AR Attica, Athens Tetradrachm 449-413 B.C.(17.0g)
O: Hd of Athena r.; Sear 2526; SNG Copenhagen 31
R: Owl stg.r.; AOE to r.; incuse
G: large flan, wonderful style, near Mint State
S: Harlan J. Berk. Ltd. 7/14/95 (from H. at store)
The basic themes of the Athenian tetradrachm remained unchanged for nearly 500 years. Athena, patron goddess of Athens, appeared on the obverse and her familiar bird on the reverse, inspiring the coin's popular name “owl.” The owls played an essential role in Athens' rise to greatness. These coins paid for the construction of the city's “wooden walls”—the fleet that repelled the Persian invasion of 480-479 and then projected Athenian power throughout the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Later in the fifth century Athenian owls financed the cultural flowering under Pericles: the building of the Parthenon with its magnificent sculptures; the regular celebration of the festival of Dionysus with its new crop of tragedies and comedies; and the gathering of philosophers, rhetoricians, and artists of every type. Few cities have contributed so much to human civilization in so short a time. During the fifth and fourth centuries, the Athenian owl also served as an international trade currency, favored particularly in the Levantine parts of the Persian empire. Such was the popularity of the owl that it was imitated in Egypt, Philistia, Syria, and even Babylonia. This international role and eastern orientation forced an extreme stylistic conservatism on the owl despite the heady evolution of Athenian art. After 479 Athena's helmet was adorned with olive leaves to commemorate the repulse of the Persian invasion, and a crescent moon was added to the reverse. Further changes to the tetradrachm were all but imperceptible until the fourth century, when Athena's face was updated. On all owls of the period ca. 475-415 BC, Athena retains a frontal, almond-shaped eye and her lips are drawn back into a tight “archaic smile.” The owls catalogued as Types I-V by Chester Starr in Athenian Coinage (Oxford, 1970) were issued over the 20 or so years before the great “mass coinage” that Starr believed commenced in 449 BC. More recent research has pushed Starr's chronology back by about five years, putting the start of the mass coinage at ca. 454 BC. Within the period under consideration, earlier issues are distinguished by a slight wave to the lines of hair drawn across Athena's forehead, a smaller palmette on the helmet bowl, and a lifelike owl whose tail is shown with three distinct feathers. Owls belonging to the mass coinage display a more rigid hairstyle and a larger palmette that curves down over Athena's ear. The mass issues also show a more stylized owl with a heavier body, a prong-like tail, and large, staring eyes.