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Denominations of tiny Greek fractions


Valentinian

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There is very little academic literature focusing on early Greek silver fractions. When states first minted coins for small transactions the coins themselves had to be small or very small because the value of a coin was in its precious metal and tetradrachms and drachms were far too valuable to use to buy a loaf of bread or a cup of wine, so smaller coins were produced. Eventually, it was realized that bronze coins could serve, but the earliest small-denomination coins were small silver coins.

Here is a small Greek coin from Teos in Ionia. It is some fraction of an obol. But, which fraction?

SG4578eIoniaTeos23104.jpg.abfbbef94f6bfdbfabfb5d9c4e4726fe.jpg

6.2-5.9 mm. 0.12 grams. (Discussed further, below). Dated to 520-478 BC.

We see many labeled with denominations like "obol," "hemiobol," "trihemiobol," "tetartemorion" (quarter-obol), and even "hemitetartemorion." Because the value depends upon the amount of silver, that is, its weight, when coins weigh different amounts we tend to call them different denominations. But we can wonder if the ancients really were that accurate in producing tiny coins of target weights and if their users could tell them apart in practice. 
 
City-states did not all use the same weight standards, but 0.7 grams is a typical target weight for an obol, 0.35 grams for a hemiobol, 0.18 grams for a tetartemorian, etc. Some "obols" are heavier. 

It is interesting that most ancient cities did not distinguish denominations by giving different denominations significantly different designs. Most cities used the same design, or a similar design, for all denominations. Even in later periods, for example, you don't distinguish an Alexander the Great tetradrachm from a drachm by the design; you do it by size (weight). 

When the sizes are very small, this can be a problem. Here is a case in point, Teos in Ionia, minting fractions c. 500 BC. Look at the sizes and weights of these four examples. 

Teos issued coins with griffins. What denominations are they? Their large coins have a griffin seated and smaller ones only the head. That is not to say coins need to be large to have a whole griffin.

SG4578IoniaTeos04142f.jpeg.b3e38de854e433552ec4411c2b9ceab8.jpeg

7 mm. 0.33 grams. Full winged-griffin. Four-part incuse square.
Here are many citations with weights.

SNG Copenhagen Ionia, Teos, 1442 is a "hemiobol" of 0.54 grams of the same design. Weber 6213 volume III, page 309, is a "hemiobol" of 0.29 grams. [Note those are two quite-different weights called the same denomination.] Sear Greek II, 4578 has this design as a "trihemiobol, c. 1.48 grams" (which would make an obol nearly 1.0 grams. Maybe Sear's 4578 is really a "diobol" with an obol of 0.74 grams). DeCallatay (Archaic and Classiques) page 192 type 192 mentions an article by Balcer in SNR (1968) with 23 "tetartemoria" of c. 0.23 grams (I don't have the article and don't know the range) and 1 hemitartemorion of 0.11 grams. [See below for a 0.12 gram example.]

SG4578IoniaTeos0953s.jpeg.2be3240443fc05b92d2447fdd6c3e8ae.jpeg

Griffin's head only. Four-part incuse square.
6.5 mm. 0.29 grams.
Klein 481 is 0.23 grams. SNG Turkey I, Kayhan, 603 is 0.16 grams.
Rosen 603 is 0.24 grams. 

Could a bartender tell it apart from this one?

SG4578eIoniaTeos23104.jpg.abfbbef94f6bfdbfabfb5d9c4e4726fe.jpg
 
6.2-5.9 mm. 0.12 grams. Same designs as above, but only about half the weight. The diameters are not much different. 
 
Here is another coin of Teos, with the Griffin's wing but not the whole body.

SG4578IoniaTeos0952c.jpg.8c44278fc45c2a878760f0a0b97bb5b8.jpg

6 mm. 0.24 grams. A griffin with head and wing, but not the full body. Note the weight is similar to that of the head-only type (two coins above). 

If an ancient were to spend one of these at a tavern, did the proprietor have a tiny balance to weigh them? Did he heft it in his palm and have a feel for what it should weigh? Did he quibble if the weight is supposed to be 0.3 and it weighs 0.24? Is a coin of 0.12 grams just an inaccurate attempt at 0.24 grams and accepted anyway?
 
I welcome your thoughts.

Greek silver fractions are far more common in the ancient-coin market than they were before the internet made selling them much easier than it used to be. I hope that will provoke academic articles on early silver fractions. 

Show us some small Greek silver fractions and, if you have them, give their diameters and weights and supposed denominations. 
 
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Great coins @Valentinian. I was reading an article recently about the economy of early Thrace in the silver producing region of Mt. Pangae and the author used the presence or absence of fractional coinage to distinguish the mints that were part of towns from those that were likely only trading emporions.

I would assume, in practice that the merchants were pretty adept at distinguishing between denominations even at the small fractional level. After all their livelihood depended on it.

My favorite fractional coin is this one struck by Themistokles. Fortunately, there has been some good articles about his fractions and I was able to translate them from the original German and summarize some of the details on a post over at CoinTalk.

Themistokles_Hemiobol.jpeg.bbd134f53682824d4fac79090d0f5b2d.jpeg

IONIA, Magnesia ad Maeandrum
Themistokles, AR Hemiobol, struck ca. 465-459 BC
Dia.: 8 mm
Wt.: 0.24 g
Obv.: Head of Hephaistos right, wearing laureate pilos; Θ-E flanking /
Rev.: ΘE monogram in dotted square border within incuse square.
Ref.: Nollé & Wenninger 5a; Cahn & Gerin 8 = SNG München 585; SNG Copenhagen; 
Very rare.
Ex Gerhard Plankenhorn Collection of Ionian Coins, Ex Numismatik Naumann 97, lot 1025 (Jan. 6, 2020)

 

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Small denomination are my favorites. When seeing them the first time, I was amazed about the artistry and the technique the ancient moneyers were capable of. 
Adding artistic images on coins well under 10 mm is still something that amazes me. 

Here are my favorite examples, with pictures taken by me (photographing these is a challenge)

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Ionia. Miletos circa 525-475 BC. 5 mm, 0,08 g.
Hemitetartemorion AR Cf. Rosen 407/8. Klein 430; SNG Tubingen 3001;
Head of a roaring lion l. R / Quail standing l. within incuse square
Possible Caria, Mylasa

 

Note - the weight is NOT a typo. 

 

image.png.404b943ff8e5411df84174e52baec9f9.png

Mysia. Lampsakos circa 500-450 BC. Tetartemorion 7 mm, 0,14 g.
Male head (of Apollo?) to left, wearing taenia. Rev: Head of Athena to left, wearing Corinthian helmet, within incuse square. Asia Minor Coins, #12762; similar to CNG E-Auction 378 (2016), 161; Pecunem Online Auctions Auction 39 3 January 2016, lot 257; otherwise unpublished in the standard references

 

image.png.e89ee0069335bc00aabc318bba36da9b.png

Ionia, Phokaia. Circa 521-478 BC. AR Tetartemorion. 7 mm, 0,18 g.
Head of griffin left / Incuse punch.
Cf. SNG Kayhan 514–6 (hemidrachms) and 1428 (diobol).
It is possible that this issue may belong to Abdera or Teos, both of which also issued early silver coins with griffins on the obverse.

 

image.png.1c36ffce4db3f098ab5d1cedde6b2e89.png

Caria. Uncertain mint circa 500-400 BC.
Tetartemorion AR
7 mm, 0,19 g
Confronted bull heads / Forepart of bull right, within incuse square.
SNG Kayhan 969

 

image.png.757b1db28fe040f4f316bb064b52e0d3.png

Mysia. Kyzikos circa 525-475 BC (other sources - 450 or 480-400 BC) Tetartemorion AR 8 mm, 0,18 g Forepart of boar left, tunny to right / Head of roaring lion left, star to upper left, all within incuse square. Von Fritze II 14; SNG France 375.

 

image.png.6e81479b7d895383a84866e43f741529.png

Lesbos, Methymna. Circa 400 BC. AR Hemiobol. 7 mm 0,30 g
Bearded head of Silenos facing / Tortoise in dotted square frame. Unpublished with square frame but several known.
Aufhäuser 14, 127; Lanz 117, 112; G & M 196, 1632. Cf Traité 2263 (circular frame)

image.png.3a08b7dc5ee7d03822916fedcbc9342c.png

Attica. Athens circa 454-404 BC. Hemiobol AR
6 mm, 0,27 g.
Obv. Helmeted head of Athena right. Rev. AΘΕ ; Owl right head facing, wings folded, olive-leaf and berry behind, all within an incuse square.
Sear SG 2531

image.png.653922bc226801f5769b9b62889bac32.png

Moesia. Istrus circa 280 - 256/255 BC Obol or Trihemiobol AR 12 mm, 0,77 g
Facing male heads, the left one inverted / IΣTΡIH, Sea-eagle left on dolphin, ΔI beneath dolphin.
Dima, Tabelul III, Grupa IV, Subgrupa VII, II – Pl XXI, 10

 

3 hours ago, Valentinian said:

If an ancient were to spend one of these at a tavern, did the proprietor have a tiny balance to weigh them? Did he heft it in his palm and have a feel for what it should weigh? Did he quibble if the weight is supposed to be 0.3 and it weighs 0.24? Is a coin of 0.12 grams just an inaccurate attempt at 0.24 grams and accepted anyway?

This is a very good question. I wonder if a normal person could distinguish an overweight tetartemorion from an underweight hemiobol for example. 

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Here is my only Greek coin, which also qualifies as the smallest coin in my entire pile. It was sold to me as an "Obol." I believe it has a diameter of 9mm - 10mm.

1_250_to_190_BCE_Pisidia_AR_Obol_01.png.5c6dd6cb0e5881c8ebc9c2ea91ca16ac.png1_250_to_190_BCE_Pisidia_AR_Obol_02.png.88b31c08a7c3d42561c4187eda195074.png
Pisidia; Selge; c. 250 - 190 BCE; AR Obol; 0.89 grams; Obv: Facing gorgeoneion; Rev: Helmented head of Athena right,
astragalos to left; SNG Ashmolean 1546 - 50, SNG BN 1948-

 

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Great coins @Valentinian, @Curtisimo, and @ambr0zie.

These tiny coins were not collected before the age of metal detectors because in their uncleaned state they rarely look like coins.  They look like pebbles.  Every year I see more and more in auctions described as unpublished denominations.

@Valentinian tells the usual story, that this was an early phenomenon, before people realized bronze was a good metal for coins.  Here is an early example, often described as being from 550-525 BC:

xe7FN6tF3roXZp5gXfH8dP4EJ22qbi.jpg.4f086a6eb240a751b0555ad383631efa.jpg

Ionia, Miletos Circa 550-500 BC, tetartemorion or 1/48 stater?, 5.5mm, 0.14g
Obv: Facing lion head within a triangular border of dots
Rev: Incuse stellate/stellite pattern.
Ref: cf. SNG Kayhan 461, Klein 423. This example has a solid circle around the center pellet, and a diamond whose edges intersect the four rays.
 

The Greeks switched to bigger bronze coins.  People continued to experiment with tiny silver coins.  Here is an example from 500 years later:

8YzHgc7He4BLGfF92pFdgX52Z6aA3w.jpg.d3d596de741afcc0a1e384898365d37f.jpg

CELTIC, Atrebates & Regni tribes, Verica 10-40 AD, "minim" 0.15g.  I forgot to record the diameter but it's tiny.
Obv: COF (or C and F separated by circle?) within rectangle, pellet-within-ring above and below, all within border of dots.
Rev: [VERICA]; Facing head of Medusa (or Cernunnos?)
Ref: SCBC (Standard Catalogue of British Coins) 141, Van Arsdell 384-1 (old numbering) (See also 488-1)
Acquired August 2017; said to be from the estate of Tom Cederlind but without his ticket.

Some people never believed bronze is better and very light silver coins keep appearing.  Here is another of my favorites:

ottoman-1835-akce-both.jpg.a906a4efdc5a0f1f3479a3961adedfc5.jpg

1835 Turkey, para, Mahmud II, Constantinople, 12.5mm, 0.11g.  KM# 594.

This one has a bigger diameter than the last two but weights even less!  It looks and feels like a sequin.  (Our word "sequin" itself comes from a much larger Venetian coin).

Certainly no one would do this today?  Wrong.  Here is a coin from 2020, said to be from "Rwanda" but somehow I doubt the markets of Kigali are overflowing with these.

rwanda-2020-both.jpg.3374239b32e4eea585a4b674bb3b8426.jpg (reference photo, mine didn't photograph well.)

"Rwanda".  2020.  10 francs.  8mm, 0.155g.

The "Rwanda" coin is so tiny it comes from the manufacturer embedded in something the size of the business card so it doesn't get lost.

Switzerland made a much smaller gold 1/4 franc depicting Einstein a few years ago.  It sold out instantly.

 

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The problem with bronze coins, and silver in fact, was how reliably they could be exchanged for gold. In optimal circumstances, it didn't matter what the metal content was, as you could reliably buy a silver coin with a fixed number of bronze coins. But if you couldn't trust the promised exchange rate (such as if the ruler wasn't secure or was prone to short-changing the population), you'd fall back on the bullion value, which was a function of supply and demand. That meant the relative values of bronze, silver and gold kept changing, which drove inflation, counterfeiting and financial instability.

I imagine then that in times of turmoil, traders in the market would've used scales and weighed the coins. This would surely also be the case if you went to a different city and they used a different system. The denominations would help you get to the right amount quicker, but you still essentially traded in bullion.

Ideally, you had your coins in one metal, not three. In medieval Europe, that was silver. Of course, this caused problems with both high value transactions and small change, and they eventually re-introduced gold. Coin weights were then used so you could make sure you were getting the right bullion value for the denomination.

But the problem of small change persisted, especially when the price of silver went up (and coin sizes went down). It may have been that coins were not often used for such transactions. You didn't need money when you were tied to the land of a particular landowner who also provided your food and lodgings. In Europe it only became essential when the industrial revolution drove people into cities and barter was no longer an option. 

In England it took until the nineteenth century to successfully re-introduce copper. That happened only once they'd developed a banking sector where people had confidence in trading virtual money (like bank notes) and the bullion value of coins could finally be taken out of the equation. Now coins are made of copper, nickel and steel.

Here's another tiny coin from Verica. He seems to have persisted with silver when the rival Catuvellauni were using bronze.

Verica Minim, AD10-40
image.png.95aca613c3a7a7ab71b5fc6f6e4a5414.png
Silchester or Chichester, Atrebates tribe. Silver, 7mm, 0.35g. Wine cup; REX above. Eagle right; VERICA COMMI F around (S 159).

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I really like the little silvers and have posted most of mine here before.  I remain of the opinion that it is wrong to force the denomination names of the coins of Athens on other cities that operated on different standards but I am completely unaware of any scholarly work that addresses the questions raised by these coins.  While I do use words like tetartemorion for small silvers of what is now Turkey, I sincerely believe this is most likely incorrect.  However we really can not use a measurement system like AR5 and AR10 since the small coins from some cities are several times as thick as those of another so an AR5 can weight over twice as much as another coin of the same diameter from a different place.  I simply do not know what we should do. 

My favorite little silvers are from Italy and Sicily where we have evidence the base unit was the litra rather than the obol.  fractions were sometimes marked with dots based on twelve dots = one unit.  I have two from Syracuse  which are at least very rare and never seen compared to the full size whole litra.  

Whole litra with no mark is too big to be really tiny at 0.7g. It is a common type and often seen in sales.

g20400fd1852.jpg.673367d267950860afdf847a4db120d7.jpg

Half  (6 dots) adds six dots (6/12).  This is the only one I have seen.  Grade?  Terrible but the style is fine.

g20410aa2035.jpg.bed8773899c15529a7527aa784b02164.jpg

 

Two dots would make this tiny coin a hexas (1/6 litra).  Weights are deceptive when the coin is chipped or peeling as is this one  which should weigh twice as much to fit the pattern.

g20420aa0595.jpg.bd94727a03306f9344f4011ea76af578.jpg

 

I said there was evidence that the while should be called a litra.  I interpret the lambda iota under the crab on this coin to designate the denomination of this 0.68g silver of Akragas. g20362bb2675.jpg.8be9cd31757d2088fdae3fc950592647.jpg

 

My favorite little silver of Magna Graecia is this 0.25g Sybaris bull.   If you believe the four dots mean 4/12 this would be a trias.  There are coins of this general type with what seems to be random dots and weights BUT many of them are in poor enough shape that I am not sure what is causing the discrepancies.  BTW Sybaris abbreviated the city name MY with the sigma turned 90 degrees from what later times saw appropriate.  I date this coin to the early period before the city was destroyed in 509 BC.   I would appreciate hearing if anyone has any silver smaller than a drachm from Sybaris.  Are there other smaller coins? 

g10085rp0521.jpg.3dc64595c6b06f04c5c19426c941b69f.jpg

Also tiny is this 0.1g 'hexas' of Rhegion (RE) showing a facing lion.  It is quite thick but chipped.

g10310bb1988.jpg.a58db33c99fc7c2602f563927b6bac10.jpg

 

From the other side of the straits and later (mid 5th century???) is this 0.6g hare from Messana.  

g20380bb2039.jpg.bab68e5b4b6a95d7964b8ee8f7a77e12.jpg

Both too heavy to be of great interest in my 'smaller is better' set are two litra? of Metapontum with incuse reverse designs.  One has a reverse of one barley grain rather than the whole head of barley found on the other. 

g10080bb2360.jpg.9b031237d468faedebac4de2e23398e0.jpg

...but what is that sitting there obverse right? 

g10082fd2500.jpg.0c4c04996896b0525b5beb62e8ff36dd.jpg

Condition oriented collectors won't like these tiny coins.  They tend to be individual finds not buried in protective pots do corrosion is pretty standard.  I'd guess I have seen a hundred Eastern coins for every Western type under half a gram. 

 

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Wonderful coins that fascinated me for a long time. This hemiobol is tiny enough, but in the shadows behind the roaring lion another predator is lurking. 

1007gr.jpg.3cb5e0663a6151cc9235ac58430b9294.jpg

1007. AR hemiobol, 450-400 BC. Kyzikos, Mysia. Obv. Roaring lion under facing head of a panther. Rev. Protome of a boar with a mirrored K on its side. 9.5 mm, 0.36 gr. 

According to the description it is a panther, but to me it looks like an angry rat. A two millimeter rat.

1007detail.jpg.cda1d6470aaa9d84c28e4735b0082299.jpg

In the course of time I collected some Persian siglos fractions. Here's a little Achaemenid family:

QuartetSigloianm.jpg.3bf3e4cca44228a88e4db92018299ad5.jpg

QuartetSigloibnm.jpg.b90428be7d1a123f213719d317a61c72.jpg

1. AR Siglos. Carradice type IV (late) C. King running with 2 ringlets on his shirt, forming an 8 figure. Artaxerxes II - Darius III, c. 375-336 BC. 14 mm, 3.70 gr. It’s a fourrée.
2. AR Quarter Siglos. Carradice Type IV, Group B. Time of Xerxes II - Artaxerxes II, c.420-375 BC. 8 mm, 1.27 gr.
3. AR Quarter Siglos. Carradice type IV? Time of Xerxes II - Artaxerxes II, c.420-335 BC. 9 mm, 1.21 gr.
4. AR 1/24 Siglos. Carradice type II, time of Darius I, c.510-486 BC. 5 mm, 0.21 gr.
My most recent acquisition in this field: 
1095s.jpg.19c78e0f1fed2feab33e28c8d6925c3b.jpg
1095. Iran, Achaemenid Empire. Temp. Artaxerxes III to Darios III. (4th century BC.) AR Tetartemorion (1/24 siglos). Obv.: Persian Great King in kneeling-running stance right, holding dagger in his right hand and bow in his left. Rev. Forepart of a energetic horse to right. 6.5 mm, 0.20 gr. Sunrise 101. 
 
 
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Found an interesting article on Academia about these types of coins, including an illustrated catalog: 

https://www.academia.edu/76835872/Bogenschützen_auf_Kleinsilbermünzen_vor_333_v_Chr_Tetartemoria_aus_Kleinasien

It was written by Nicolas Corfù-Assur, who also wrote elsewhere about these little coins: The Tetartemorion, the smallest pre-Hellenistic silver-coin.
January 2017. On the Conference: XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015 Proceedings. 

Academia gives the possibility to translate (roughly) complete article in one blink of the eye, very useful.

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6 hours ago, Pellinore said:

Found an interesting article on Academia about these types of coins, including an illustrated catalog: 

Thank you very much for the references. I'll read the articles. 

Here is an obol from Lampsakos in Mysia:

image.jpeg.1dab1bf2b8a8538e4d0379b0b2af39b0.jpeg

11.8-8.8 mm. 0.789 grams.
Janiform female archaic head
Helmeted head of Athena left
SNG France 6.1, Lampsakos 1127-1131. "c. 500 - 450"
SNG Danish IV Mysia 184-186. "C. 500-470 BC"
SNG von Aulock I 1290 "1st half of 5th C. BC"
Sear Greek II, a minor variety of 3880, lacking only an ornament on Athena's helmet. 

By the way, the my image was so large it made the coin look much larger than it is, so after inserting the image I double clicked on it which brings up a menu which allows changing the size of the image in a post. I reduced it substantially so it looks more like the small coin it is.

 

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I imagine that thousands of these tiny fractions are sitting in the spoil piles of 18th and 19th century archeological digs.

Ionia. Kolophon. Circa 530-500 BC. AR Forty-Eighth (5mm, 0.13g). Obv: Archaic head of Apollo left. Rev: Rough incuse square. Ref: Kim & Kroll (ANJ 20), 277b (O146/R133); SNG Kayhan 343-347 (tetartemoria); cf. SNG von Aulock 1810 (hemiobol). 

image.jpeg.7adadaf1fafd4054821d7700e530efb4.jpeg

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