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Ask any group of coin enthusiasts what their favorite ancient coin to collect is, most will eagerly tell you that it is the Silver Owl Tetradrachm of Athens. This coin was well-known during Ancient times and still stands as a relic of Ancient Greece. For the collector who would like to add one to their own collection, ModernCoinMart offers many fine examples just for you!
First struck sometime between 525 and 510 B.C. with silver from the nearby mines of Laurium, the Silver Tetradrachms of Athens bore extraordinary significance across the history of Ancient Greece. They were heavily circulated all across Greece, and examples have been discovered as far away as the deserts of Arabia and even the jungles of India.
According to the Ancient Greek historian, Philochorus, this Athenian Tetradrachm was known to the Greeks as a glaux, or “little owl.” This was because the reverse design depicted a species of owl common to the region, the “little owl” or Athene noctua. This owl was a symbol of the city’s patron goddess, Athena, who is depicted on the obverse.
Because these coins were so visually distinct with standard weights and high silver content, they soon began circulating across much of the known world. When the very first coins were offered as payment, however, they garnered mistrust. Deep test cuts or banker’s marks were a widely practiced method for testing coins. The cut would displace the metal and allow the solid silver core of the coin to be seen, but the cut did not actually remove any of the silver content. It can sometimes be difficult to find examples of the coins from this time without test cuts.
Although the designs of the Athens Tetradrachm remained unchanged over the centuries, the coins experienced many significant changes in other ways. Stylistically, these Owl Tetradrachms can be divided into three major periods. Each era brought change to the thickness and diameter of the planchet and the style of the design.
The first era is characterized by thick, dumpy planchets that were crudely struck. These visually stunning coins belong to the Archaic period of Greek art. Minted from approximately 525/510 through the mid fifth century B.C., these coins circulated in great numbers to finance the rising society in Athens. Both Athena and the owl are unusually beautiful in their primitively rendered style and complex proportions.
The Classical period of Greek art centered on the conscious attempt to render animals and humans more realistically. During the period of approximately 465 – 404 B.C., the Tetradrachm design was re-imagined with a more lifelike Athena and owl. Always a favorite with collectors, these coins are thick, heavy, and have deeply struck images. Most collectors, including myself, agree that this era represents the classic and most popular Athenian Owl design.
The last era of the Owl coinage was also the longest era, dating from approximately 404 B.C. to about the middle of the first century B.C., when production ceased. This era included several transitional style coins, but ultimately was a migration away from the classical style to the Hellenistic period of Greek art. The designs became fully lifelike, but the size and thickness of the planchet was modified. Coins issued later in this Period were a type of Ancient Coins known as “stephanophorus,” or “wreath bearers” due to a wreath surrounding the owl design on the reverse.
Greek coinage, and specifically the little owl, have inspired coin designs for over 2,500 years. One of the most famous examples is the story of how President Theodore Roosevelt carried an Athens Owl Tetradrachm as a pocket piece. His love for the detailed, high relief ancient Greek coin helped him to prevail upon sculptor and fellow Greek coin enthusiast August Saint-Gaudens to design the strikingly beautiful 1907 High Relief Gold Double Eagle. ModernCoinMart currently carries a Commemorative Proof struck with Saint-Gaudens' original high relief Winged Liberty design.
The Athens Tetradrachm can also be looked to today as one of the first coins to solidify the “heads and tails” designs that is now so familiar. Its design has even been replicated by the Modern Greek 1 Euro coin. While not high relief or silver, it does closely emulate the reverse design of the beloved little owl Tetradrachm of Ancient Athens.
ModernCoinMart (MCM) has several amazing examples of these popular ancient Greek coins available for your purchase. This includes their new Athena Collection, which contains over 100 Athenian Owls issued from c.393-294 B.C., when Athens began its recovery to a revitalized, powerful City-State after its humiliating defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. This is an important time in the history of ancient Greece, and these Silver Tetradrachm are a fine reflection.
Whether you prefer the history of an Owl from the Archaic Period, the grandeur of an Owl from the Classic Period, or the art from the Hellenistic Period, MCM has the Athenian Owls you want. Inventory on such a popular coin is always coming and going on MCM’s website, so make sure to check in from time to time. When you find the coin you want, don’t hesitate to add such a piece representative of Ancient Greek history and art to your collection. You won’t regret it!