A silver coin from Athens

Teaching ideas

Investigate the coin in detail with your students. Start by asking them what they think it is and why. The students will probably recognize it as a coin. At some stage you will want to discuss what size the actual coin is; you may want to obtain some replicas to convey this – see More information in About the object. Ask the students about the symbols they can see, following up anything that they do know – they may for example know that the owl is Athena’s bird. Once you have identified the symbols, discuss what message they are communicating about the city of Athens. Compare modern coins from different countries either as actual objects or in photos. When you have discussed some of the issues arising from the tetradrachm, you may want to look at the modern euro in For the classroom and discuss why this design was chosen – compare the other euros currently in circulation. You could discuss the difference between a federation of states issuing a common coinage by agreement with Athens’ imposition of its coinage on its empire.

Follow up Athena and the olive by finding out about the story of how the city of Athens got its name. Discuss why Athena’s gift of an olive tree to the city was so valuable – this will lead you into agriculture, the uses of olive oil and trade. Look at the pot showing men picking olives (in For the classroom) and explore it with your students – you can find photos on the internet of modern olive picking to compare – look for ones that show poles being used. You could also move on to the pots of olive oil awarded as prizes at the Panathenaic Games in honour of Athena.

Consider how you can work out what an ancient Greek coin was worth by looking at what it could buy and how much people earned. Find out what other denominations of coin were used in ancient Athens, such as obols and hemiobols, and find examples of them online. Look at the photo of a hemiobol (half-obol) on a US cent in For the classroom and discuss how small they were and the problems this would pose. A reference in an Athenian comedy to a man swallowing his money by accident has given rise to discussion about whether the Greeks sometimes carried small change in their mouths. Discuss how good this reference might be as evidence for this practice. Invite students to think up different ways of presenting what they have found out about what different denominations of coin were worth.

After discussing the symbolism on the Athenian coin, look at the coin from Syracuse and find out about the story behind the design. Look at the coins in A bigger picture and the different ways in which the designs refer to the city-states from which the coins come. Invite the students to design their own coins, either for their own imaginary countries, for school or for real countries – they should use the discussion to help them select the design, perhaps using puns if they are possible.

Look at the coins in A bigger picture, the tetradrachm and all the other Greek coins in For the classroom and locate their city-states on a map of the Mediterranean region. What do the students notice about these Greek cities - should they think about ancient Greece or about the ancient Greek world? Explore Greek colonisation in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Use these locations to explore the other peoples that the Greeks came in contact with. Find out as much as possible about the goods and commodities that existed in these places and how they were traded with the cities on the Greek mainland. Find a map of the Athenian empire and discuss why the Athenians imposed their coinage on the cities in their empire. What reaction do students think the subject cities would have? Explain that the value of a silver coin rested in the quantity and quality of its silver content and that this meant that the value of the silver extended beyond the limits of its currency. Look at the imitation tetradrachm in For the classroom and discuss why the Persian governor might have wanted to copy the Athenian coins. Does this necessarily mean that his coins were inferior?

Use the pot showing a Greek merchant ship to investigate Greek ships more generally. There are several shipwrecks that tell us a great deal about trade in the Mediterranean. You could use the game in For the classroom to explore this.

Look at the pots showing a shoemaker, potter, metalworkers and farmer in For the classroom. Identify what is going on in each scene and discuss the things the students can see in detail. There are activities based on spinning and weaving in Object file: An Athenian family. Use the scenes to start enquiries into these trades and occupations – what was the social status of these workers? What was it like to do this work? How did slaves play a part and did they derive any benefits? Was it better to be an urban slave than a rural slave? Look online to find examples of the things that these people produced. Discuss the reasons why those who worked the land were regarded more highly than those who made things or bought and sold things.

Use any one of the manufactured products or processes represented in the scenes or by the objects in this file and consider all the sub-processes involved in its production. For example, if you take a pot, this involves digging out the clay, cleaning it and preparing it for the potter, shaping the pot on a wheel, spinning the wheel, painting the pot, obtaining the wood for the kiln, lighting the fire and tending the kiln while the pot is fired. Consider where all the raw materials came from, what tools were needed and where these came from or who made them, how all the materials got to where they needed to be, who the people were who dealt with each process and what their social status probably was. You could use this information to act out the processes in the classroom showing how the raw material came to be the finished article.

Use the links in For the classroom to investigate the life of farmers in ancient Greece. As well as the crops they grew and the animals they kept, you might also find out about the farmer’s year and when each phase of farming took place. Pull out information about the annual calendar of religious festivals in Athens. Compare this with the farmer’s calendar and identify all the festivals that have to do with agriculture in some way. Consider how the social life of the city was shaped by the agricultural year.

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A silver coin from Athens