Why are there so many Athenian tetradrachms?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by iameatingjam, Dec 8, 2021.

  1. iameatingjam

    iameatingjam Well-Known Member

    I know these were a ubiquitous coin, I just mean, where are the other denominations? I swear I've seen 100 tetradrachm for every 1 drachm. And as for bronzes, do they even exist? I can't say I've seen or heard of Athenian bronzes at all. What did the people use for change?

    Its like us only using $500 bills. I understand that typically people buried their more valuable coins, but does that really explain the discrepancy in its entirety? Is there something I am missing in this equation?


    Also, post your owls.
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  3. gsimonel

    gsimonel Supporter! Supporter

    This coin was prized because of its purity. It widely accepted throughout Greece, Asia Minor and the Near East. So it was used mainly to meet government obligations and for international trade. It did not circulate that much among common people, and it was not used for daily marketplace transactions. The situation is similar to the use of the solidus during the late Roman and early Byzantine eras.
  4. mikebell

    mikebell Active Member

    Too many really. I just roll my eyes at most of the auction listings. The fractional pieces are more interesting and circulated locally - but require hunting down, they didn't get hoarded. Bronzes can be found, usually in F or less.

    This is a triobol (or hemidrachm), frequently found worn - this is better than most.
    If you want coins in MS state - fractionals are almost impossible to even get started - it doesn't happen. For the tiniest even VF is a real challenge.
  5. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Cities with ties to Athens used bronze coins with owl iconography. This little one from Sigeion (Latin Sigeium) would have been used in everyday transactions.

    Troas, Sigeion, c. 335 BC.
    Greek Æ 12.2 mm, 2.37 g, 5 h.
    Obv: Head of Athena facing slightly right, wearing triple crested helmet and necklace.
    Rev: ΣΙΓΕ, owl standing right, head facing; crescent to left.
    Refs: BMC 17.86,7-10; SNG von Aulock 7637; SNG Ashmolean 1214–6; SNG Copenhagen 496–8; Sear 4145.
  6. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    I don't have an owl tet. Thought has crossed my mind and even if it is clearly a beautiful type of ancient coin, I don't like them that much to pay the price for one.
    Even a worn one, with an ugly test cut (I am not saying test cuts are ugly, but I mean those that are really ugly). I don't know, perhaps I have seen the design way to often.
    As a personal preference, I like the design of the trihemiobol/hemidrachm presented by @mikebell much more.
    I prefer buying other types of coins with the sum I would pay for a tet.

    Here are my owls.
    A Seleucid bronze probably inspired by the Athenian tets

    SELEUKID KINGS of SYRIA. Cleopatra Thea & Antiochos VIII. (126/5-121/0 BC) AE20 Antioch, Dated SE 190 = 123/2. Mint: Antioch
    Radiate and diademed head of Antiochos VIII right/ Owl standing right on fallen amphora, head facing; IE to inner right; below, PP (date, first P retrograde) and palm.
    SC 2263.2f.
    6,66 g, 20mm

    ... and a tiny hemiobol - too bad it is rough and badly centered, but still one of my favorite small coins, and like any other small coin, in hand it looks better.

    Attica. Athens circa 454-404 BC.
    Hemiobol AR
    6 mm., 0,27 g.
    Obv. Helmeted head of Athena right. Rev. AΘΕ ; Owl right head facing, wings folded, olive-leaf and berry behind, all within an incuse square. Sear SG 2531

    My hands are certainly not gigantic, this is the real size of the coin.
  7. JayAg47

    JayAg47 Well-Known Member

    I've always considered Athenian tetradrachms as the Morgan dollars of ancient coin collecting realm, and the Alexander tetradrachms are the Peace dollars. All of them minted in huge quantities with lots of tiny variants, but due to high demand they are always expensive, even the worn ones.
    attica tet.jpg
    And there are these fractional coins like this hemiobol at 0.22g, issued for local use are scarce and really compliments the tetradrachms used in foreign transactions.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2021
  8. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    1) the Athenians had on their territory silver mines in mount Laurion, just next to Cape Sounio.
    2) they could mint every year huge quantities of tetradrachms called "owls".
    3) they also had a busy port in Piraeus and an important merchant fleet, so they could trade with all Greece and Middle East.
    4) they forced their Greek allies (who could not refuse because of Athenian military supremacy) to abandon their own coinages and use only Athenian currency.
    5) Egypt, who previously minted no coins of her own, adopted Athenian owls c. 400 BC and even started minting them. They were as good as the originals, in excellent silver, and very difficult to distinguish from bona fide Attic owls.

    The Athenian owl was a good pure silver coin, accepted everywhere from Sicily to Arabia, and available in large quantities. In the 4th c. BC it was a hard currency, "the $100 note of Antiquity". Of course many crooks tried to forge fake pieces, so most of the tetradrachms found in the Middle East have test-cuts, and/or countermarks struck by bankers, with Phoenician, Arabian, Cypriot letters, even Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    Many other cities as far as Afghanistan or Yemen imitated Athenian coins with special marks added to claim it was their own coinage.

    Counting a hoard of (mostly) Athenian tetradrachms and local imitative drachms : the first 100 tetradrachms.

    Early and mid-4th century owls...

    Local imitative drachm. I like that one because of the irregular flan: the owl seems to leave the coin. Note that the imitations had the right Attic weight: 4.34 g. They could have been accepted in Athens !
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2021
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  9. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    My only correction would be I think Egypt adopted the owls earlier than 300BC. There was no Egyptian government in 300BC, it was the General Ptolemy. Alexander had conquered Egypt long before 300BC, (founding Alexandria in 332 BC) and introduced Macedonian coins then.
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  10. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    My guess would be closer to 1000:1. Obols are not rare, hemiobols more so but common compared to the other little guys. My 1/4 obol is a real dog. I have not seen a 1/8 (as listed in some books) that I believe was official, Athens mint.

    1/4 obol
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  11. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    oops !!! mistyping ! I meant 400 BC (I edited and corrected the original post), after Athens had been taken by Spartans in 404 and the Laurion mines were closed ! This is probably why the Egyptians started producing their own Attic owls. There was an article by Theodor Buttrey about this : he noticed 4 special styles of die-engraving that are not much seen in Greek hoards but are frequent in Egyptian hoards.
    This is a reverse die that was found in Tell el-Athrib, Egypt :
    coin de Tell el-Athrib, Egypte (Nat. Mus. Athens).jpg

    And an obverse die found underwater at Herakleion (Egypt too)
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2021
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  12. Marsden

    Marsden Active Member

    Thanks. I'm not even an ancient-coin collector (yet) but I keep coming back to this subforum because the regulars here are so very knowledgeable, helpful—and friendly.

    I do like anything to do with ancient Greece and Rome, though, so who knows. A few more coins wouldn't really take up that much space, right?
  13. Marsden

    Marsden Active Member

    What did the Egyptians do for a medium of exchange back in their heyday? Just pieces of silver and gold which (I presume) were weighed for every transaction? Coinage is certainly better for ensuring purity etc.
  14. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    In fact Egypt had invented coins centuries before anybody else, but had later forgotten this. There is this small silver ingot, 41.55 g, struck with a jug-shaped die with the hieroglyphic inscription "Tutankhamen sovereign of Heliopolis". This Pharaoh is well-known, it's King Tut (1332-1323 BC). This ingot is extremely rare, see Michel Vallogia, « Note sur deux lingots d’argent de Toutankhamon », Revue d’Égyptologie 68 (2017-18) p. 141-152.


    Usually the Egyptian just traded goods for other goods or services, and merchants traded goods for precious metal ('hacksilber'). Let us not forget that the Egyptian regime was something like communism : most of the land was the King's or temples' property, ordinary people were supposed to cultivate a land that was not theirs and keep a share of the crop. Not very good for developing a domestic market...

    In the archaic period (7th-6th c. BC) Greek merchants were not welcomed in all the country but limited to a sort of free port, Naucratis. I suppose this was enough for them to introduce archaic silver coinage of different cities (Athens, Egina, etc.), and Egyptians began to use this Greek silver more and more often. In the 5th c., after the biggest Laurion mine was discovered between 490 and 480, most of the coins arriving in Egypt were Athenian, and the Egyptians got used to it, considering the Attic 'owls' their own currency. And when the flow dried after 404, they started to mint their own 'owls'.

    There were attempts to mint original Egyptian gold coins by the Pharaohs of the 30th Dynasty. Here is an extremely rare gold coin of Pharaoh Tachos or Teos (361-359 BC) : the types are imitated from Athens, even the legend is in Greek (ΤΑΩ). 8.27 g. Such a coin was probably minted to pay Greek mercenaries. Pharaoh Nektanebo (360-342 BC) also issued a gold coinage, with a hieroglyphic legend : nub nefer : "pure gold". 8.33 g. The weight of these Egyptian gold coins corresponds roughly to 2 Attic drachms, they had adopted the Attic system.


    Hey, wait a minute ! Not my coins of course: all this is of the most extreme rarity. The Tachos gold didrachm is from the British Museum.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2021
  15. gsimonel

    gsimonel Supporter! Supporter

    Right. It's really easy to stop collecting ancients after just one or two coins. You won't get addicted. Trust me on this.
  16. Darius590

    Darius590 Active Member

    Askalon Owl, Triton XXII, lot 386 finest known.

    Askalon owl.jpg
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  17. ambr0zie

    ambr0zie Dacian Taraboste

    Totally agree. I never participate in more than 3 auctions per month.
    And since there aren't too many types of ancient coins that are nice, you'll get over them soon.
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  18. GinoLR

    GinoLR Well-Known Member

    This is one of the most fascinating coins I ever know... They have another specimen from the same dies in the Israel Museum at Jerusalem, but not so fresh!

    I also like these completely insane obols and hemiobols attributed to 4th c. BC Samaria. Imagine that : on a 6 mm flan, the reverse represents a pile of 5 Attic 'owls' ! Metacoins, coins representing other coins... In other terms, on a 2 mm flan, the celators engraved the iconic Attic owl in its incuse square.....
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  19. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Supporter! Supporter

    The Athenian Owl was minted in truly staggering numbers. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War it is estimated that Athens had a reserve of something like 9700 Talents of coined silver. This would represent something like 14,550,000 Athenian Owls. However the large number of Owls being offered on the market of late is the result of at least one large hoard of these coins that hit the market some years ago. I believe that there might be a second hoard out there as the initial hoard offered some Starr group IV and V tetradrachms with the bulk of the coins being the Mass coinage Flament I's and II's. However of late I have been seeing a larger number of Flament III's. This initial hoard has been numbered in the 10's of thousands with perhaps as many as 30,000 coins. However there is no accurate record of the hoard nor of its contents. Naturally I bought the vast majority of my owls before the hoard surfaced this being one of them
    Athens Ar tetradrachm circa 454 BC Obv. Helmeted head of Athena right. Rv. Owl standing left head facing Flament Group 1a 17.41 grms 23 mm Photo by W. Hansen athens21.png This coin is a fairly early example of the mass coinage series.
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  20. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    Yep, all completely true. Don't pay attention to the three safe deposit box contents accrued over the last 20 years...
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  21. Andres2

    Andres2 Well-Known Member

    Dont forget to test your owl :):)


    owls still circulate in Greece today:

    P1150980.JPG P1150978 (2).JPG
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