The Wise Owl of Athens

No ancient Greek city state can capture the modern imagination quite like Athens. Though the whole of the ancient Greek world is known as "the cradle of Western Civilization," it is Athens that has come to symbolize the fullest fruition of reason and democracy in the ancient world. The legacy of the Athenian Polis lives on, in both tangible artifacts like coins, and the intangible heritage of critical reasoning and the questioning of assumptions.

Athens was not always the center of the known world. Archaic Athens, characterized by tacit laws and blood oaths, was little more than an outpost on a rocky hilltop before the 7th century B.C.E. when the citizenry of Athens requested that Draco give a written code of laws to be enforced by a court. Though appointed on popular demand, the citizenry was shocked by the harshness of the laws that Draco had implemented, with the death penalty being common; his name inspired the word draconian. After Draco, a man named Solon came to be chief magistrate of Athens, and his liberalizing reforms gave him an honored status as a reformer and the most famous of Athenian legislators. His legacy is preserved today by a sculpture on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. While Solon spearheaded economic reform, it is likely that Athens had no coinage of their own until well after Solon’s reforms. Among the earliest of Athenian coinage was the "Wappenmuzen" Tetradrachm struck starting circa 545 B.C.E. This design features a striking gorgoneion on the obverse.

The new system of governance in Athens, though called democracy, was really a precarious balance between democracy and oligarchy. At best, probably only a quarter of Athens’ populace was given political agency, with slaves, women, and foreign-born persons being excluded from governance. Still, this system of government allowed men of non-aristocratic birth to rise to great prominence. Chief among them was Themistocles, a talented politician and soldier. Themistocles played a leading role in repelling the threat of Persian invasion, as the decisive victory at Marathon by Athens over the Achaemenid Empire elevated Athens to the position of one of the most prominent states. Themistocles demanded a naval buildup, which was crucial to the repulsion of a second Persian invasion 10 years after Marathon at the naval battle of Salamis. The wealth that Athens needed to build such a strong navy arose from silver mining at Laurion, the foundation of Athenian economic strength and the progenitor of most silver used in Athenian coinage. It was during this period that Athens started issuing a newer Tetradrachm. This style of Tetradrachm featured the head of Athena on the obverse, and an owl with an olive sprig and crescent on the reverse; all iconography that was symbolic of Athens and the goddess Athena, namesake of the city.

After the elimination of the Persian threat, Athens voted to ostracize Themistocles from the city, a practice by which any citizen could be expelled from Athens for 10 years, no matter how distinguished. A generation of relative peace and prosperity passed, as evidenced by a slightly new style Tetradrachm being issued, with the example pictured being one of many offered in our January 2022 NYINC sale. By the 430s B.C.E., Athens was faced with resentment and challenge of their naval empire, and the threat from Sparta led the Athenians to provoke a war with the Spartans, counting on walls to defend the city and their navy to strangle their Peloponnesian rivals. From the start, the fighting was intense and was not resolved as quickly as expected. The myth of Athenian naval superiority was destroyed after a disastrous expedition to Sicily that ended in comprehensive defeat. The shock led to an overthrow of the Athenian Democracy and the breaking of many laws that were sacred to Athens. The final defeat of Athens came in 404 B.C.E. It was such a shock to Athens that it led to massive collapse, and the style of Tetradrachm that symbolized prosperity ceased production in that year.

It was against this background that a man named Socrates dared to question the decisions made by the mob, the oligarchy, and most shockingly: the gods of the Athenians. His open questioning of authority and assumptions proved too much for the stunned Athenians, and ostracism was not enough punishment. Socrates was tried and convicted of corruption of the youth and questioning the gods. The sentence was death by hemlock. Accounts of his death by Plato and Xenophon portray Socrates as coolly approaching his death. There is evidence that the Athenians regretted killing Socrates, as monuments and epitaphs on shards of pottery were found in the jail where Socrates was kept. Athens would never again rule the Greek world, but its impact was far from finished. Socrates’ students and his students’ students would shape the course of human history far beyond the borders of Athens. Plato postulated that all things had a form independent of time and space, an idea that remains unshakable in much of mathematics. Aristotle was the first person to offer observational arguments that the earth was round. The principals of formal logic that he wrote down remain essential to all reasoning today, and later expansion on the foundations of logic make it possible for you to read this text on a computer that would not function without logic gates. The new Athens created a new Tetradrachm, similar, but subtly different to the older style, much like Athens itself. Many examples are offered in our January sale.

Athens became and remained the intellectual center of the world for centuries and spawned many imitators. Rome, Thebes, Egypt, and even Sparta all took note and advice from Athens. Even the famed owl Tetradrachm was counterfeited, as shown in the ancient Fourree pictured. After time under Macedonian rule, Athens became a free city in the Roman Empire as it was admired for its schools and culture. During this period of Roman conquest Athens issued its final Tetradrachm), struck on a broad flan, but still featuring Athena and an owl. In addition to the coins pictured here, a large collection of Athenian and many more ancient coinages will be offered at the New York International Numismatic Convention by Stack’s Bowers Galleries. The entire sale will be available for viewing and bidding at

To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions for our Spring 2022 Hong Kong auction. Additionally, we are accepting submissions for our Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auctions, the next of which will be in February. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors or [email protected] today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.

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