the Acropolis, the designers also cleverly created space for the yet-to-be negotiated return of the Elgin marbles that currently reside in the British museum. Since I was a boy I have always felt the Elgin marbles belonged in Athens. There is really no excuse now – please bring them home!!