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.

A writer's life

A writer's life...I had to go to the shops today. It was my first time out of the house for over a week.

I saw people! They were walking from place to place, blissfully unaware of my ms and its remaining problems.

I spoke to someone outside of my immediate family, and it wasn't via twitter!

Ephesus, and why the city was abandoned

Ephesus was one of the major port cities on the coast of the Aegean Sea in the ancient world. Most people these days know of the city from the Bible. Think Paul's Epistles to the Ephesians. Those with a classical bent will know of Ephesus as home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Temple of Artemis, which unfortunately you can't see here because it was leveled to the ground. But most importantly for people back then, Ephesus was a major port where ships of any size could dock. Ephesus made all its money from trade.

I'll be writing more about Ephesus from time to time in this blog because Nicolaos and Diotima visit there in their second book. They've walked the roads and visited the places you see in this picture.

Sadly, Ephesus died, as you can tell, and was abandoned. The reason was silt build up in the harbor, which eventually reached the point where no ship could reach the city. Without ships, trade died. Without trade, the city died.

The semi-circular white blob in the top middle is a huge amphitheatre with astounding acoustics. I know, I've walked these ruins. The almost-horizontal white line running from the amphitheatre is the road to where the docks used to be. The left end of the road, which seems to stop abruptly, is where the docks would be if silt had not destroyed the harbor. As you can see, it's now land.

Here's how much of a silt problem Ephesus had. I've put a circle around the ancient city.

Ephesus to the coast
Remember, this was a major port in the Greek world. Anyone who thinks a changing planet is a modern problem should take a close look at this picture.

More adventures in anachronistic phrases

A few months ago I wrote about the dangers of anachronistic phrases. Specifically, you shouldn't hear Biblical or Shakespearean sayings from characters in the Classical world. I have to be on the look out for such evil.

Here's another one: to follow suit, meaning to copy someone's actions. Playing cards haven't been invented yet. Spotted that in revisions. Aaarrgghh!

Happy Easter! or Happy Eostre! or Happy Great Dionysia!

Happy Easter to everyone!

Our Easter is derived directly from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. In either case, if you ever wondered what bunnies and eggs had to do with Jesus, now you know: nothing at all. They are both very obvious fertility symbols associated with the Goddess. Interestingly, Eostre is mentioned in writing in only one place, the work of the Venerable Bede, a mediaeval monk and early self-publisher.

The Greek celebration of the same time was the Great Dionysia, a hugely important festival in honor of Dionysos God of Wine and the Harvest, held over 5 days in the middle of the month of Elaphebolion. (That was the city version. An older rural version was held in the month of Poseidon.)

Everyone was welcome to celebrate, citizens, metics (resident aliens) and visitors from other cities. A statue of Dionysos was carried to the Theatre of Dionysos, which rests against the southern side of the Acropolis. People walked around carrying phalloi carved from wood, and one very large phallus was pulled along on a cart.

Maidens walked about carrying woven baskets. Some carried long loaves of bread. Others carried water jugs or wine jugs, and would pour drinks for anyone.

A huge number of oxen were sacrificed in the theatre. There was more to this than merely the religious aspect; this was a chance for even the poorest people to get some free red meat. It was a massive feast. There were several processions and a komos, a parade-cum-drunken-revel.

The orphans of men who had been killed in battle were paraded to honor their fathers (the state paid for these orphans until they reached majority). People who had done good deeds during the year were held up for priase.

The Great Dionysia affected civilization to this very day, because it was the festival in which the tragedies and comedies were shown on stage. Beginning some time in the 500s BC, the Great Dionysia turned from a purely religious celebration to include an arts festival. All the great ancient Greek plays you may have read, everything from Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, those plays first appeared on stage at a Great Dionysia. People travelled from all over Greece to come and see what was on that year.

The Spring Equinox was also the time when the Goddess Persephone rose from the underworld to renew the earth. The story goes that she was kidnapped from the surface by Hades, God of the Underworld and Lord of the Dead, who wanted to marry her. He had the permission of Zeus to do this, but unfortunately neither of the guys thought to mention this plan to either the bride or her mother.

The kidnap of Persephone occurred in Eleusis, just down the road from Athens. Legend has it that this is the cave from which Hades emerged to grab her:

Cave from which Hades emerged to kidnap Persephone
If you're wondering how Hades managed to emerge from the underworld via a cave with no visible depth, so am I. But I guess when you're a God you can do these things. This is definitely the spot legend attributes. There used to be a small temple to the event, the ruins of which you can spot in the foreground.

Mom was the Goddess Demeter, in charge of making things grow, and she was more than a little annoyed to discover her daughter had involuntarily eloped. She stopped the growth of all things until she got her daughter back. They eventually hammered out a deal whereby Persephone spent half the year with her husband (autumn & winter), and the other half with her Mom (spring & summer), which goes to show even the Lord of the Dead may tremble when his Mother-In-Law throws a hissy fit.

I hope the Easter Bunny brings you something nice!

House plans

Houses in Classical Athens ran to a general plan. When the house slave let you in, you would see public rooms to your left or right. That was the andron, because it was for men only. You would see a courtyard directly before you, which was the real living room for the family. Greek life was outdoors, even at home. The courtyard would not have been square, it was more a matter of taking whatever space you could get. The one constant you would find in every courtyard was the altar to Zeus Herkeios. The head of the family prays and offers a small sacrifice here every day, an act considered so important that as part of the inauguation oath for any public office, a man had to swear he had an altar and sacrificed at it every day.

The women's quarters are one wing running beside the courtyard. The lady of the house probably sleeps in the upper story. The men's quarters are on the other side, so that the whole building is in the shape of a U with the base of the U facing the street and the courtyard in the middle. The kitchen is behind the courtyard, which is also where the slaves sleep. Somewhere out the back too, probably as far away as possible, is a hole in the ground which is the toilet. Odds are the man of the house has a private office, however small, on the second story, probably toward the front. Children probably slept in porticoes toward the back of the courtyard.

Women probably ruled the household with an iron fist. They might not have had any say in how the city was run, but by the Gods, when you walked into their home you were on their turf. They had total control of the house slaves. Everyone had slaves. A man was considered poor if he could only afford two to help his wife.

House burglars in Athens were not called burglars. They were called wall piercers, because the quality of building was so low, it was easier to punch a hole in the wall than break through the door. Thieves would punch a hole, then reach in with an arm to feel around and take stuff. Of course, it wasn't like modern houses where a burglar had a chance of finding an empty house. There were always at least a couple of slaves at home. Door locks could be very simple: a bar across the door. The locking mechanism is the slave on the inside who lifts the bar and opens the door for you when you knock and shout.

Making a shambles of town planning

You might have an image of Classical Athens as a pristine place, where men in pure white tunics walked serenely between marble buildings.


The Agora was beginning to get marble public buildings at the time of my first book, but Athens was fundamentally mud daub walls with wooden frames and straw or wooden roofs. Many houses were double story - space was short - but three stories was beyond them. To create more space people built their second stories leaning out over the first, just like the famous Shambles in York, England. There were city edicts against building over the street line, which were universally ignored. Walking down a narrow lane in Athens would have been a bit like going down a tunnel. The light would only have appeared in the center of the lane, but you wouldn't walk down the middle because if you did, you were likely as not to get a bucketfull of slops dumped on your head when a slave poured a bucket out a second story window.

The roads were dirt, or more accurately, mud, because the road was the place to toss the household slops and waste. No public garbage collection, of course. Streets sloped inwards to get rainwater and mess away from the walls, same as the mediaeval arrangement. If the street was on a slope then it acted like an open sewer and the muck flowed away. If the street didn't slope, then the muck stayed where it was. A house-proud wife probably had her slaves sweep mess along to outside the neighbors.

How to win friends and influence people

The time is the Persian Wars, about 20 years before the date of my first book. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, has decided to subjugate Greece, and to do so he's assembled the largest land army the world has yet seen. A very hungry army which is eating everything in its path.

The massive force arrives at a city in Asia Minor called Celaenae, in what is now modern Turkey. They are still inside the Persian Empire, but the locals are not exactly thrilled to have their King pop in with an army that they have to feed.

I'm going to let Herodotus take over, courtesy of Penguin Classics:

Here at Celaenae a Lydian named Pythius, the son of Atys, was awaiting Xerxes, and on his arrival entertained him and the whole army with most lavish hospitality, and promised besides to furnish money for the expenses of the war. The mention of money caused Xerxes to ask the Persians present who Pythius was, and if he was really rich enough to make such an offer. "My Lord," was the answer, "it was the man who gave your father Darius the golden plane-tree and the golden vine; and still, so far as we know, he is the wealthiest man in the world, after yourself."

Pythius, son of Atys, was probably a grandson of Croesus. Yes, that's Croesus of "rich as Croesus" fame. Croesus is known to have had a son called Atys - the same name as Pythius' father - and the dates check out. No wonder Pythius is fabulously wealthy.

Xerxes, overjoyed to find one of his subjects who is not only pleased to see him, but wants to help, asks how much money Pythius has. Pythius replies:

I possess 2,000 talents of silver, and 3,993,000 gold Darics. This it is my intention to give to you; I can live quite comfortably myself on my slaves and the produce of my estates.

This is a vast amount of precious metal. Even by modern standards, Pythius would be a billionaire. Xerxes, to put it mildly, is pleased:

My Lydian a reward for your generosity, I make you my guest-friend and, in addition, I will give you from my own coffers the 7,000 gold Darics which are needed to make your fortune up to the round sum of 4,000,000. Continue, then, to possess what you have acquired; and have the wisdom to remain always the man you have proved yourself today. You will never regret it, now or hereafter.

How to win friends and influence people indeed! Pythius could have been almost bankrupted, but instead finds himself guest-friend of the Great King, which means he has the ear and good will of his absolute monarch.

So far so good. The only bad news for Pythius is he has 5 sons, and Xerxes takes all 5 of them into the army, as he has every able-bodied man in sight. Pythius is worried. He goes to Xerxes and says:

My Lord, I have 5 sons, and it happens that every one of them is serving in your army in your campaign against Greece. I am an old man, Sire, and I beg you in pity to release from service one of my sons - the eldest - to take care of me and my property. Take the other 4, and may you return with your purpose accomplished.

Sounds reasonable enough for a guest-friend to ask, a man who's offered to fund the entire war. Right?

Xerxes says:

You miserable fellow! Have you the face to mention your son, when I, in person, am marching to the war against Greece with my sons and brothers and kinsmen and friend - you, my slave, whose duty it was to come with me, with every member of your house?

Uh oh. Things are not looking good for poor Pythius. Xerxes refers to Pythius as a slave because, under the Persian system, every man was considered a slave of the Great King. Xerxes goes on in this unpleasant vein for some time. Pythius must have thought he was about to be executed by his angry king before Xerxes says:

Yourself and 4 of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me...

Saved! Pythius' habit of sucking up to absolute monarchs pays off.

But wait! Xerxes said 4 sons were saved, not 5...

...but you shall pay with the life of the 5th, whom you cling to most.

Xerxes at once gave orders that the men to whom such duties fell should find Pythius' eldest son and cut him in half, and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them.

The order was performed, and now between the halves of the young man's body the advance of the army began.

This sort of casual brutality might not have happened every day, but it was normal and acceptable in the Persian social order, the same society which used a rather painful execution method.

Note a clear implication of this tale is that among Xerxes' staff were men whose job description included, "cutting people in half."

Xerxes does not get good press from the Greeks, for obvious reasons. He fares just as badly in modern hands. Think of the movie 300. The evil bad guy commander in that is the same Xerxes who just offed a guy in this little story because his father asked a favor.

George Orwell on working in a bookstore

Have a read of this article by George Orwell on the time he spent working in a bookstore. He wrote it in 1936. Compare it to what you're reading these days in book blogs and tweets.

Fascinating stuff.

Also, it's scary how good a writer he was. Even in a simple essay like this, the flow, the pace, the interest, the descriptions and observations are all spot on, and all with such simple, everyday language that it seems like anyone could do it.

Book Progress

If it seems like I haven't been blogging much, it's because my head is deep in revisions.

Here's where we're at:

Book 2 is first drafted. That doesn't mean the scenes are all done. Oh no! Some scenes read well and are pretty much ready to go, most scenes look 80% okay. A couple of scenes, in the third quarter of the book, are disconnected fragments of insane ravings. That's alright, as long as they're interesting ravings, I can get them properly written. A few scenes contradict the rest of the plot. I'll have to beat them back into line. A few scenes shouldn't be there. Delete works. Three or four necessary scenes are long and boring. They're the ones that worry me.

I declared first draft at about 93,000 words. Then I began revising, fixing, replacing etc. The ms peaked at almost 97K, dropped below 91K, climbed back to 94K, and now seems to be congealing at about the 92K mark. At some point I'll start looking for aggressive cuts. While I was writing the first draft, getting it up from zero, I watched word count incessantly, because I'm obsessive-compulsive like that. I'd write one sentence and then Alt-T W to see how many words I'd added. Now that I'm in the zone, I don't care what the word count is. All that matters is making the book shine. I do though still check word count once a day out of habit and idle curiousity. The zone is about 85K - 100K. As long as I stay within there, I'm happy.

I'm constantly surprised how even little changes can improve a scene. Yesterday I rewrote the first paragraph of a scene about halfway into the story, and suddenly the whole thing was twice as funny. I wish I could post it here, because that one I know is good, but sadly that would be naughty. I added three lines somewhere else and the page became edgier. I always know when a scene's become right, because then I want to carry the laptop to my wife and read the fun bits to her.

I actually prefer revising to writing. This probably makes me some sort of weird pervert, but with revisions I have a before and after snapshot of the scene, and I can judge which is better. I know I can incrementally improve a scene once it's written, as long I can tell the difference between good and gooder. No, that should be bett and better. No...anyway, trust me, I have everything under control.

And now for something completely different...Forever Nocturne!

I write short stories to try out new things; different POVs, different techniques or styles or genres, wild ideas I'd never risk on a novel. My short stories are fundamentally lab rats.

Usually my lab rats turn out to be poor, misshapen things, that drag themselves painfully about the laboratory until I put them out of their misery.

Oh well, that's how you learn.

Sometimes the DNA comes together in a glorious fluke, and my shining golden lab rat spreads its genetically engineered wings and zooms out the window.

I watched one of my rats fly off into the distance a few weeks ago. It landed on the pages of Forever Nocturne, an e-Zine that publishes Modern Gothic Horror Romance.

That's right. I, Gary, have written an urban fantasy, and it's actually okay. They even gave me the cover! No one's ever given me a cover spot before! You can find it in the (free) download of Forever Nocturne, Volume I, Issue 3. That last link goes straight to the zine's pdf. If it doesn't work for you, try this page with links to the first three issues.

I draw your attention to the story by CARRIE CLEVENGER in the same issue. I'll never look at restaurant cutlery in the same way again.