Greece – An Athenian Tetradrachma

I HAVE a silver coin on my watch guard. The bright face it bears is as unperturbed as it has been for two thousand five hundred years. Think of a face passing through so many political contests of immense importance, and yet maintaining its ineffable composure ! But it is the image of a goddess, and one I have long been accustomed to worship in a Christian way — the goddess Athene. It stands out in bold relief on the thick, rude, not quite round piece of silver on which it is stamped. It is undeniably pleas-ant. A face on a coin ought to be more of a benediction than a curse. Athene could look terribly stern sometimes, when frowning on her enemies; and at such times the best thing for her enemies was to get out of her way. But, when she engaged in the arts of peace and industry, as she wisely did, her face could wear as benign an expression as benignity itself. Her helmet on this coin is simple, bearing a few leaves, beneath which may be seen the folds of her hair; and she is naughty enough here, as in a sculpture already noted, to wear earrings. If I were to make out a passport for this face, I should phrase it in the ambiguous diplomacy of those official descriptions which suit a thousand persons as well as one, — ” Forehead medium, eyes metallic, nose prominent, mouth regular, chin small, face oval.” On the reverse beneath the rim is the owl; in the left-hand corner are three olive leaves, the emblem of Athene; and on the right hand the three letters ” A O E.”

But this face needs no passport from the United States, or from any other government. It will pass for its weight in silver, in the market, as it would have passed twenty-five centuries ago ; but to the antiquary it is more nearly worth its weight in gold. Its weight is two hundred and sixty grains, which shows it to be a tetradrachma. It is interesting to note that, before the time of Alexander, all Greek coins bore sacred subjects only. Mythology was thus carried into the mart. The tradesman was distinctly reminded of his religion when he received or gave out coin. But there is no evidence that the gods-were expected to furnish miraculously to coins a value which they did not possess in themselves. The good-natured face of Athene could not keep a coin at par if it were not of full weight. There was no fiat about it. If the Athenians had faith in Athene, they undoubtedly had faith in Solon, who was the superintendent of the mint, as well as the attorney-general. I have wondered if this tetradrachma were coined while he was living, and if it ever passed through his hands; whether Socrates ever handled it in the Agora, or whether Pericles used it to help pay the cost of the Parthenon. I have wondered if Paul, after giving his famous address on the Areopagus, used this heathen coin in part payment of his expenses, or whether it went with him on any of his missionary journeys. The Attic coins were good the world over, and they travelled widely. It was in Athens that I came into possession of this piece, which one of the most celebrated experts in numismatics in the world dates at 500 or 550 B. C. I have wondered how many times it has bought the worth of its own weight and value, — about seventy-two cents ; though the purchasing power of a four-drachma piece was relatively much greater. Athene has gone out of the Grecian Pantheon. The owl is not so sacred as it used to be; but the olive still grows in the soil of Greece, and this piece of silver, if it were melted down, would pass for the worth of its weight and purity, as it may have passed a thousand times before. The bright face of Athene, the wise owl, and the fruitful olive upon it are symbols of an ancient faith, which was reverenced in the mart as in the temple.