Monetary History of the World


by Martin A. Armstrong

It is generally assumed that Aigina was the first city to mint coins as this new invention spread westward from Asia Minor. Aigina is an island not far off the cost of Athens between the Peloponnese and Attica. The Aiginetic standard was based on a silver didrachm-stater which weighed approximately 12 grammes. It was this standard from the island of Aigina, which spread initially to the Peloponnese, central Greece and the Aegean islands all the way down to Crete.

Attica was to the north of Aigina and included the city of Athens. A different standard was adopted in this part of the Greek world. The Attica standard was based upon a silver didrachm weighting about 8.5 grammes. Later, the tetdrachm was introduced weighting 17 grammes. The tetdrachm would later become the dominant standard as the power of Athens grew following

Silver Stater of Aigina

the defeat of the Persians. In fact, Alexander the Great also adopted the Attic standard for the monetary system of his empire. The following table illustrates the Attic monetary system. Not all denominations were minted on a regular basis. Some issues, such as the dekadrachm, are extremely rare collector’s pieces since they were struck in honor of special occasions.

Dekadrachm = 10 drachms (43gm)
Tetradrachn = 4 drachms (17.2gm)
Didrachm = 2 drachms (8.6gm)
Drachm = 6 obols (4.3gm)
Tetrobol = 4 obols (2.85 gm)
Triobol = 3 obols (2.15 gm)
Diobol = 2 obols (1.43 gm)
Trihemiobol = 1.5 obols (1.07 gm)
Obol (0.72 gm)
Tritartemorion = 3/4 obol (0.54 gm)
Hemiobol = 1/2 obol (0.36 gm)
Trihemitartemorion = 3/8 obol (0.27 gm)
Tetartemorion = 1/4 obol (0.18 gm)
Hemitartemorion = 1/8 obol (0.09 gm)

Various monetary standards differed not only in weight, but also in division. For example, the Corinthian standard was similarly based upon a stater weighing 8.6 grammes which was closely tied to the Attic standard based upon a didrachm. However, where that Attic standard of the didrachm, meaning two drachms, was divsiable by 2 yielding a drachm weighing 4.3 grammes, the Corinthian stater was divisible by 3 yielding a 3 drachms weighing 2.9 grammes each.

The Achaean standard was based upon a silver stater of 8 grammes. After the fall of the Persians, the Chian standard, modern day Isle of Rhodes, was highly favored throughout Asia Minor and in Thrace which was based upon a tetradrachm weighing 15.6 grammes. On the northern coast of Africa, the Phoenician standard was based upon a silver shekel of 7 grammes in weight.

In Sicily, the standard was based upon a silver litra – from which the modern day Italian lira takes its name. This was based upon a weight of 0.86 grammes. The Attic standard broke down

from a drachm that was equal to 6 silver obols. The obol weighed 0.72 grammes. Coins of this tiny size and weight were understandably difficult to distinguish. It is therefore in Sicily where we find the first major introduction of bronze into the monetary system.

As early as mid-5th century B.C., we find that the litra was issued in bronze. This was a major development in the monetary system, for it is in Sicily where we find that the populace accepted a bronze coinage that freely circulated at a currency value well above its pure base-metal value. The convenience of this currency, insofar as providing a practical currency that could be used for the very smallest of transactions, prepared the way for the broadening use of currency, setting it free from any relevant link to its metal value. At the same time this is the beginning in man’s monetary history where the issuing government actually bestowed upon itself the authority to create money rather than just guarantee the metal content of the coinage.

The bronze litra was then further divided into 12 “onkiai” from which the later Roman “uneia” evolved. The uneia was 1/12th of a pound. It is this standard that is used today under the name Troy ounce. There are 12 Troy ounces to a pound and there are 12 inches to a liner foot. Therefore, the bronze litra was essentially 1 pound of bronze divided into 12 onkiai – the equivilent of a Troy ounce. The most commonly minted denomination was that of the 3 onkiai piece known as the trias – a quarter of a Troy ounce in weight. It was this weight that would serve as the basic unit for the gold standard during the 20th century.

The introduction of bronze as a subsidiary coinage to facilitate the lowest denominations within the monetary system spread quickly throughout the Greek world. Athens was the most reluctant to issue bronze. For decades, the Athenian mint continued to produce the tiny fractional silver coinage. However, toward the later part of the 4th century B.C., Athens began to produce bronze coinage perhaps due to mere commerce and/or inflationary pressure.

The history of the monetary system of the world began to change, setting the pace for a new force that would grow in magnitude eventually strengthening and consolidating its power throughout the centuries. This force is what we are still only beginning to understand in modern times. It is the force we call – “International Capital Flow.”