Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX J Classical Greek Currency in Thucydides

©1. By the time of the Peloponnesian War, many Greek city-states, whether by themselves or organized into leagues, were minting their own coins, primarily in silver. They minted much less often in gold, a far more valuable metal, but the Persian Empire produced gold coins that the Greeks called “Dane staters.” During the Peloponnesian War gold seems to have been worth about thirteen to fourteen times the value of silver. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, gradually became common for minting coins of small value. Most Greek coinages were used only in their own region. Only a handful of mints, Athens among them, produced coins that people were willing to accept internationally.

©2. The many different mints identified their coinages via designs and inscriptions, but they did not usually include an indication of a coin’s value as money, as modern currency does. Users were expected to know how much a particular coin was worth. Greek silver and gold coinages derived perhaps as much as 95 percent of their monetary value from the intrinsic bullion value of the precious metal in each coin; the remaining value was added by the implicit guarantee that the authority issuing a coin would redeem it and thus prevent a consumer from winding up with worthless currency. Bronze coins constituted what today we call a “fiduciary coinage,” whose value comes from the guarantee that its minting authority would redeem it rather than from any intrinsic value of the material from which it is made. (Almost all currency in use today is fiduciary.)

©3. Since intrinsic metallic value was so important in Greek coinages, the weight of a coin was directly related to its value. (For everyday purposes Greeks seem to have assumed that the purity of officially minted coins was essentially the same.) A Greek mint therefore produced its various denominations of coins corresponding to a system of weights. Numerous and different weight standards were in use in the Greek world. The most commonly mentioned Greek silver denomination, the drachma (plural @ drachmae),weighed somewhat more than 4.3 grams as minted at Athens on the so-called Attic standard. The nearby mint of Aegina, by contrast, minted a drachma weighing 6.1 grams and therefore worth about 40 percent more than the Athenian drachm. Six obols equaled one drachma, and some mints, such as that of Aegina (5.47.6), produced obols and fractions of obols as smaller denominations. The reference at Thucydides 8.101.1 to coins of Chios called “fortieths” may also refer to a small denomination, but we lack other evidence to clarify this obscure term.

©4. Coins larger than the drachma also existed; the largest denomination in each weight system is known as a stater. Silver staters represented different multiples of the drachma in different weight standards. The mention of staters at Thucydides 3.70.4, for example, is usually taken as referring to Corinthian staters, which were equivalent to three-drachmae-each on the Corinthian standard (whose drachma weighed about 2.9 grams). The staters of Phocaea mentioned in Thucydides 4.52.2 refer to coins weighing about 16.1 grams and minted from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver that only a few Greek mints used. A Phocaean electrum stater was probably worth about twenty-four Athenian drachmae (sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less as exchange rates fluctuated). As I mentioned above, the Greeks also referred to Persian gold coins as “staters”; these coins weighed about 8.4 grams.

©5. People wishing to exchange different currencies had to make careful calculations of relative values, and moneychangers charged a hefty fee of about 5-7 percent for their services. As the text of Thucydides shows (e.g., 1.96.2; 3.50.2), Greeks could calculate large sums of money by using terms of Mesopotamian origin that literally referred to weights and not to existing denominations. The largest such unit was the talent, which meant a weight of just over twenty-six kilograms (about fifty-seven pounds), or a value in Athenian coin equivalent to six thousand drachmae. A mina(plural @ minae) stood for one hundred drachmae (and therefore one-sixtieth of a talent). No mints produced coins that approached these values. Since the terms “talent” and “mina” strictly speaking referred to weights, they could be used to indicate amounts of precious metal still in bullion form (see 6.8.1).

©6. The only meaningful way to measure the value of ancient money in its own time is to study wages and prices. Before the inflation characteristic of the Peloponnesian War period, an unskilled laborer could expect to earn two obols per day. Toward the end of the fifth century that had risen to a drachma a day, which is what a rower in the Athenian fleet was paid. Since a trireme (see Appendix G, Trireme Warfare) warship carried a crew of about two hundred men, it cost one talent per month to pay the crew of a fully manned ship (i.e., six thousand drachmae, calculated as 30 days × 200 men at 1 drachma per day). Therefore, Athens needed at least six hundred talents to keep a fleet of one hundred triremes operational for six months.

©7. By about 425 B.C. a citizen of Athens received three obols for each day spent on jury duty. This payment seems to have been enough to make jury service attractive for men who could use the money to supplement other income. It was not enough money, however, to replace a day’s pay for most workers. Food and clothing could be very expensive by modern Western standards. Enough barley to provide a day’s porridge, the dietary staple, for a family of five cost only one-eighth of an obol, but a gallon of olive oil, another staple, cost three drachmas. A woolen cloak cost from five to twenty drachmae, while a pair of shoes could set a customer back from six to eight drachmae.

Thomas R. Martin
Classics Department
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, Massachusetts

See Thucydides 8.28.4. It was presumably named after the Persian king Darius I (521-485 B.C.). Some manuscripts of the text read “Doric stater,” but this is an obvious mistake.

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