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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: December 2015

2 - Denominational systems

from Appendices (by Andrew Meadows)



The Greek world was not, at any period, unified by a single monetary system. In the Archaic and Classical periods, different city-states adopted different weight-standards for their silver coinages. Moreover, different denominational structures were also used in different places. We are best informed about the denominations in use at the city of Athens, thanks to the spread of Athenian influence in the fifth century BC, and the fact that the Athenian (Attic) system was later adopted and spread by Alexander the Great.

The basic unit was the drachm (‘handful’), which was sub-divided into six obols (‘spits’). All other silver denominations were named by reference to these two basic units of account. The drachm and obol were not the most common denominations, however. In many states, Athens included, the main denomination was the tetradrachm (four drachms). Decadrachms (ten drachms), didrachms (two drachms), drachms (one drachm) and hemidrachms (half-drachms) were also produced. In addition to the obol, diobols (two obols), hemiobols (half-obols), tetartemoria (quarter-obols) and hemitetartemoria (eighth-obols) were also produced. Such small denominations, less than a drachm in value, are often described today as ‘fractions’. In this extensive array of denominations, Athens was exceptional. Most states confined themselves to one or two denominations. The principal denomination in use in a state could also be referred to as a ‘stater’ or ‘standard coin’.

For accounting purposes, units larger than the drachm were available. A ‘mna’ or ‘mnaieion’ consisted of 100 drachms, and a ‘talent’ was made up of 60 mnas or 6,000 drachms. The equivalences in grams of silver of the basic Athenian units of account were:

1 obol = 0.72 g

1 drachm = 6 obols = 4.30 g

1 mna = 100 drachms = 430 g

1 talent = 60 mnas = 600 drachms = 25.80 kg.

During the Hellenistic period bronze coinage became common in many states. At Athens the obol was divided into 8 bronze chalkoi. Half, one, two and four chalkous coins are known.


The Roman monetary system before the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) was complex and unstable. The earliest silver coinage of the late fourth/early third century was essentially based on the Greek drachm system, on a variety of different standards. From the start this coinage was accompanied by bronze money in various forms.