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).

Greece 2014 – Day 22 – Athens

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!


Greece 2014 – Day 21 – Heraklion

Making our way back from Matala to Heraklion we stopped to visit the most famous of Minoan palaces, Knossos (~3000 – 1500 BC).  

Controversially excavated and restored in the early 20th century by Sir Arthur Evans the site offers a representation of how the palace, with its multiple stories, might have looked in its heyday.  Using concrete instead of wood, Evans recreated stairs and pillars and linked together the various levels of the ruins in 3D.  One could only imagine such a representation at Pheastos with its mostly 2D remnants.  For me, it works, though I am glad I saw both representations of a Minoan palace, Knossos and Pheastos.

Once settled back in Heraklion, we returned to our favorite restaurant for our final Cretan meal.

Greece 2014 – Day 20 – Matala

Like most of Crete, the valley that resides to the north of Matala is historically rich and ancient.  The earliest detectable inhabitants date to 7000 BC.  We choose to visit these two very different and important archeological sites this day, Gortyn and Pheastos.

Gortyn is as ancient as any city in Crete, but is most famous for the Gortyn law code that was etched into stone in the 6th century BC and remains on display in the later remains of a Roman Odeon.  It is the oldest and most complete example of a code of ancient Greek law.  The code hints of what Minoan society must have been like, one where equality between men and women was greater than probably any civilization since.  Much greater than during the Golden Age of Athens.  Check it out:


Pheastos is a well preserved ancient Minoan palace that provides a glimpse into how these cities were laid out and used (~3000 to 1500 BC).   The Minoan palaces dot the Cretan landscape but there are a handful that are the largest and best understood.  While they all are slightly different, key elements are common to all, like a main courtyard (shown below).  Pheastos is a great example for appreciating these similarities in layout.

Greece 2014 – Day 19 – Matala

Our final resting spot before starting the long journey back home was to be Matala, an infamous town back in the 60’s, known as a hippy hangout full of free love and free rent living in rock caves along the cliffs.  No doubt loads of fun! Of course the hippies were not the first to live like this.  The ancients were well ahead of them.

We spent our first day enjoying the slightly touristy beach town and enjoyed a fab lunch looking over the water.  Same itinerary, different location.

Greece 2014 – Day 18 – Loutro

No agenda really …. Walk, swim, repeat. The water is still warm in October and the sun is not too hot.

A curious phenomenon occurs along the coast of much of southern Crete. Spring water runs through the porous limestone mountains and exits along the waters edge. Often a layer of cold, sweet water forms atop the more dense salt water. You can feel it exit through the beach pebbles with your toes. Contrary to expectations, the water warms as you swim away from the beach where the water is better mixed.

Greece 2014 – Day 16 – Loutro

The Samaria gorge resides within the Cretan White Mountains, a landscape that remains very difficult to traverse, even on foot.  It is within the White Mountains that over the centuries enclaves of Cretans outlasted their intruders and carved out life on their terms.

We were no exception.  To move 25 miles east along the southern coast of Crete we had to drive 100 miles in total to the north coast, then east, then back south, around the White Mountains, until we arrived to our next destination, Loutro.

We were attracted to Loutro for peace, quiet and swimming, facilitated by the fact that you can arrive there only by ferry, boat or foot.  We chose foot, driving as close as we could, and walking the remaining 30 minutes.

This video shows a portion of our final 5 miles or so to our walking point of departure.  I love the freedom of exploring by car and this vignette is playful example of unplanned adventure to be had in unknown lands.

Greece 2014 – Day 15 – Sougia

One firm destination on this trip was the Samaria gorge.  We caught the 7 am bus to the top and began our ~10 mile hike back down to the water at about 9 am.   The hike is beautiful and highly recommended, in spite of the high foot traffic, and took us just over 7 hours.  The gorge just goes on and on.  A dip in the sea followed by calamari and wine was never better received.  The ferry took us back to our starting point.  Mission happily accomplished!