Coins and Money in Ancient Athens

Examples of the differences in coins from cities all across Hellas (Ancient Greece).

In the ancient world, most towns minted their own, highly individual coins with specific markings and images that told the bearer its city of origin. Classical-era Athenian coins were usually minted with the image of Athena’s owl and an olive branch, and stood out in contrast with the money of foreign merchants.


Flowing into Attica (the region in which Athens is located) were many coins of different states and systems of value. Copper coins from Western Hellas (the early word for Greece) mingled with gold coins from Eastern cities and Persia (Athens had long traded with various cities in Persia).

Athens had its own mint, located near the Agora. Money-changers in the Agora were busy each day exchanging Athenian coins for the darics of the Persians or the shekels of the Asiatic Greeks.

While the drachma was the most common unit of exchange, eight bronze kalkoi equalled one obol. Six obols equalled one drachma, which was similar in value to a full day’s wages for someone working a minimum-wage job today.

Interestingly, the coins minted in Athens could be made of bronze, gold, or silver, but were most often silver due to the abundance of this metal’s local availability. The Laurion mines south of Athens provided the silver that was transformed into Athens’ primary source of wealth. It is from part-ownership of these mines that a character in the book, Xanthos, derives his wealth.

In Chapter Two of Demise of a Demagogue, a slave-boy bites down on a coin given to him by another character, Miletos, a traveler from Syracuse (an ancient city on the island of modern-day Sicily), to test the coin’s metal. Because coins of this era were often tampered with (by cutting off bits or being fashioned from lower-quality metals) one would commonly test the coin to determine its overall worth. The slave-boy also would not automatically trust a coin from another city, and he definitely does not trust Miletos.

A representative silver Syracusan half-obol, minted approximately 450 BC.



Typhon and mosaic tile floors

Typhon, a mythical giant human-snake hybrid, is described by the 6th c. poet Pindar as a monster with one hundred heads, fearful eyes, and terrible voices. Typhon lived in Tartaros, the great pit beneath the earth where the Titans were imprisoned.

Xanthos, a character in Demise of a Demagogue, is an enormously wealthy aristocrat who has a mosaic tile floor laid in the anteroom of his expansive villa. This mosaic floor tells the story of the battle between the monster Typhon and the gods and goddesses. In one myth, all the other gods and goddesses escape, transforming themselves into animals; only Zeus and Athena remain to vanquish Typhon. This is an important myth for Athens, because Athena is Athens’ patron goddess, but Xanthos has other reasons to align himself with the image of Typhon.

Mosaic tile floors were relatively rare in 5th century Athens, but archaeologists and historians don’t know for certain how many people might have had them because so few mosaics have emerged during archaeological digs. This on its own doesn’t mean there were no mosaic tiles, but they are fragile, and much of modern-day Athens has been built over ancient houses. So, we are left to speculate about Athens, but mosaic floors were popular in all parts of the Greek and Roman world, and many still exist today, thankfully. 

See here for more historical information about mosaic floors.

Seal stones

A seal stone features prominently in Demise of a Demagogue. One of the characters, Xanthos, uses his family’s seal stone to seal a piece of wax on a message written on papyrus.

See more about the history of seal stones in Greece here.


An incredibly detailed hand-carved seal stone, used by the Greeks to seal wax on papyrus. As time went on, Greeks began to set these carved stones in jewelry, such as rings or necklaces. This seal stone depicts the final moments of battle when the victor sinks his sword into his opponent’s neck.


Rebuilding the Acropolis

Aerial View Of Acropolis Of Athens' Ancient Citadel
The ruined state of the Akropolis is similar to the destruction Athenians lived with prior to 447 B.C., the year Perikles authorized its rebuilding.

Demise of a Demagogue is set in 447 B.C. Athens. This is the year General Perikles uses the money Athens appropriated from the Delian treasury to rebuild the Akropolis. The Akropolis (also called ‘the citadel,’ because it was the ‘top’ of the city) was left in ruins after the invasion of the hated Persians in 480-479 B.C. 

Although the Persians were routed and Athens survived mostly intact, the Akropolis itself, with all of its sacred buildings, shrines, and precious votives (offerings to a god or goddess) burned and were left in rubble. Rather than rebuilding immediately after this destruction, Athenians decided to leave the ruins as a reminder of their victory (and loss).

The protagonist and proto-detective of the book, Agathon, must traverse the citadel again and again, almost tripping over rubble at times as he searches for clues to the murder of an infamous orator.

Today, Athens is once again in the process of rebuilding the ruins of the Akropolis. It is as expensive now as it was for Perikles, who was criticized for sparing no expense to create a new citadel so beautiful, it would become the center of the known world, renowned forever for its citizens’ civic pride.

Take a look here for images of the Akropolis in ruins, but now undergoing reconstruction.


Excerpt: The Curse

          Deep inside the cave, the supplicant watched, fascinated, as snakes twined through the sorceress’ fingers. Illuminated by torches set into rough crevices in the surrounding rock walls, the witch’s gleaming skin, shining with sweat, became golden in the flickering glow. Eyes closed and head upturned, she seemed to be listening for a voice only she could hear. Her hips undulated; she muttered and moaned. Snakes glittered and slithered at her feet, curving around the tripod legs of a smoking cauldron.

          Her eyes fluttered open, startled. She seemed to emerge from a dark dream. Slowly, she bent her head of raven curls over the small iron cauldron, breathing deeply from its bubbling concoction. Then she intoned the incantation the supplicant had paid her to utter.

          “Hekate, Goddess of the Stygian blackness of Hades, keeper of the flame, seer of the undead, hear my plea.”

          The sorceress stirred the contents of the cauldron. A thin wisp of noxious green wafted towards her nostrils, and she breathed once more, her eyes wild through the curtain of hair falling over her face.

          “The power of death is yours. Only you control the keepers of the gate, the hell-hounds Cerberus, doomed to honor thy bidding. The supplicant beseeches the Great Goddess to bring death upon the enemy whose name is inscribed—” she dropped a small piece of dull green wax into the cauldron’s flames—“on this tablet.” The carved wax melted away.

          “May this evil-doer meet his just due, may he enter Hades’ gates through your intervention, oh cunning Hekate who sees the dark hearts of all who appeal to her, yet maintains silence.”

          The supplicant, satisfied that the goddess had heard his prayer, withdrew from the hot, smoky chamber. In a mood to be generous, he dropped an extra coin into the woven basket on the ground near the mouth of the cave.

          Emerging from the darkness, he looked up into the cloudless blue sky in awe, and the breath left his body. The Moon-goddess Hekate had sent him a sign of her approval. All around him was still. There was no bird song; no animals skittered through the brush near the cave’s opening. What had been bright now grew dim. As the Moon’s orb slid across the face of the Sun, all that could be seen was a ring of red-orange fire, shimmering with the gleam of Hekate’s snakes.

          Many minutes passed before the world woke to life again, before he could move. Yet something had changed, for as he walked along the track leading back to Athens, the dirt had transformed into powdered bone, its grit choking him and encrusting his skin with the burned remains of the dead.