Athenian Currency

Many of the specialized administrative boards have left material traces of their activities. Most prolific of these were the moneyers, or Overseers of the Mint. Throughout her history Athens was noted for the purity of her coinage (31), which was highly valued all around the Mediterranean.

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31. Athenian silver coins, with Athena and owl, fifth–second centuries B.C.

Because of the representation on the reverse the coins were called “owls,” and Aristophanes thus refers to coins made from silver mined at Laurion in his advice to the Athenians in the Birds:

Little Laureotic owlets shall be always flocking in,
You shall find them all about you, as the dainty brood increases,
Building nests within your purses, hatching little silver pieces.

In the troubled years toward the end of the fifth century the same poet expressed something of what her coinage meant to Athens:

Yea, for there, our sterling pieces, all of pure Athenian mold,
All of perfect die and metal, all the fairest of the fair,
All of workmanship unequaled, proved and valued everywhere.

Religious and financial conservatism caused the Athenians to keep the archaic representations of the owl and Athena long after advances in art and technique outmoded them. The unit of the coinage was the drachma, which represented a day’s wage for a skilled workman in the late fifth century. Half a drachma (three obols) was the juror’s daily pay at the same time. The New Style coinage, introduced in the Hellenistic period, modernized the representations and added the amphora (oil jar) and names of officials.

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32. Plan of the Mint, southeast corner of the Agora, ca. 400 B.C.

Found in the neighborhood of the building now identified as the Mint (32) (southeastern corner of the Agora), a bronze rod and blanks cut from it (33) show one of the early stages in the manufacture of coins. Bronze coins issued by Athens in the Hellenistic period were made in this way.

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33. Bronze rod and coin blanks from the Mint, third–second centuries B.C.

The building identified as the Mint is a large rectangular structure, over 25 meters long on one side and, in addition to the coin blanks, it produced evidence of industrial activity such as furnaces and large water basins. It cannot have been the only mint used by the Athenians as it dates to 400 B.C., far too late for much Athenian coinage, and analysis of the industrial debris indicates that only bronze and no silver was worked in the building.

The Athenians carefully guarded the quality of their coinage against fraud. An inscribed law of 375/4 B.C. describes the procedure to be used to prevent counterfeit money from circulating in the Agora:

“Resolved by the Nomothetai, in the archonship of Hippodamas; Nikophon made the proposal: Attic (Athenian) silver currency is to be accepted when [it is shown to be] silver and bears the official die. Let the public Tester (dokimastes), who sits among the [bankers’] tables, test in accordance with these provisions. . . . If anyone brings forward [foreign silver coinage] which has the same device as the Attic, [if it is good], let the Tester give it back to the one who brought it forward; but if it is [bronze] or lead at the core, or counterfeit, let him cut it [immediately] and let it be sacred to the Mother of the Gods, and let him deposit it with the Boule (Council)” (missing words are restored in square brackets).

Examples of counterfeit coins, slashed and removed from circulation, have actually been recovered in the excavations.

Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).