Among the most impressive ancient Greek coins are silver tetradrachms struck by independent cities in the second century B.C., many of which feature reverse designs enclosed within a wreath.
They were familiar enough in their day to earn the nickname stephanophorus (or stephenophorus), meaning “wreath bearer.”
It is thought that sometime in the 180s or 160s B.C. Athens introduced its “new style” tetradrachms, on which an enclosing laurel wreath became an integral part of the reverse design. Prior to this, very few ancient coin designs were presented within a wreath. Notable exceptions include issues from Gela in Sicily, Rhegium in southern Italy, and Sicyon and Olympia in the Greek Peloponnese.
In many aspects of life — especially art, politics and economics — Athens was a trend-setter in the Greek world. Not surprisingly, its stephanophorus coinage was seen as a model by other coin issuers, especially the Greek cities along or near the Aegean shore of Asia Minor, being the western shore of modern Turkey.
The “new style” coinage of Athens was copied in other regards, also, for these coins had a radically different appearance than earlier Greek coins. Instead of thick, compact planchets, the new issues were struck on planchets that were comparatively broad and thin.
This idea of a broad, thin planchet was widely adopted by coin issuers throughout the Greek world. This new feature gave the impression of the coins being more substantial than their predecessors, even though their weight was the same or sometimes lower. One consequence of this evolution was that the dies of Athens’ stephanophoroi were cut in much lower relief than had been the case with the city’s earlier coinage.
The “new style” of Athenian coins showed on their obverse the helmeted head of Athena and on their reverse a standing owl. Though this basic design formula had been used at Athens for the previous 350 years (or more), the difference in style and appearance is astonishing.
Athena’s helmet now has three crests rather than one, and the bowl of her helmet often is highly decorated with a floral pattern, a bounding Pegasus, and the four horses of a chariot. On the reverse, Athena’s owl now perches on an overturned amphora (a two-handled transport jug).
Also, the fields around the owl are crowded with inscriptions and symbols. These names, letters, monograms and symbols identify Athens as the issuer, record the names of magistrates, and bear control features that often allow the date of a coin to be narrowed down to the month. Even though the owl and its accompanying elements present an incredibly busy design, all are still enclosed within a laurel wreath.
Large issues of stephanophoroi were also struck in the second century B.C. at Greek cities in Asia Minor, notably at Cyme, Myrina, Smyrna, Heraclea, and Lebedus. Though stephanophoroi were struck at other civic mints in Greece or Asia Minor, they are unusual and were struck only in small quantities.