Friday, March 27, 2009


Many of the coins in my collection are very small. Here is the obverse of a gorgon/helmet fraction. I cannot find my scan of the reverse (and of course the coin is in the safety deposit box.)

The coin is 6.5mm in diameter and weighs 0.22g. The reverse type can be seen on this example on CoinArchives. Although LHS attributed the coin to Maroneia an example from M&M appears to have the letters O-Π in the corners suggesting NEOΠ or Neapolis.

Collectors of ancients often praise the engraving skills of the ancients but look how small the statue of Lincoln in the memorial is! (It was mechanically reduced, of course.)


lwht said...


I wonder what such a small coin could purchase?

I have a Delos bronze about 9 mm in diameter, bearing the head of Apollo on the obverse, which really tests my aging eye sight. I dare not handle when suffering a bout of hay fever. One sneeze and it would disappear, blown to oblivion! By the 2nd century BC Delos had evolved into the centre of the Mediterranean slave trade. Strabo recorded that up to 10,000 unfortunate people per day were trafficked through its slave market. This would have required quite a fleet of transport vessels with rapid turnaround. I think the small Delos bronze may have been the ancient equivalent of "coffee break money" passed to the crews of such vessels to facilitate a quick shore break while turning around a cargo of poor unfortunates.

But what purpose your minute Maroneia (or Neapolis) bronze some 30% smaller than my Delos bronze? It can hardly have been sufficient to purchase much more than a glass of water and handling these specks of bronze must have been a bit problematic, particularly for those of failing eye sight. Perhaps they were some sort of religious token or offering?


lwht said...

I now realize my error, in that he diminutive Gorgon is a silver fraction and so of reasonable value at the time of its mintage. Still it must have been a bit of a struggle carrying and transacting in such small coins. No wonder bronze fiduciary coinage was developed rapidly thereafter.


Ed Snible said...

I don't have a good answer. With silver coins the assumption is that they were used for small transactions before folks trusted fiat bronze coinage. The ratio of value between bronze and silver was 125:1 (according to Historia Numorum, page liv). The bronze equivalent of my 0.22g gorgon/helmet would have weighted 27.5g which would be hard to manufacture. Also, it's possible that folks didn't actually use the tiny denominations for spending. I read somewhere the theory that the tiny denominations were used when buying something from a seller who insisted on full weight. The buyer would put down a stater and then add tiny fractions until the scale balanced. I don't know how credible that theory is.

I also don't know why folks started trusting fiat bronze. In China there are records that the government insisted on taxes being paid in fiat bronze. That would have created a demand for them and got them circulating at the pegged value. Perhaps something similar happened in Greece? A tiny bronze would be easy to make. It is convenient to have different denominations in different sizes as well.

lwht said...

I read somewhere that bronze coinage is thought to have originated (in Europe at least) in the mid-fifth century BC in Sicily, probably in the city of Himera. The intrinsic value of bronze coins was considerably less than the circulating value placed on the coins by the issuing authorities, thus marking the introduction of fiat coinage as a means of exchange. The value difference between the intrinsic value of the metal and the nominal value made a strong incentive for rulers to mint bronze (i.e. to make money literally and figuratively). With this incentive, by the latter part of the fifth century the practice of issuing base metal coinage appears to have spread throughout most of the city-states of Sicily. From here, the practice spread to Greece and ultimately the rest of the Greek world by the start of the third century BC.

It is recorded that some people coming to the Athenian agora carried small (silver) coins in their mouth. Practical perhaps in the days before the advent of pockets, but the risk of ingestion must have been high. With the advent of bronze coinage, the very small precious metal coins largely disappeared from mintage by the late third century BC, no doubt improving the digestive health of the populace at large, while further enriching the minting authorities.

Scott M. Head said...

Great photo, love the side by side comparison.