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Greek Coinage

Throughout history and throughout the world all sorts of things have been used for money… beads, shells, salt, amber, cocoa beans, jade, ivory, copper, silver, gold, pigs, oxen, feathers, tobacco and so on. Some of these were selected for portability, some for their decorative appeal, and others for their immediate availability as food. What all had in common is that, for some period of time, they were recognized by the society in which they were used as an acceptable medium of exchange and as a means of paying debt.

There were various occasions in the lives of the early Greeks when they were called upon to make payments. Perhaps someone in the family had deliberately or accidentally (it made no difference!) killed another person. In lieu of killing the offender, arrangements were frequently made to accept an appropriate payment as an alternative- hence the term “ blood money ”. Possibly a father had agreed (occasionally with her consent) to provide his daughter's hand in marriage to a prospective husband. Naturally she was expected to come with an adequate dowry, and one she was entitled to get back with interest should the marriage not work out. (In earlier times, the dowry arrangements were reversed. Originally, it was a payment made to the father of the bride by the prospective groom in compensation for the loss of the daughter's services. But times change!) There were also taxes to be paid, tribute that was expected, the need to fulfill religious obligations, opportunities to trade with foreign merchants – all demands which could be easily satisfied via a portable and widely-accepted currency.

According to Herodotus, the “father of history”, it was the Lydians ( Lydia was located adjacent to Ionia in Western Asia Minor…present day Turkey) who were the first to invent and use silver and gold coinage (around 650 BC). From Lydia, its usage spread throughout the Greek realm and soon cities such as Aegina, Corinth, Rhodes and Athens were minting their own coins, according to their own standards.

The first generation of coins produced by the Lydians was made of electrum, a naturally-occurring pale yellow alloy of gold and silver, commonly called white gold. These were not perfectly circular like today's coins. In fact, they looked somewhat like squashed kidney beans or flat pebbles with a stamped design on one side. (If you want to get a good approximation of the size and shape of early coins, make a short rope out of plasticene or putty and squeeze it between your thumb and forefinger. What you will be left with is a piece of material indented in the middle with irregular edges, thicker in some places than others. This made the coins difficult to stack.

Also, because the shapes and thickness of the coins varied it wasn't long before some enterprising cheaters began to shave bits off the thicker parts of the coins. The minters responded by putting extensive designs on the coins and by impressing a raised circle around the rim. These only remotely resembled the handsome coins that eventually would be distributed by any Greek city-state of significant size, the coins proudly bearing the city's emblem on one side and, perhaps, the head of its patron god or goddess on the other. It is enlightening to look at the evolution of coin production.

The early coin producer would take a valuable metal (gold, silver, copper), weigh out the appropriate amount for the coin he was minting, heat the metal until it was malleable enough to fit into an iron or bronze mold (die) and then hit the metal with a hammer to flatten it out. What resulted was a flattish, irregularly shaped object that could be used as money. Later minters or coin producers improved upon the process, engraving images in the die that could be transferred to the coin and, eventually, adding a second engraved die so images could be impressed unto the two sides of the coin with the same strike of the hammer.

The ever-competitive Greek city-states then did with coinage what they did in so many other cases. They improved it by adding beauty, minting coins during the 5th Century BC that have often been described as the most beautiful coins ever made. It was the Greek sense of aesthetics at work. Cities vied with each other to produce quality coinage that proudly carried imagery representative of the city far beyond its borders…the owl of Athens, the turtle of Aegina, the Pegasus of Corinth. The best instrument of propaganda until the invention of the printing press was probably the coin.

Sparta , which always seemed to be the exception to the standard Greek way of doing things, lived up to her reputation. As a society, they had concluded that the accumulation of wealth was not a Spartan value. But there was a need to pay debt among themselves, so they went with the iron spit (a slender, pointed iron rod used to hold meat over the fire) as their unit of currency. Prior to the introduction of coinage virtually all of Greece used these 3 ft (1m) lengths of iron as currency but Sparta was the only state to continue that usage while other states were using more precious metals. The cooking spit, which was about 3 ft. (1m) long, did have a long history as a unit of currency dating back to Homer. In fact the drachma coin seems to have derived its name from drax which means “handful” referring to the half-dozen iron spits one could hold in one hand.

The names of a couple of dozen coins are known and examples exist. Why they survived and were not melted down for their metal content is the result of where ancient Greeks tended to store their wealth- buried in the ground. A number of these hoards have been unearthed in modern times. Some of the more common denominations were as follows:

Obol = the smallest silver coin, equal to one cooking spit
6 obols
= made up a drachma
1 stater
= equaled two ( or sometimes three) drachmas
100 drachmas
= 1 mina
60 minas = 1 talent
12 chalkoi = 1 obol
(The chalkoi were made of copper.)

It is difficult to make a comparison between our currency today and the currency of ancient Greece. According to the historian Donald Kagan (The Peloponnesian War, page 61) one talent was the cost to build one warship of the trireme class. It was also the cost of paying the crew of that warship for a month (approximately 200 bodies). The published accounts of the Parthenon construction project (which were engraved in stone and put out in the agora for everyone to see) said the temple cost 469 talents. (A talent represented 57 lb (26 kg.) of silver. An ordinary clay pot sold for one obol. A labourer working at the time of Pericles could expect to earn 2-3 obols per day while an artisan or specialized tradesman such as a stonemason earned twice that. One could buy an upper-middle-class house for about 3000 drachmas or ½ talent. Then, as now, people in the entertainment business made disproportionately more than anyone else. The famous 4th Century actor Polus is reputed to have received one talent for only two performances.

Usually Greeks carried coins in their mouths since their clothing lacked pockets. When someone died they were buried with a couple of coins in their mouth to pay the ferryman Charon their passage across the river Styx to the underworld.