A Greek Coin and Bankruptcy

Owl coin. tetradrachm., Athens, c. 454-431 BC. Photo: Wikipedia, Reid Goldborough.

The years from c. 462 BC to 431 BC (from the establishment of a radical democracy to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war) were the best years for Athens. Abroad, the Delian League, an Alliance of city-states and directed against the common Persian foe, became a mighty alliance under Athenian leadership.

The prosperity and democracy of Athens led to an ambitious building program and the Parthenon on the Acropolis is just one of the many splendid legacies.

The success of the model also paved the way for its downfall however. Economic and cultural success and democracy not only encouraged foreign enemies and internal opposition, but also led to financial mismanagement.

The comic poet Aristophanes (446-386 BC) introduced in his play “Birds” (414 BC) the expression ‘carrying owls to Athens’, what means to do something useless. The coins of the League carried an owl, not only the bird of wisdom, but also the symbol of Athena, the Goddess of Athens.

This use of the owl as symbol of the Goddess Athena symbolized the supremacy of Athens. The members of the League sent too much money to Athens and Athens started to issue too many coins to finance the ongoing war with Sparta.

This wat the beginning of inflation and finally bankruptcy and defeat was only a matter of time (404 BC).  Aristophanes had predicted this process already in his comic play in 414 BC . It is the irony of history that the euro-coin of Greece depicts  an owl.  (R. Barrow, Athenian Democracy (London 1999).