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Numismatics: Athens during the Hellenistic period

It’s time again for another post in our series on numismatics. This coin won the numismatic face-off we did on our Instagram account last week, so let us have a closer look at this coin from Hellenistic Athens.

Athenian Coins

Coins from Athens are among the most easily recognizable of the coins that were made by the ancient Greeks. The Athenian owl is even so iconic that you can still see it on Greek version of the Euro. This design which had the head of Athena on the obverse and the funny-looking owl with an olive branch and the letters Α Θ Ε (short for ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΝ -“of the Athenians) on the reverse. The choice of the owl and olive branch was not a surprising one they are attributes that have been linked to the goddess Athena. There were around 15 different denominations of these coins: the biggest was a dekadrachm (worth 10 drachms) and the smallest a hemitetartemorion (worth 1/8 of an obol). The coins were used throughout the Mediterranean world, indicating the prominence of Athens among the Greeks. 

New Athenian Style

The Athenians stuck with this design for a very long time: the first coins were minted around 500 BC until well into the Hellenistic period.  However, at this time the position of Athens was not the same as it had once been and the production of new coins was very low. By 162,  the Romans had begun to focus their attention on the Greek East and Athens produced these new coins as a semi-autonomous city under Roman influence or even rule. From 229 BC onward Athens had enjoyed a good relationship with Rome and when Athens started to mint coins in their own name once more, they opted for a new design: a more stylized version of the famous owl coins. This design was used until 42 BC.

The obverse still shows the head of Athena Parthenos, but now she is wearing a helmet with three crests, indicating that she was the goddess of war AND wisdom. A mythological creature can be found on the side of the helmet: maybe Pegasus or a griffin. She is wearing an earring on her ear. 

The reverse shows once again the owl, although a little more realistic, standing on an amphora surrounded by an olive wreath. Inscriptions recording the date of issue and the city magistrate that produced the coins were also added.

What do you think of this coin? Let us know in the comments below. Don’t forget to check out our other coins of the week or an earlier post on the basics of numismatics.

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