Greek Fractional Silver Coins

Tiny Treasures - Don't drop them on the rug!

Most popular among collectors of ancient coins are the Greek silver issues of the Classical period (5th and 4th centuries BC). Among these issues are the most beautiful coins ever produced. Best of all are the large denominations: the common tetradrachms (4 drachms) and the very rare dekadrachms (10 drachms). Unfortunately, the market price for many of these coins restricts this specialty to collectors with a great deal of money to spend on coins. There is, however, a largely overlooked area that allows a person of ordinary means to collect Greek silver. Day to day commerce required a wide range of denominations. Later in the history of coinage the smaller values were produced in bronze but in the early years it was common to strike small denominations is silver. Very small denominations meant very small coins. The most common small denomination was the obol (1/6th drachm) weighing around .8g.

Pictured to the left are ten coins each valued at less than one obol. Different issuing authorities issued coins on different weight standards and it is not always certain what to call a certain denomination. The artwork on these tiny coins is every bit as great as the larger issues and, considering their size, the detail is amazing. Coins this size can lose significant weight from wear and corrosion not to mention variation in flan manufacture so weights and sizes can vary with individual specimens.

Left row:
1. Syracuse, Sicily, hemilitron 440-430 BC, .3g
2. Athens, Attica, tritartemorion (3/4 obol), 393-300 BC, .5g
3. Therma, Macedon, hemiobol (1/2 obol), 510-480 BC, .3g
4.. Kolophon, Ionia, tetartemorion (1/4 obol), 430-400 BC, .2g - This coin is unusual in the monogram 'TE' on the reverse (over the cicada) indicating the denomination.
5. Kebren, Troas, tetartemorion (1/4 obol), 400-350 B.C. .2g

Right Row:
1. Phocaea, 1/8? obol discussed below
2. Mylassa, Caria, tetartemorion? (1/4 obol), 5th century BC, .1g
3. Hektatomnos, Satrap of Caria, tetartemorion 395-377 B.C., .2g
4. Syracuse, Sicily, Tyrant Gelon, hexas (1/6 litra or 1/300th of the popular dekadrachm), 485-478 BC, .05g? This is the lightest coin I have ever seen but the flaking surface of this specimen makes its weight lower than normal.
5. Rhegion, Bruttium, hemitatemorion (1/8 obol), 466-415 BC, .1g.
Thasos, Thrace, hemiobol (1/2 obol), 411-350 BC, .2g

The above was posted in the earlier days of this site. This subject is sufficiently interesting to me that I will add a few more coins. I am working to improve my photos of very small coins and have posted some additional images of coin shown on this page on a separate page. The coins on this page were photographed with a standard digital camera set up. I posted a separate page of images taken with a microscope.

Phocaea, Ionia - Silver 1/8 obol? - Late Sixth Century BC - 5mm, .1g
Female head 'Smyrna type' left / 4 part incuse - Rosen 598

Proper identification of some very small Greek coins is even more tentative than with the larger denominations. Most date to the archaic period where more study is needed to establish a proper overview of the series. This example seems to match the coin in Waggoner's Early Greek Coins from the Collection of Jonathan P. Rosen, the most easily available reference on archaic issues. Unlike many famous early collections, this includes large numbers of small denominations as well as the showy tetradrachms. Thousands of these small coins were produced but the percentage that survived was minute. If collectors valued coins solely on rarity, these would be very expensive but demand and prices are low. The photo shows the coin resting on a US cent for size. The two sides were photographed on the same cent with the halves joined in the software. While this coin is my smallest in diameter, its greater thickness causes it to weigh more that the Syracuse hexas.

Small denominations were produced over a period of years with styles changing along with the more well studied larger coins. The four Athenian obols (ave. 6 to 7g) shown above are perfect miniatures of the tetradrachms produced at the same time. The very oval obol at the top left shows the three separate tail feathers on the owl (admittedly weakly) which dates the coin to an early period. The other examples are later stylishly dating from the mid 5th century to the mid 3rd century when the small silver was replaced by bronze issues. The question of practicality of such small coins is often raised. Evidence in literature suggests that these coins were carried in the owner's mouth. While I would like to see more written on this subject, I will point out that our lower left example certainly does seem to bear a toothmark on the head of Athena. Also shown (far right) is one hemiobol (3.5g). Other denominations (like the tritartemorion shown in the original group above) used different reverse designs so the users could separate the coins by value.

Another obol, this from Kelenderis in Cilicia, dates to the mid 4th century BC. Using the goat with head turned back seen on larger coins of this city and abbreviating the city name makes identification easy. The later small coins are much more likely to show legends than coins of the archaic period. Like many coins struck in good silver, this example has formed columnar crystals characteristic of great age that show strongly on so small (9mm) a coin.

Not every city used the same series of denominations. This 5th century BC 'obol sized' (11mm, .7g) coin of Gela in Sicily was called a 'litra'. Larger silver coins were the didrachm sized 10 litra, tetradrachm sized 20 litra and the rare dekadrachm of 50 litra. The local series coins, therefore, fit neatly into the denominations from mainland Greece making trade more convenient. Sicilian cities were early to adopt bronze coins for smaller denominations so it is possible to find both small silver and large bronze coins with the same value.

Another coinage system that left us small silver was that of Phoenicia. This 9mm, .7g coin of King Adramelek of Byblos (Gebal) was a 1/8 shekel bears a complete legend in Phoenician. Catalogs list the types as a galley sailing above a hippocamp on the obverse and a lion attacking a bull on the reverse. Larger denominations do look more like a bull than this coin which almost seems to show a goat. This is a lot of detail to fit in so small a space so we can understand that what seems to be a minor variation is probably accidental. The same coin is available in a large (and popular) dishekel that shows even more detail.

The fact remains that many collectors simply do not have the eyesight required to appreciate these little coins. The reason that the larger coins are more popular is obvious but these denominations played an important part in the commerce of their day and have a definite appeal to those of us who can see them. They are, most certainly, tiny treasures.

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1997 - 2011 Doug Smith