The Athenian drachma, a long tradition … from antique coin to euro  Share

Greeks love their history and the introduction of the euro coins and notes offered them a perfect occasion to pass on this passion to the rest of Europe. With the owl and the olive branch on the national side of their 1 euro coin they underline their rich past, the historic importance of the Athenian city-state and last but not least the fact that Greece is the cradle of European coinage.

Tetradrachm, obverse and reverse, ca. 450 BC
Tetradrachm, obverse and reverse, ca. 450 BC

We don’t always realize that we carry around an awful lot of European history in our purse. With a bit of luck there is also a Greek 1 euro coin amongst our cash money. Especially this coin has a tradition which dates back to the end of the 6th century BC. The owl and the olive branch that decorate the modern Greek euro were already present on the obverse of the Athenean drachma, it’s subdivisons and multiples. These silver coins were struck for the first time about 500 BC. The Museum of the NBB shows in its showcases in room 4 two marvellous Athenean tetradrachms (equal 4 drachms) of the 5th century BC as well as the Greek 1 euro coin, issued for the first time in 2002.

Let us have a look at the historical context which led to the introduction of the Athenian (tetra)drachma. The oldest coins of the Western world have been struck along the west coast of Asia Minor in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Shortly afterwards coins also appeared on mainland Greece. City-states in central Greece (Aegina, Athens, Corinth), northern Greece (the Macedonian coastal cities like Acanthus, Mende and Potidaea) and the island Siphnos were amongst the first to strike coins.

The earliest Athenian coins were the didrachms struck about 560-550 BC. These coins have a large variety of obverse types and until not so long ago one used to think that all those different effigies were related to the coats of arms of Athenian noble families. Nowadays this theory is contested because there is no absolute certainty whether the Attic city state or the noble families themselves issued these coins. Anyhow, their circulation always remained limited and regional.

About 500 BC a completely new coin made its appearance: the tetradrachm with the head of the goddess Athena on the obverse and the owl on the reverse. In subsequent centuries this coin gradually developed into an ‘international’ means of payment in the whole Mediterranean basin. It was the first time in monetary history that a coin enjoyed such a large area of distribution and hence also this aura of ‘internationally accepted’ coin.

The series of Athenian coins comprised no less than 15, and indeed later 16, different denominations. The largest coin was the decadrachm (or 10 drachms); the smallest was the hemitetartemorion, worth 1/8 obol; a drachma was divided into six obols. The tetradrachm was the most important denomination.

The widespread usage is the tangible proof of the commercial and political preeminence of the Athenian city-state. The success of the (tetra)drachma however, also refers to the aesthetic sense and ability of the Greeks and to the already well-established money economy in their daily lives.

Greek 1 euro coinLet us have a closer look now at the significance and symbolic meaning of the owl and the olive branch and their relationship with the goddess Athena.

As a nocturnal animal the owl can see things others don’t. Thanks to this quality this bird of prey acquired the reputation of being wise and became a symbol of wisdom. Precisely in this capacity he accompanies the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. The owl is not only represented on coins of Antique Greece or the euro area, the animal can also be found on many other European and non-European coins: amongst others the Greek 10 lepta (1912) and 2 drachma (1973), the Finnish 100 markka (1990), the Polish 500 zloty (1986), the Belarusian 1 rouble (2005), the Mongolian 1000 and 500 tugrik (2005), the 50 dollar coin of the Cook Islands (1993) and the New-Zealand 5 dollar coin (1999).

Another attribute of the goddess Athena, an olive branch, is represented in the top left-hand corner.

According to Greek mythology Athena planted an olive branch on the Acropolis during her contest with Poseidon, the sea god, for the suzerainity of Attica. The olive branch soon obtained a sacred meaning, especially because idols were cut out of its wood. The sacred wood of Olympia was also an olive grove and branches out of this grove were given to the winners of the Games. Laurel wreaths and wreaths woven of olive branches were offered to victors and triumphators on different occasions.

On the antique coins we also recognize the first three letters of the word Athens. On the modern euro coin this inscription on the right-hand side of the owl has been replaced by its facial value: 1 euro. Although the reference to Athens has disappeared in favour of Europe, the link between both coins of historic importance, the 5th century BC tetradrachm and the euro of today, is still strongly present thanks to the owl and the olive branch.

The Athenian (tetra)drachma knows a very long history and today it enjoys a second life as euro coin. It was the first international coin on the European continent and illustrated the wish of open borders and unity. And precisely this idea of a united Europe without internal borders was essential to the coming about of the European (Monetary) Union.

Sarah De Vos
Museum guide


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