What special something makes a certain coin ‘cool’?

There may be no more iconic ancient Greek coinage than the Owls from Athens
By , Coin World
Published : 08/19/16
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Editor's note: this is the first part of a feature by Jeff Starck about famous world coins. The story originally appears in the September monthly issue of Coin World

Some coins are just cooler than others.

Whether it’s their design, the circumstances surrounding their issue, or how they reflect technological changes in minting, some coins just have a special “something.”

Collectors contemplating a move into world coins might use these as starting points, inspiration for their next challenge. 

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These coins might be classified as iconic, important, or interesting in other ways, and though those classifications apply to a broad number of pieces, we’ve narrowed down our list of coins notable for their designs or effect on coinage history to these splendid issues. 

Athens’ famous owl

There may be no more iconic ancient Greek coinage than the Owls from Athens.

Greece is (rightfully) credited with providing a foundation of Western thought and governance, and a rich cultural legacy.

Numismatically, the Athenian Owls are the signature coin of the Greek issue. These were struck from silver from mines owned by the city-state and they financed projects like the reconstruction of the Acropolis and building the Parthenon, as well as many wars, including the Peloponnesian War.

Massive quantities of these small silver coins were produced, most importantly in the tetradrachm denomination (equal to four drachms), which measures about the same size as a Washington quarter dollar.

Sixteen different denominations of Owls from Athens are found, with the largest being the decadrachm (equal to 10 drachms) and the smallest the hemitetartemorion (equal to one-eighth of an obol; six obols compose one drachm). 

The classic design features on its obverse a head of Athena in profile wearing an earring, a necklace and a crested Attic helmet decorated with three olive leaves and a spiral palmette. 

On the reverse is Athena’s owl, sometimes facing front, sometimes with its wings spread, an olive sprig in the corner and the abbreviated legend translating to “[coin] of the Athenians.” 

Because of the nature of man-made striking, not all coins exhibit all these details in totality. 

In Greek mythology, a little owl traditionally represents or accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom. Athena is the namesake of the ancient world’s cultural and economic hub, Athens.

How popular were these “Owls”? 

As a central currency of the ancient world, the design remained essentially unchanged and somewhat archaic long after other cities began to produce coins of a more refined artistic style.

They remain very popular today, especially with coin collectors.

Three major types of Owls exist, beginning with the Early Athenian Owls, issued from circa 510 B.C. to circa 454 B.C.

The tetradrachm replaced the “heraldic” type of didrachms then in use, and Early Style Owls were issued until about 454 B.C.

A mass coinage of Owl coins began around this time, and many of the Owls in coin collections today were minted around this time, ushering in the Classical Style.

The Owl was soon adopted by many other city-states of ancient Greece, Asia Minor and Magna Graecia and Greek colonial cities throughout the Mediterranean Sea. With the armies of Alexander the Great, it spread to the Greek-influenced areas of present-day Iran and India.

The Late or New Style owl, with a more refined artistry, are dated to around 164 B.C. and later. These pieces are slightly larger and wider than earlier Owls, in conformity with other coins of this period. 

Production of the Late or New Style Owls ceased in 42 B.C. when Rome took over, replacing them with the Roman silver denarii.

The Owl lives today, having appeared on 20th and 21st century coins from Greece, currently on the €1 coin issued since 2002.

Keep reading Coin World's series on what makes a world coin cool:

Silver denarius was centerpiece of Rome’s currency for centuries

Britain’s ‘Cartwheel’ coins reflect Industrial Revolution impact

New steam machinery brings Dragon dollar design to China

1910 Caballito silver peso is first commemorative coin of Mexico

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