The History of Money Part 2

A Fist Full of Obols


November 30, 2014

In the centuries following the Trojan War (approximately 1200 BC), the Bronze age cities of Greece formed complex trade-based economies. The currency was, naturally enough, bronze. The unit of exchange was the Obol.

The original Obol was a long, thin rod. The word Obol can also be translated as "spit," as in the stick that holds meat over a fire. A handful of six Oboloi was called a Drachma, which translates as "handful."

Around 600 BC, coins were introduced into Greece through their colonies in Anatolia, which had traded with the kingdom of Lydia, the inventors of coins. Greek coins were cast in silver, and the Drachma was a silver coin weighing approximately 4.3 grams.

According to classical historians, the daily wage of a Greek hoplite soldier was 1 Drachma. For sitting on a jury, a citizen would be paid a half Drachma per day. Modern historians and economists have valued the ancient Drachma at about $50 in today's money.

A silver coin of 1/6 the weight of a Drachma was naturally called an Obol. All larger and smaller silver coins were multiples or fractions of the Drachma and the Obol, as shown in the following chart:

Coin Equivalent
Dekadrachm 10 Drachmas
Tetradrachm 4 Drachmas
Didrachm 2 Drachmas
Drachmas 6 Oboloi
Tetraobol 4 Oboloi, 2/3 of Drachma
Triobol (Hemidrachm) 3 Oboloi, 1/2 Drachma
Diobol 2 Oboloi, 1/3 Drachma
Obol 1/6 Drachma
Tritartimorion 3/4 Obol
Hemiobol 1/2 Obol
Trihemitartimorion 3/8 Obol
Tetartimorion 1/4 Obol
Hemitartemorian 1/8 Obol

For larger transactions, one Mina was originally equivalent to 70 Drachma and was later decimalized to an even 100 Drachma. There was no Mina coin; this was a unit of measurement of approximately 1.25 pounds.

Sixty Minae (approximately 75 lbs, the amount a single worker was expected to be able to transport) was called a Talent. The Athenian Talent of Silver would be worth approximately $300,000 in today's money. A Golden Talent would be worth considerably more.

With the spread of Greek colonies and Greek culture as far east as Persia and as far west as southern Italy, the Drachma became the standard unit of currency of the ancient world, until a small town on the Tiber river in central Italy conquered the known world.

Next: Part 3 - The Coins of Rome - coming in early 2015.