Early in the fifth century BC Athens became the foremost naval power in the Greek world. This was partly due to the discovery of silver in her territory. According to the later historian Herodotus (about 484-425 BC), there was a debate about what to do with the newfound wealth:
'... the revenues from the mines at Laurium had brought huge sums of money into the Athenians' treasury... Themistocles persuaded them not to distribute it, but rather to use the money to build two hundred war-ships.'
(Herodotus, Book 7, Chapter 144)
Themistocles was right. It was largely due to the Athenian fleet that the Greeks won their war at this time against the Achaemenid Persians and secured the mainland of classical Greece from Persian invasion. This tetradrachm belongs to a large group of issues of the 480s BC, the period of the construction of the Athenian fleet.
The two designs on the Athenian coins both allude to the patronage of the city by the goddess Athena. On the obverse (front) of the coin is the head of the goddess herself, and on the reverse is the bird of Athena, the owl. These designs remained unchanged on Athenian coinage for over three hundred years, and the 'owls' of Athens became familiar coins throughout the Greek world.