1. The Dedication of the Heraion

In 1894, during the excavation of the Heraion of Argos, on the platform which extended in front of the main temple, there came to light two unusual objects: one, a bundle of 180 long (120 cm.) thin iron spits, and the other, a solid lingot equal in length to the spits and equal in weight to what seems to have been the original weight of the bundle. The iron spits are rectangular in section and have one end flattened out in the shape of a spear; the solid lingot is also rectangular and is flattened out at about one foot from the end.[1]

The excavator Waldston[2] recognized that the long thin spits of spearlike appearance are the ojbelivskoi mentioned by various literary sources as having been used as money.[3] He also noticed that the very fact that ojbelivskoi had been dedicated at the Heraion was mentioned in a quotation from Herakleides of Pontos in Orion, s.v. ojbolov":

ojbolov". troph/' tou' e eij" o. pro; touvtou ga;r ojbelivskoi" tracevsin ejnomivsteuon ta; prov" staqmovn. oiJ me;n ou]n ”Ione" ojbelov", hJmei'" de; ojbolov". prw'to" de; pavntwn Feivdwn ÆArgevio" novmisma e[koyen ejn Aijgivnh/, kai; didou;" to; novmisma kai; ajnalabw;n tou;" ojbelivskou", ajnevqhke th/' e[n ”Argei {Hra/. ejpeidh/v tovte oiJ ojbelivskoi th/;n cei;ra ejplh/vroun. toutevsti th;n dravka, hJmei'" kaivper mh/; plhrountev" th;n cei''ra toi'" ejx ojboloi'", dracmh;n aujth;n levgomen, para; to; dravxasqai. oJqen e[ti kai; nu'n ojbolostavthn kalou'men to;n tokisth;n, ejpeidh; staqmoi'" tou;" ojbelivskou" paredivdoun oij ajrcaioi. ou{to" ÔHrakleivdh" oJ Pontikov".

The discovery of the very ojbelivskoi mentioned by Herakleides impressed Waldston as “a most striking archaeological confirmation of the statements of ancient historical writers.”[4] This remark had unfortunate consequences, because numismatists followed him in this line of reasoning and concluded that everything Herakleides had said had been confirmed by the spade of the archaeologist. As a result, they based their doctrines of the origin of money on the quotation of Herakleides, without considering why and how he had reached his conclusions. Furthermore, by paying attention to the statements of Herakleides, they failed to consider carefully what information may be derived from the study of the iron objects themselves. They forgot that the significance of an archaeological discovery is conditioned by the exact nature of what is discovered.[5]

Herakleides’ sentence

prw'to" de; pavntwn Feivdwn ÆArgevio" novmisma e[koyen ejn Aijgivnh/, kai; didou;" to; novmisma kai; ajnalabw;n tou;" ojbelivskou", ajnevqhke th/' ejn ”Argei ”Hra/

was singled out and, on the basis of it, the proposition was regarded as definitely proved that Pheidon of Argos was the first to strike coins in Aigina, and that he dedicated the ojbelivskoi at the Heraion, in order to abolish iron currency and substitute in its place his new silver coins.[6] In reality, this contention of Herakleides must be accepted or rejected on its own merits, and cannot be considered as proved by the archaeological findings.

Scholars have been led astray by their surprise that the archaeological discovery was in agreement with the statement of an ancient writer, even though Herakleides mentions only the ojbelivskoi and not the solid ingot. But the coincidence is less startling than it has been believed: since the iron objects were found on the platform of a temple which was built after an older one was destroyed by fire in 423 B.C.,[7] they were to be seen there by any visitor at the time of Herakleides. Hence, finding them there is no more an unusual event than the unearthing of a building or a relic mentioned by Pausanias or Strabo. Naturally, scholars do not accept at face value all that these writers relate about the history of the buildings or temple relics they describe.

The passage of Orion which has been the basis of all papers on the origin of money published in this century, is a quotation from the work peri; ejtumologiw'n of Herakleides of Pontos, the pupil of Plato.[8] This work was written according to the conception of ejtumologiva that Plato derived from the sophists and used in his dialogue Cratylus.[9] It is not grammatical research, but the study of words to expound some point of philosophical doctrine; words are attacked not from the grammatical point of view, as they were later in the Alexandrian schools, but are considered as semantic entities which express the idea embodied in the thing.[10]

Since money is called novmisma or novmo" in Greek, the problem of the nature of money played a great part in Greek philosophical thinking after Hippias of Ellis raised the issue of the distinction between social institutions which exist by nature, fuvsi", and those which exist only by social convention, novmo". The specific question touched upon by Herakleides in the passage quoted by Orion, was one on which there was disagreement between Plato and Aristotle. According to Plato, money has value only by social convention, novmw/ (the nominalist theory of money), whereas according to Aristotle, money has a value by itself, fuvsi, since it is first of all a commodity, creiva (the realist theory of money).[11] Aristotle’s position was in agreement with the practice of most of Greece in his own time, where the medium of exchange was silver coins valuated according to their content in silver. To prove their case, Plato’s school cited the iron money of the Spartans, which they said was useless iron, and therefore had no value as a commodity.[12] This is the reason for Herakleides’ interest in the ojbelivskoi; in the original text he must have mentioned the ojbelivskoi of the Heraion to prove that, before silver coins were introduced, not only the Spartans, but all the Greeks used ojbelivskoi as money.

A passage of Pollux’ chapter on measures and money, derived from good authors,[13] reflects the dispute between Plato’s school and Aristotle (IX 6, 77):

to; mevntoi tw'n ojbolw'n o[noma oiJ me;n o[ti pavlai boupovroi" ojbeloi'" ejcrw'nto pro;" ta;" ajmoiba;", w{n to; uJpo; th/' draki; plh'qo" ejdovkei kalei'sqai dracmh;, ta; dÆojnovmata kai; tou' nomivsmato" metapesovnto" eiJ" th;n nu'n creivan ejnevmeinen ejk th'" mnhvmh" th'" palaia'". jAristotevlh" de; tauto;n levgwn ejn Sikuwnivwn politeiva/ smikrovn ti kainotomei', ojfelou;" aujtou;" dhlou'nto" to; au[xein, aujtw'n de; dia; to; eij" mh`ko" hujxh'sqai w{de klhqevntwn. o{qen kai; to; ojfeivlein wjnomavsqai fhsi;n ou]k oijdæo{pw". ejpi' mevntoi tw'n ojbelw'n uJphllavcqai to; f eij" to; b kata; suggevneian.

From this passage it appears that Plato’s school argued that, although in their own day money consisted of silver which is a commodity, it was derived from something which was not a commodity (metapesovnto" ei[" th;n nu'n creivan), as is proved by the fact that silver money is counted by drachmae and obols. The drachma was originally the name for the handful of ojbelivskoi from which comes the name obol, for the sixth part of the silver drachma. To this Aristotle replied that the obol has nothing to do with ojbelivskoi, but it is so called because it is a fractional unit of the drachma, and a number of obols put together (ojfevllein) make the basic quantity (mh'ko").

Pollux’ source chides Aristotle for his newfangled etymology and in so doing he is right, because the Platonic explanation of the origin of the terms drachma and obol is correct. Nevertheless, one should not jump to the conclusion that everything that Plato’s school defended on this subject is correct, because the reading of Herakleides’ own ejtumologivai, or those of his master Plato, shows how little respect they had for the facts when it was a question of proving a point of doctrine by this method. The sophist tradition of etymology has little to do with the painstaking striving for grammatical and historical precision evident in the etymological researches of Didymos and other Hellenistic scholars. The farcical etymology defended by Aristotle, who in general is a good collector of material evidence, reveals what was meant by etymology in his day.

In my opinion, Herakleides’ explanation is entirely correct as far as the pure etymology of dracmhv and ojbolov" is concerned, but less accurate in the historical details he adds to it; however, my conclusion on the subject must depend on the analysis of all available sources of information.


[1]Described by Charles Waldstein (Waldston), The Argive Heraeum (Boston, 1902), I, 61. 77; Ioannes N. Sboronos (Jean N. Svoronos), Journal International d’Archéologie Numismatique, IX (1905[?], 192; Charles T. Seltman, Athens; Its History and Coinage before the Persian Invasion (Cambridge, 1924), 117; Idem, Greek Coins; A History of Metallic Currency and Coinage down to the Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdom (London, 1933), 34.

[2]Op. cit., I. 62.

[3]E.g., Plutarch, Lysander XVII; Pollux IX, 77.

[4]loc .cit.

[5]Evidence of the scant attention paid to the iron objects in themselves is afforded by Svoronos’ and Seltman’s careless statements about the place of their finding. Svoronos, op. cit., 195, claims that the objects ”were discovered by digging at great depth and amid objects which all antedate the discovery of coined money.” Seltman, Athens, 117, affirms ”that the obeloi were found at the north-east angle of the terrace on the site occupied by the early temple, which had preceded the building burnt down in 423 B.C., that is the temple contemporary with the famous Argive kings.” But according to Waldston, op. cit., I, 77, the objects were found in the process of cleaning the platform in front of the temple built after 423 B.C., among ”deposits of rubbish which evidently dated from a period of destruction in later years, as we here also found a marble head of the Roman period.”

[6]Seltman, Greek Coins, 34; Joseph Grafton Milne, Greek Coinage (Oxford, 1931), 18; idem, The First Steps in the Development of Greek Coinage (Oxford, 1934), 12; Walther Giesecke, Antikes Geldwesen (Leipzig, 1938), 8. Only Percy Gardner, A History of Ancient Coinage; 700–300 B.C. (Oxford, 1918), 113, doubts the validity of this part of Herkakleides’ statement: ”But the assertion that Pheidon issued coins at Aegina is a statement which we cannot accept… it was the weights, not the coinage of Greece, which was due to Pheidon.”

[7]Thukydides IV, 133; cf. Pausanias II, XVII, 7.

[8]Leopold Cohn, “De Heraclide Pontico etymologiarum scriptore antiquissimo,” Commentationes Philologae in Honorem Augusti Reifferscheidei (Breslau, 1884), 84; cf. Henry Theodore Wade-Gery Perachora; The Sanctuaries of Hera Akraia and Limenia, by Humphry Payne and others (Oxford, 1940), 261 n.2.

[9]Cohn, op. cit., 91; cf. Richard Reitzenstein, “Etymologika,” R.E., XI, 808.

[10]Benvenuto Terracini, ”Etimologia,” E.I. XIV, 455.

[11]For Plato money is simply a token (de rep., II, 371 b: xuvmbolon th'" ajllagh'"), whereas for Aristotle it must have an intrinsic value (de rep. I 1257 a: d tw'n crhsivmwn aujto; o[n).

[12]Plato, de leg. 742 a, recommends the use of such a type of currency within the city, limiting the use of gold and silver to foreign trade.

[13]Friedrich Otto Hultsch, M.S., I, 151.