The mysterious coin

If you have the Australian edition of The Pericles Commission, then you've got a bonus mystery on the cover.  

Here's a detail:

This is the coin that peeps over the bottom edge.  The coin isn't an artist's impression; it's a for-real coin.  The clever designers at Penguin acquired the picture from an image library, and then layered it over the artist's very cool textured background.

When I saw this I emailed Belinda the Publisher to say, "You realize this isn't an Athenian coin, don't you?"  I knew that because all ancient Athenian coins were stamped with an owl, a minerva owl in fact, which is the sacred bird of the goddess Athena.  If you're interested, I once wrote an article about Athenian coins, where you'll see an example.

Neither Penguin nor I were too fussed about it.  The lovely gold coin looked great on the cover and that's what mattered, but out of sheer curiousity, Belinda the Publisher asked in that case, where did the coin come from?

It was a terrific question, because there are a lot of odd things about that coin.  To start with, the face is staring straight out.  Almost all ancient coins showed faces in profile.  Secondly, it's a gold coin, and gold coins were quite unusual; even Athens at her height stuck to silver.  Thirdly, the image library labeled it as a head of Zeus, dated to 360BC.  But there's no way that's a picture of Zeus; and that's an amazingly detailed stamp for 360BC.

I guessed it might be a picture of Helios, a sun god, as you can tell from the name.  Helios didn't get much air time in the classical period, but he was more popular in Hellenistic times.

The coin was unquestionably from a Greek speaking locale, because around the bottom edge, although you can't see it on the cover, are six Greek letters:

Α Υ Ε ... that's Alpha - Upsilon - Epsilon on the left; and

Ι Ο Σ ... that's Iota - Omicron - Sigma on the right.

I can't show you the entire image because I don't own the copyright, but those are the letters.  And those had to be mint maker marks.

Back then, all the Greek cities minted their own coins, and all the mints stamped the first three letters of their city name on their coins.  All Athenian coins, for example, had Α Θ Ε: the first three letters of the name Athens.  You can read off the origin of a coin by matching the three letters on the coin to the first three letters of a known Greek city.

But this coin had two mint names.  It was bizarre.  I went looking for cities whose names began ΑΥΕ, or ΙΟΣ.  To add to the mystery, I couldn't find a single city that might conceivably match such an obviously expensive gold coin.

What in Hades was this thing?

It probably wasn't from the Greek mainland.  I guessed, based on the style of the detailed stamp, the gold, the outward facing, and the non-Zeus-maybe-Helios, that this coin was from the late Hellenistic period, probably from Egypt or somewhere in what is now the Middle East.  The Late Hellenistic period is when Rome ruled, but Greek culture held sway almost everywhere, and Egypt and surrounds at that time was rich enough to be minting with gold.

That was my guess.  I sent the image off for an expert opinion, to an acquaintance who is a for-real expert on the economics of the ancient world.  She had better remain anonymous, because this is an unofficial opinion, but she came back with interesting news:

The coin is a fake!

The Greek letters made no sense to her, either, and didn't match any known ancient mint.  The face doesn't match any known god; it's definitely not Zeus (I got that right, at least!), and it's probably not Helios.

So I checked the database of the image library.  The original picture was taken from a collection, presumably private, 20 or 30 years ago.  Sitting in someone's collection, somewhere, is what is probably a forged coin.

That's where it stands.  We left the coin on the cover of course, because having a forged coin on the cover of a crime novel is just too cool.

The value of a Classical drachma

Imagine walking into a modern Bureau de Change and handing over a one drachma coin from Classical Athens, and asking for US dollars. What's the exchange rate?

(For the purposes of the hypothetical, let's disregard the inherent value of an antique coin.)

Modern exchange rates are determined by the relative popularity of the currencies, which normally depends on factors like GDP, inflation rates, and central bank interest rates. We could try the same, except adjusting for inflation over 2,500 years and accounting for minor social influences such as the fall of the Roman Empire is clearly a loser.

So I'll try to do it by equating incomes.

There are plenty of sources from Classical Athens to say the average wage of an Athenian worker was a drachma a day. Athenians didn't work every day. They didn't have public holidays like we do, but they did have a lot of religious festivals. No one much except slaves did any work during the Great Dionysia, for example. I'll arbitrarily assign 330 working days.

I found a 2005 US census which says the average yearly income of people in full time emplyment was USD 49,069.

If we take the value of average wages to be equivalent, then the Bureau de Change should give us about USD 150 for our coin.

The exchange rate of the modern Greek drachma, as I write this, is GRD 1 = USD 0.0037.

So 1 Classical Athenian drachma has the purchase power of 40,540 modern drachmae, which looks bad until you realize this gives a notional inflation rate, year on year, over 2,500 years, of 0.0425%

That's pretty good inflation control!

Athenian Coins: The Owls

This is an Athenian coin. Every coin minted in Athens was stamped with this design.
The bird is a Minerva owl, the sacred bird of Athena, patron Goddess of Athens. Athenian coins were universally known as owls. If you bought something at the agora, the stallholder might say, "That'll be three owls." The birds were always printed looking at you sideways with those huge eyes.

There are three letters down the right hand side. The funny O with the dot in the middle is a capital theta, which carries a th sound. Alpha Theta Epsilon spells out as A(TH)E, the first three letters of the word Athenai (Athens) in Greek.

The pattern in the top left is olive leaves and an olive, the olive plant being Athena's special gift to Athens.

Between the owl and the olives is what looks like a banana but is actually a crescent moon. The moon doesn't appear on any coins before the Battle of Salamis, but does on all coins shortly thereafter. The assumption is Salamis was fought under a crescent moon, but no one really knows.

The obverse side btw had a picture of Athena. I haven't bothered showing the obverse because it's not all that interesting. It's worth noting though this is the first commonly accepted coin to have heads (Athena) and tails (the owl).

Athens didn't have a logo like the famous SPQR of Rome. But to anyone in the ancient world, this coin face instantly screamed Athens.

Athenian coins were the first in history to be accepted across national borders. In those days every city minted its own coins, except for the Spartans, who were convinced this newfangled money stuff would never catch on and stuck with small iron bars as a unit of currency.

In general people in one city would not accept the coins of another. Your average vendor in, say, Mytilene, was unlikely to know the relative value of coins from, say, Thebes, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn't know the relative values of the 20+ other major Greek cities. If that doesn't sound sensible, try this quick quiz: off the top of your head, list the current exchange rate for every major currency in the world relative to the US dollar.

Right. People in the ancient world had exactly the same problem. If you turned up at one city with another city's coins, your first stop was the moneychanger at the local agora.

The moneychangers actually had a tough job. They were effectively setting the exchange rate between city economies. They had to judge largely by the amount of precious metal, usually silver, in the coins, but also had to be wary of cheats. There are plenty of surviving coins that have been chopped so a moneychanger could check what's inside.

But everyone accepted owls (except the Spartans). This coin was the ancient world's equivalent of today's US dollar, until the Roman currency took over, and even then owls were still good as a trading system.

There are people who could glance at this coin and tell you in what year it was minted, because the design of the owl changed subtly over time. I am not one of those people.

This coin is a tetradrachm. 4 drachmas. There were smaller and larger denominations, but the tetra seems to have been the common unit for commercial trading. Its value though is far too high for normal everyday use. For that you wanted a smaller coin called an obol.

1 drachma = 6 obols

An average workman earned about a drachma a day. So most things you bought in the agora would have cost a couple of obols at most. There was even a half-obol coin for small purchases. When you died, the obol was the coin placed under your tongue to pay Charon the Ferryman to get you to the afterlife. The obol had exactly the same owl design as the drachma, but smaller and thinner with less precious metal. Obols were tiny. Here are some pictures I took in the British Museum:

Athenian coins drachm obol
These are all made of silver. The important difference is the size.

#2 & #3 are each side of a tetradrachm
#4 is a didrachma (2 drachma piece)
#5 & #6 are each side of a drachma
#7 is a half drachma (3 obols)
#8 is a quarter drachma (yes, I know that's not an even number of obols)
#9 & #10 are obols
#11 is a half obol
#12 is a quarter obol

Athenian coins drachms

Athenian coins obols

There were units higher than the drachma:

1 mina = 100 drachmas
1 talent = 60 minas = 6,000 drachmas

Only the very wealthy and governments dealt in talents.

Why were owls so successful? For much the same reason the USD is ubiquitous today. Because they were so very successful a large number of owls survived. Many have been placed on chains. Theodore Roosevelt is said to have kept one in his pocket.