Athenian Owls, Corinthian Staters: the First Trade Coins


Athenian Owls, Corinthian Staters:
the First Trade Coins

by Mark Benvenuto

A person getting off a plane today can be pretty well assured that in large parts of the world, a United States twenty dollar bill can be exchanged for local currency, or even used for money right on the spot. U.S. currency is not designed to be a trade currency, yet the confidence people have in it is such that probably hundreds of millions of dollars circulate outside the U.S. borders. If we could dial the clock back a century or so, a traveler would be getting off a boat, as opposed to a plane, but could probably use British gold sovereigns in the same way. The British Empire was at its height as the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, and worldwide there was high faith and confidence in the coinage of Great Britain.

Before the rise of the British sovereign, we could make another, similar claim that our traveler, debarking from some ship into a port somewhere on the shores of the Indian Ocean could probably use a Maria Theresa thaler with confidence. Always dated 1780, and produced long after that date, people had (and still have) faith in the value of the coin. Many collectors who have an interest in modern bullion coins make the claim that the MTT, as it is sometimes known, was the first trade coin – especially when compared to those of the nineteenth century. We’ll beg to differ, as we go back much farther in time, back to a point very close to the origin of coinage.

We mentioned that when it came to coins accepted throughout large parts of the world, to use them a person would most likely be getting off a ship. Sailors are a pretty brave bunch today. How much more so they must have been in ancient times, when weather was something you could measure no farther than your own gaze, when the depth of seas could only be guessed, and when getting your cargo in later than the next guy, the competition, could mean that all your hard work and looked-for profit was gone and for naught. Yet men have gone to the sea for millennia, made their livings as fishermen or traders, and in all that time traded and shipped goods from one place to another, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Also in ancient times, what we consider coinage appears to have developed independently in two places: Central China and modern-day Turkey. In China it appears that actual objects of some use and value, such as hoes or knives, eventually became smaller representation of that thing, and the smaller item was carried, used, and traded. In Turkey, it appears that electrum lumps found in rivers (a natural mixture of silver and gold) were stamped with an official image, and then accepted as a medium of exchange. From this practice would come the coins of the rising Greek city-states.

Rise of Athens

Many towns and cities rise because they are located close to a water source. Athens is not quite located right on the sea, but it is close enough that its rise would correspond to the ease with which it could trade with its neighbors. But it also is located where it is because of silver. Athens is close to a silver source that was mined for generations.

contemporary imitation of Athens "Owl" coinage
Figure 1 — Athenian-style owl
an ancient Arab imitation from an area where Athen's owls circulated freely

What is often called the Athenian owl because of its design is sometimes also called an Athenian stater, although it is more properly a di-drachm (fig 1). The weight for these coins is generally 8.6 grams, although over the course of millennia it is not uncommon to find underweight specimens, simply because someone, at some time in the past, shaved off a bit of the coin so they might steal a bit of silver. The design is fairly simple, with the helmeted head of Athena on the obverse, and an owl on the reverse. Perhaps obviously, Athena was the patroness goddess of the city. The names of the goddess and city are not just a coincidence. As well, the owl was an animal sacred to her. The precise reasons why Athena and the owl were related might be lost to history, but one legend that remains is that since Athena was the goddess of wisdom, her animal was rightfully one that could see much better than others. The owl’s keen night vision became an analogy for Athena being able to observe what others were unable to.

As far as legends go, there is not much on the Athenian owl. On well-centered pieces that have not been shaved down over time, the Greek letters ΑΘΕ can often be seen. In western lettering, this is “Athe,” short for the name of the city. But this brevity of writing speaks to two major points of the ancient world and the Greek city-states. First, not many people in the society could read. They didn’t really need to, at least not to do their job. The second is that this coin and these images were so well known that they didn’t need any explanation. Whether it was in Athens and its environs, or anywhere that ships from Athens put in, these coins were well known and well accepted.

The Athenian owl was used for such a long period of time that we might say the design was upgraded. The earliest owls have a rather primitive or utilitarian image of the goddess. Those made decades after the first issues sport a much more detailed, artistic version, a very noble looking Athena. A bit like the British sovereigns we have mentioned, all of which were equally acceptable no matter which monarch graced the obverse, both versions of an Athenian owl were accepted, whether it was the older or the newer design.

Rise of Corinth

Corinthian stater
Figure 2 — Corinthian stater

Unlike Athens, ancient Corinth is on the sea, and is almost perfectly positioned to be a trade city within greater Greece. It sits between ancient Athens and the equally famous Sparta, on the thin isthmus which connects the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece. Not being all that far from Athens, and being well located as a trading city, it isn’t much of a surprise that Corinth too produced a silver coin that became known far beyond its own borders.

The Corinthian stater (fig 2) is perhaps as simple in design as the Athenian owl. What is called the ‘heads’ side of the coin is actually the tail, as it were. A winged Pegasus dominates the heads side of the Corinthian stater, while a helmeted image of Athena graces the reverse. The citizens of Corinth recognized the Pegasus, as it was associated with and sacred to the god Poseidon, an important deity for those living so close to the sea.

Much like the owl, the Corinthian stater weighed in at close to 8.6 grams, and had minimal lettering on it. The single Greek letter “qoph” is often seen below Pegasus’ belly. It is an ancient version of “kappa,” the first letter of the name Corinth in Greek. Once again, it didn’t really matter that the entire name was not spelled out on the coins. It was the images that people knew, and that inspired confidence in the coins.

Curiously, Corinthian staters were so well accepted and so popular that they were sometimes not even minted in Corinth! Since the city-state had colonies of its own, cities like Ambracia and Anactorium, among others, produced staters that looked just like the originals. These were not counterfeits, fakes, or copies. Rather, they were an extension of the commercial power of the mother city-state of Corinth. Groping for a modern analogy, we might claim that these were the branch mints of Corinth.

Collecting Today

Both Athenian owls and Corinthian staters are available to collectors today, and even though the third party grading services have made attempts to standardize and slab such coins, this remains an area of numismatics in which the buyer and the seller basically have to agree on the condition of the coin, and thus the price. The absolute best versions of each coin, with well-executed designs, high detail, no wear, and no shaving of silver from the edge, will usually cost in the low thousands of dollars. Those with some wear and tear may cost far less. Both are available to the patient collector.

Great Britain and France each produced what can be called a big, silver trade dollar back in the nineteenth century. The United States was also in that fray, as it were, with our own trade dollar, issued for circulation from 1873 – 1878. All three of these were attempts to match the popularity of the Spanish colonial 8 reales in the port cities of the Empire of China. Likewise, the Maria Theresa thaler was a big, silver piece that claims to be one of the oldest trade coins out there, being accepted far from Austria. But going back much, much farther in time, we have seen that at least two Greek city-states produced a standard coin – a stater or di-drachm – that circulated far from their own lands, and that were accepted widely by sailors, merchants, traders, and most likely the everyday folks of their time.