5. Weighed Currency

Once the nature of the long thin iron spits of the Heraion has been defined, the next problem is to ascertain the purpose of the solid lingot which was found with them, and to explain why they were set up as sacred property (ajnavqhma) together.

There can be no doubt that the solid lingot is a standard of weight; but if it is a standard of weight, what does it have to do with the neighboring objects which are not weighed? When confronted with this problem, Svoronos,[83] although he had recognized that the ojbelivskoi are utensil-money defined by shape, made the hypothesis that they are also measured by weight and that the solid lingot is a reference weight used in their manufacture. This explanation, which has been accepted by Seltman,[84]  is hardly satisfactory, because the idea of weight is foreign to the nature of utensil-money; besides, if the ojbelivskoi had been measured by weight, there would have been no need to make them of a certain definite shape, since weight provides a more exact standard. If the ojbelivskoi had to conform both to a certain definite shape and to a certain weight, their manufacture would have been quite a problem for the metallurgists of ancient Greece who were able to make silver coins of the same weight, but not of the same contour.

Even supposing that a reference weight was necessary for the manufacture of ojbelivskoi, one or a few ojbelivskoi would have been much more useful than a solid lingot weighing as much as 180 of them. The solid lingot could be used only to test whether 180 ojbelivskoi are of a certain average weight. And it is this idea of average weight embodied in the solid lingot that can give the key to the problem. If, on the one hand, there is a bundle of 180 ojbelivskoi and, on the other, there is a solid lingot of the same weight, this means that the purpose of the lingot was to find the average weight of the ojbelivskoi. They were so different in weight that 180 of them were necessary to get a good average.

My interpretation is that at a certain point somebody decided to measure the iron currency according to weight—as was done for the silver currency—and for this purpose dedicated the objects of the Heraion. Although, to those used to weighed currency, it may seem self-evident that a piece of iron of the same weight as that of a roasting spit has the same value as the roasting spit, this concept is not easily accepted by those used to judging money according to shape. It would be difficult, indeed, to convince the natives who use millstones as money that a rock of the same weight has the same value; conversely, as the dialogue Eryxias[85] points out, an Athenian would not have given any monetary value to all the stones of the Agora, while the Ethiopians accepted shaped stones as money. Therefore, since the first requisite of money is acceptability, those who thought of applying weight to iron currency had to convince the public; to this effect, they put on an exhibition at the Heraion, on one side a bundle of ojbelivskoi of the usual shape, and on the other, a solid lingot of the same weight as the bundle. To dramatize the equivalence between the two, the lingot was made rectangular and of the same length as the ojbelivskoi, with an end flattened out to suggest the spearlike end of the ojbelivskoi. It is possible that originally the two objects were exhibited hanging on the two opposite sides of a scale.[86]

The result of this procedure was to create a new sort of ojbelivsko" measured by weight and not defined by its function as a utensil. As such an ojbelivsko" has actually been found in Sparta. At the temple of Artemis Orthia and on the Akropolis, there came to light a number of rectangular bars of various length, never longer than a foot, which in some cases have an end shaped like a spear. Arthur Maurice Woodward,[87] who has studied them, thought that they were fragments of ojbelivskoi, but was puzzled by the fact that they were much thicker than the ojbelivskoi of the Heraion. He thought that this could be explained by assuming that the rust and impurities had increased their weight; but, even allowing a 50% increase in weight for such causes, the bars of Sparta are heavier than a gragment of an ojbelivsko" of the Heraion of the same length. I suggest that the objects of Sparta are in fact fragments of the new ojbelivsko" which, being measured by weight, no longer need to be made long and thin, but in some measure retain the general idea of the original shape.

The new money of weighed obols had the disadvantage of requiring the use of scales. Up to the time weighed obols were introduced, the Greeks had not been familiar with the use of the scale, as is proved by the fact that the new currency begot the need of a special expert in weighing, the ojbolostavth", mentioned by Herakleides. It is interesting to notice that the Romans went through a similar development. The libripens who, assisted by witnesses, intervenes with this scales in some contracts of Roman law where a transfer of money is involved,[88] is a reminder of an age in which bronze currency was weighed, and only an expert knew the art of weighing it and had the proper facilities.

Since Aristotle refers to the fact that iron money is basically defined by shape, it is likely that Herakleides knew that the original ojbelivskoi were not measured by weight. Hence, his sentence pro; touvtou (sc. ojbolou') ga;r ojbelivskoi" tracevsin ejnomivsteuon ta; pro;" staqmovn) may be translated “before the ojbolov" was introduced, they used rough ojbelivskoi as standard in those matters in which we use weight.”[89] The original ojbelivskoi are said to be tracuv" because they are a rougher approximation of a standard than the weighed ones; the adjective tracuv", as the opposite of lei'o", conveys the idea of a standard which does not conform to what should be its ideal value:

Solon fr. 2, 32 Bergk4

eujnomivh . . . traceva leiaivnei


to; tracu; tou' novmou

Plato Cra. 406 a

to; mh; tracu; tou' h[qou"

Numismatists have attached great importance to Herakleides’ statement that Pheidon ajnalabw;n tou;" ojbelivskou" ajnevqhke th'/ ejn ”Argei ”Hra/. They have used it to prove that Pheidon, having struck silver coins in Aigina, decided to “demonetize”[90] the iron currency; more specifically, Seltman claims that the objects found at the Heraion were the “minting apparatus”[91] for the production of roasting spits which was dedicated in the temple when their manufacture was discontinued. These interpretations assume that it was possible to make iron money tabu all over Greece by dedicating a sample of it at the temple of Argive Hera, and that there was such a thing as a public mint for the production of roasting spits. The most natural explanation of the presence of these objects at the Heraion is that which has been hinted at by Svoronos,[92] viz. that it was customary to keep reference standards of current measures in temples.

The connection between the coinage ascribed to Pheidon and the setting up of the objects at the Heraion is the product of a late rationalization. In any case, I think that ajnalabwvn should be translated as a participle of intention: “wishing to abolish the use of ojbelivskoi.” Perhaps Herakleides has in mind simply that the coinage ascribed to Pheidon drove the ojbelivskoi off the market, and therefore he thinks that having made them useless he dedicated them at the Heraion. But if it is true that Herakleides thought that by the dedication of the ojbelivskoi at the Heraion the use of ojbelivskoi was banned all over Greece, he was wrong, just as his modern commentators are wrong.

Unless one assumes the all-pervading police power of the modern state, as it has developed since the First World War, a metallic currency cannot be driven off the market except by the working of Gresham’s Law. This means that iron currency can be driven offf the market only if, by custom or by action of a public agency, such a relation is established between it and silver currency, as to make the iron a “good” currency and silver a “bad” one.

The fact that iron was driven off the market by the working of Gresham’s Law is proved by the circumstances that in classical times iron was the only currency in Laconia, where there were the best iron mines of Greece.[93] Iron was cheaper there than in the rest of Greece, as indicated by the above-mentioned relation of 1:1300 between silver and cast iron. In the rest of Greece it was silver which was relatively cheaper and, hence, the only currency. The fact that throughout Greece the use of one currency excludes the use of the other, proves that it is a matter of the working of Gresham’s Law, by which, shortly after a relation of value is established between two metallic currencies, one is bound to go off the market.

Neither Pheidon nor any other Greek ruler could have banned the use of iron currency, even in the territory under his direct authority, much less the whole of Greece. It is true, however, that it was the specific relation of value (mevtra) between iron and silver, associated with the name of Pheidon, which by the working of Gresham’s Law drove iron currency our of circulation.

Whether it is true or not that according to Greek religion money can be dedicated in a temple to make it tabu, it is a fact that the dedication (ajnavqhma) of an object in a temple could be a method of setting up a model. According to Greek legends, Palamedes who, like Pheidon, was considered the inventor of mevtra kai; staqmav, having invented dice, set them up in the temple of Tyche in Argos.

Pausanias II, XX 3.

Tuvch" ejsti;n ejk palaiotavtou nao;", eij dh; Palamhvdh" kuvbou" euJrw;n ajnevqhken ej" tou'ton to;n naovn.

It is obvious that this alleged dedication was not made for the purpose of banning the use of dice, which Palamedes had just invented.

[83]op. cit., 198.

[84]Athens, 121.

[85]400 d.

[86]This is suggested by the fact that the two objects weigh half a mina each. It was customary for the ancients to consider as one unit the two weights on the opposite sides of a balance; this is the origin of the double-mina and of the stater (double drachma or double shekel). If the two objects were on scales, there  would have been a full mina on the balance.

[87]The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta, edited by Richard M. Dawkins (London, 1932), 392.

[88]Bernhard Kübler, ”Libripens,” R.E., XXV, 140.

[89]It is important to notice that Herakleides makes a distinction between ojbolov" and ojbelivsko": the latter term is applied only to utensil-money. This is in agreement with the fact that in the sources the weighed iron money of the Spartans was called ojbolov" and not ojbelivsko", even though it preserved in some measure the shape of a roasting spit.

[90]Gardner, op. cit.,  111; Milne, Greek Coinage, 17; Wade-Gery, op. cit., 259. The theory of “demonetization” was developed by Ernest Babelon, Les Orignines de la monnaie considerées au point de vue économique et historique (Paris, 1897), 207, before the actual discovery of the objects mentioned by Herakleides. Babelon thought that a number of ojbelivskoi picked up at random were hung along the walls of the temple as a commemoration of the old currency. But Waldstein’s findings prove that the ojbelivskoi were set up in a definite number to establish a standard.

[91]Athens, 122.

[92]Op. cit., 199

[93]Stephanos Byz. s.v. Lakedaivmwn; Davies, op. cit.,  254; Michell, op. cit., 121.