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Copper Owls


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By Michael E. Marotta

(An extended version of this article was published by THE CELATOR, October 2005)


Collectors of so-called "emergency coinage" from Athens should beware. Very few so-called "emergency" coins can be identified to the only known source. Only tetradrachms and drachms are possible as genuine emergency issues, eve though "obols" and other plated coins are sold by dealers as "emergency" coins. Before you buy a so-called "emergency" coin, you should know the history of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars.


Collectors of ancient Greek coins know the silver-plated (“fouree” or “subaerate”) Athenian tetradrachms in classical style. Sometimes these owls are catalogued for sale as examples of the Emergency Coinage of 406 BC. As with many other specific topics in ancient numismatics, the full truth is somewhat more complicated. Irrefutable truths may not exist at all, leaving us only with likelihoods.


The most complete inventory of citations on this problem comes from The Athenian Agora Volume XXVI: the Greek Coins by John H. Kroll with contributions by Alan S. Walker. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 1993. They start with Barclay V. Head’s 1911 edition of Historia Numorum: a Manual of Greek Numismatics. According to Head, the validity of the silver plated owls as the emergency coins finds support in two plays of Aristophanes, The Frogs, and Ecclesiazusae.

In the words of Kroll and Walker:

The solution, first proposed by Barclay Head in 1911 was immeasurably strengthened some years later when Svoronos reported on a hoard discovered in 1902 in the Peiraeus, which contained “thousands” of subaerate tetradrachms and drachms in a single style (notably with the opened inner corner of Athena’s eye) identical to the style of the 407/6 gold.



The Piraeus was about five miles from urban Athens, an hour and a half by foot. Being a port, it was a neighborhood thick with non-Athenian Greeks and other foreigners. Even the Athenian citizens themselves would be called “left wingers” in our terms: poor democrats. These were professional rowers. In times of war, these men could not afford the armor of a foot solder and they hired themselves out to the navy. At the same time, the Piraeus was a second home to wealthy Athenians.

As the Peloponnesian War dragged out, Athens fell into civil war. Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution provides the original narrative. In the words of Aristotle (Kenyon, trans.):

”But so soon as they had got a firmer hold on the city, they spared no class of citizens, but put to death any persons who were eminent for wealth or birth or character. Herein they aimed at removing all whom they had reason to fear, while they also wished to lay hands on their possessions; and in a short time they put to death not less than fifteen hundred persons.


Led by one Theramenes, opposition to the Thirty Tyrants solidified. In response, the Thirty announced a new enrollment of Three Thousand citizens. Anyone not on this list – which changed even while remaining unpublished – could be put to death. Fleeing for their lives, exiles led by Thrasybulus occupied a fort at Phyle. From there, they repulsed the Athenians, took another stronghold at Munychia, and eventually occupied the Piraeus. Athens appealed to Sparta for help, but the 700 Lacedaemonians commanded by Kallibios only occupied the Acropolis and waited. Democratic opposition outside encouraged resistance inside and the Thirty Tyrants fell. All of this played out between September 404 and December 403, about 15 months.

According to Thompson in IGCH, the coins of the Piraeus hoard were buried between 406 and 394 BC. The political turmoil of the times argues against any easy explanation of why a huge hoard of plated silver coins was buried at the port town serving Athens. Granted that some detail such as the inner eye of Athena indicates that the same hand cut both the dies of the gold emergency coins and the silver coins of the Piraeus Hoard. That says nothing about the man or his motives. Why were perhaps thousands of these “official” coins buried in the neighborhood of democratic opposition to the oligarchy? We have no guarantee that the Four Hundred authorized these coins, as opposed to their being the work of a forger.

In The Athenian Agora, Volume XXVI: the Greek Coins Kroll writes:

“The very magnitude of this particular plated coinage argues against its being a forger’s stock: the mere hundred or so drachms that can be traced back to the Piraeus hoard show that they were minted from a minimum of five pairs of dies and that these pairs were employed in tandem since there is no obverse or reverse sharing between them. Two tetradrachms from the hoard document a sixth pair of dies.”

This opens two avenues of investigation. First, today, only “a hundred or so drachms” can really be shown to have come from this hoard. All others are simply worthless fakes. Also, if five or six pairs of dies were used in tandem, not serially, with no linking, then the work likely was done all at once – and with no dies breaking. Thus, the job was done quickly. The process seems different than the usual activities in which dies were used until they were used up, reverse dies wearing out before obverse dies.

This only supports the expectation that any emergency coins would have been made by the usual people in the usual way – unless such activity were in some way different from the norm. That was indeed the case: Athens was in a civil war when the silver plated coins were hidden at the Piraeus. It is as if a crate of spurious 1862 Federal Legal Tender Notes were discovered in a warehouse in Richmond, Virginia, and numismatists of 4272 AD declared that the sheer number of notes made them official government issues, rather than Confederate counterfeits or something else entirely.



In 1974, Ronald S. Stroud published a marble stele uncovered at the Agora in 1970. Most significant to this article is what the law does not say: no provision is made for silver-plated Athenian coins. The law requires that an official test any coins brought to him when the dispute is in excess of ten drachmas value. False coins are to be cut and dedicated to the temple. The merchant must accept good Athenian coins. Foreign coins of good silver are returned to the buyer. This law has no provision for genuine official Athenian fake owls.


When he was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, economist Adelberto Giovaninni came to this same conclusion. Former president of the Royal Numismatic Society, T. V. Buttrey raises the same questions. In a footnote to his Thompson festschrift contribution, Buttrey refers to the famous paper about Roman fourees by M. H. Crawford, “Plated Coins, False Coins,” Numismatic Chronicle, 1968. In a paper titled “Uses and Abuses of Gresham's Law in the History of Money,” Robert Mundell, of Columbia university, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in economics calls the theory that Emergency Owls were silver-plated, rather than pure copper, “a modern inference.”



Kroll and Walker state: “Were it not for Aristophanes’ references to this emergency bronze of 406/5, one would not hesitate to condemn all subaerate Athenian owls as ancient counterfeits.” The comedies of Aristophanes shed some light and leave much unexplained. In The Frogs and in The Women’s Council, there are allusions to changes in the coinage. In no case does the poet use any language that could be construed to mean that the emergency issues were silver-plated. He calls them “coppers.”


The second citation comes from Aristophanes’s Ecclesiazusae. Commonly called “The Women’s Council” the title is perhaps best called “Parliament by the Women” because the women disguise themselves as men, take over the Assembly, and pass a law that everyone is to give all their possessions to the state. We meet two men. The first is carrying his couch. The second talks him out of rash action.

Second Man: “Ah! I weary you? But, wretch, see what comes of decrees of this kind. Don't you remember the one reducing the price of salt?”

First Man: “Why, certainly I do.”

Second Man: “And do you remember that about the copper coinage?”

First Man: “Ah! that cursed money did me enough harm. I had sold my grapes and had my mouth stuffed with pieces of copper; indeed I was going to the market to buy flour, and was in the act of holding out my bag wide open, when the herald started shouting, “Let none in future accept pieces of copper; those of silver are alone current.”


We can only accept the words of Aristophanes at face value. We cannot read more into them than is there. In both cases, the word is “copper” In The Frogs, Aristophanes makes no joke, no pun, no twist or spin about bad men disguised as good as if bronze coins were covered in silver. Similarly, in Ecclesiazusae, the language is direct: changing decrees altered the legal coinages from silver to copper and back again; there was not some other difficulty with the coins themselves.



Dangerous as it might be to project our sensibilities on ancient peoples, the official creation of false coins necessarily raises some questions. Plated fakes were known from archaic times. In the Histories Herodotus says that he doubts the story that Polycrates of Samos fooled his Spartan mercenaries by paying them in coins made of gold-covered lead. If the Athenian assembly (however constituted) had authorized silver-plated owls, would not those coins have carried some characteristic to differentiate them from genuine silver issues?

It would have been disastrous for Athens to issue gold coins exactly like the silver, ones, since anyone could then plate them and pass them for gold. In an email to me, Jim Hauk, who moderated “Ask the Experts” for The Celator, pointed out that the gold coins are of a slightly different type. Sear Greek Coins and Their Values #2532 shows that a gold stater was made without a crescent on the reverse, and with an olive-branch to the right of the owl, in addition to the olive-branch to the left of the owl. According to Hauk: "I believe the Athenians were too smart, and differentiated their emergency issue… Any tets, of the same old style, that are copper, in my opinion, are simply contemporary fakes. If you study the fractional series, the triobol, diobol, obol, hemiobol, etc, are differentiated, not just by weight, but by style, to make them easily identifiable (i.e. owl facing, two owls, etc.), and to eliminate any confusion when dealing with these small coins. Why would they not use the same type of logic for the emergency issue?"



During the oligarchies of the second half of the Peloponnesian war, many of the citizens who served the city, did so without pay, though other appointees did get one to three obols per day. If there was any issue of emergency coinage, the total volume might have been so small that all examples are lost.

When the Athenians settled their civil war and restored their democracy, part of the mediation between the factions was the paying off of the Spartans who held the Acropolis. Presumably, the Spartans were paid in good silver. If the city was so short on money that emergency owls were necessary, where did they get the money for Kallibios and his 700 Lacedaemonians?

“To date the Peiraeus 1902 hoard is the only known provenience for this coinage, and in this respect the absence of any sure examples from the Agora is to be regretted.” (Kroll, Athenian Agora.) We all have regrets. Athens is probably the most dug-up and studied place on Earth. No copper owls have been found there and the only genuine official silver-plated candidates come from a rebel stronghold. Regrettably, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle say nothing about emergency owls of Athens. In his essay for the Thompson festschrift, Buttrey says that the coins offered by E. S. G. Robinson as evidence of genuine silver-plated Emergency Owls are of the wrong style. B. V. Head in his original conjecture said: “One of these bronze tetradrachms, originally plated, in the British Museum.” It is possible that there are, indeed, copper owls, but they are all misidentified as having been removed of the silver they never actually wore.

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