The front side of the Athenian decadrachm, featuring the Greek goddess of war and wisdom Athena clad in the helmet of a Greek warrior.

The Athenian decadrachm was minted sometime after 467 BCE in Athens, Greece. The coin was made of silver, which was an abundant and precious metal in Athens. One side of the coin features the profile of the Greek goddess Athena, and the other side features her symbolic companion the owl.The issuance of this coin followed the Greek victories in the Persian Wars . The last Athenian decadrachms were minted during the rule of Pericles around 430 BCE. 

Technical Evaluation Edit

Ancient Greek coins were made by  heating metal and forging prints onto the metal with anvil dies. A hammer was used on the dies to imprint the desired design [See Vermeule 1957, 100-101]. Ancient coins were often made of alloys inlcuding silver and gold. Greek coins containing alloys suggest that the Greeks were receiving metals through trade in Asia Minor. Gold was a far more precious metal than silver, but silver was far more abundant, and the Greeks would tend to mint most of their coins with the native silver.This particular coin was made of silver probably from the rich silver mines in Laurion, Greece. Coins were being created across Asia Minor and in East Asia at the time of the Athenian decadrachm's production. Decadrachms such as this one were traded into Lycia, the Levant, Egypt, and Persia. This particular coin was found in Lycia, Turkey in 1984 in a discovery called the Elmali Hoard , where several Athenian decadrachms were uncovered. This coin was purchased by Berlin State Museums , where it resides today. 

Local Historical ContextEdit

The Athenian economy was in dire need of reformation by the time Solon came to rule in 594 BCE. Poor soil and an increasing population led to an agricultural crisis in which Athens was unable to feed its people. Since the majority of Athenians were poor sharecroppers or serfs, they were hoping to welcome a leader who would redistribute land and ease the sufferings of the poor. The tyrant Solon strove to adhere to their wishes by freeing those who had been enslaved for debt and revising Athenian weights and measures to encourage trade and ameliorate the agricultural crisis [ See Pomeroy et al. 1950, 116]. Around the time of Solon’s rule, the first Athenian coins, Wappenmünzen, were minted to encourage interpersonal and international commerce [See Engen 2005, 361]. 

Following Solon’s reign, Pisistratus led a military coup and seized the Acropolis in 561 BCE. Pisistratus was the first ruler of Athens to mint silver owl coins. The coins would typically feature Athena’s profile on one side and an owl with the Greek letters AΘE to show that the coin was from Athens. The vast majority of these coins were tetradrachms , with decadrachms being minted later likely to commemorate military victories against the Persians.

The Persian Empire grew profoundly under the command of rulers such as Cyrus and later Darius I . The Persians would gain control over areas in Greece, notably Ionia. The Ionian Greeks grew discontent with their treatment under the rule of the Persians. Taxes had increased and Persian tyrants were considered intolerable. The Ionians revolted against the Persians, and their rebellion would ignite the Persian Wars [See Pomeroy et al. 2004, 127-129]. 

Current Persian ruler, Darius I, was angered by the rebellion and decided to invade Greece in 490 BCE. The Persian and Athenian troops would meet in the Battle of Marathon . The Greek hoplite army defeated the larger Persian army. Son and successor to Darius I, Xerxes , would decide to invade Greece in order to avenge his father’s defeat. The Greeks would defeat the Persians twice more in the Battle of Thermopylae  in 480 BCE and in the Battle of Salamis in 479 BCE.

The Greeks were overjoyed and prideful because of their victories, with the Greek dramatist Aeschylus writing plays and the Greek historian Herodotus writing histories in which Xerxes was denounced as a barbaric lunatic [See Osborne 2000, 174-176]. The Athenian decadrachm was likely minted in response to these victories. The circulation of the decadrachm was limited, with about 40 surviving today. Considering that decadrachms weighed more and were worth more than the more popular tetrarachm, only the wealthy would come into contact with the Athenian decadrachm [See Fischer-Bossert 2008, 32]. The purpose of the coin was for patriotic as well as practical and commercial use, even though the tetradrachms saw more use and reached a much wider circulation. The circulation the decadrachm saw reached as far as the Near East. The last Athenian decadrachms were issued by Pericles around 440 BCE [See Fischer-Bossert 2008, 19]. 

Athena was the patroness and namesake of Athens. In Greek religion, the goddess was considered to have defeated Poseidon to become the namesake of the city by gifting the city with the olive tree as opposed to Poseidon’s gift of the horse. The olive tree was essential for Athens’s economy, and thus Athena’s authority over the city was cemented. On the Athenian decadrachm, Athena is displayed with large lips and eyes characteristic of art in the Archaic Period [See Cray 1965, 43-46]. The owl on the other side is another symbol of Athena, with its wings spread in a style characteristic to the rare decadrachm. The owl is accompanied by Athena’s gift to the city, the olive tree branch, as well as the customary Athenian letters AΘE.

World-Historical Significance Edit

The Athenian decadrachm is comparable to the more abundantly produced Syracusan decadrachm, which was minted around the same time as the Athenian decadrachm. In Syracuse , the decadrachm was also minted for celebratory and practical purposes. The Syracuse minted their decadrachms in response to their defeat of the Carthaginians. Many civilizations in Asia Minor and East Asia were minting coins around 460 BCE, as well. Many of the coins minted in Greeks speaking countries also featured religous symbolism, such as the goddess Nike on the Syracusan decadrachm . The Athenian coin symbolized a time of prosperity for the Greeks, when the decadrachm was used for attaining timber and metals from the Near East. The coin would cease to be minted as the ideologies of the Greeks shifted about the wealthy elite [See Fischer-Bossert 2008, 31].The majority of Athens was composed of poor farmers who would never have need for a decadrachm, so the minting of the coin became obsolete as Pericles feared to be viewed as a tyrannical oligarch who supported the elite when the mass of his people wanted a true democracy. The owl coins would fade away all together by the time of Augustus , when the owl would be replaced with a Roman eagle [See Thompson 1950, 154]. 

Bibliography Edit

Cray, Colin, “The Archaic Owls of Athens: Classification and Chronology,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society (1965): 43-46

Engen, Darel Tai, “"Ancient Greenbacks": Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy,” Historia (2005): 360-363

Fischer-Bossert, Wolfgang, The Athenian Decadrachm. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 2008.

Osborne, Robin and TCW Blanning, Classical Greece: 500-323 BC. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Pomeroy, Sarah B. and Stanley M. Burstein and Walter Donlan and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Thompson, Margaret, “The “Owls” of Athens,” Archaeology (1950): 151-154

Vermuele, Cornelius, “Minting Greek and Roman Coins,” Archaeology (1957): 100-107

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