Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Samarian Obol Coinage

Among the more unusual and interesting coinage issues during antiquity were late 4th century BC issues of silver obols and their minor fractions, struck in Samaria when the Persian Empire ruled Palestine.

Hendin 441v Samaria: AR 7  1/4 Obol
Obv. -- Persian Great King in kneeling/running attitude r.
Rev. -- Rider on horse galloping r., hurling spear
0.22 g  

At the time these coins were struck, bronze issues had not yet emerged as a token coinage for the transactions of individual citizens during their daily lives, as distinguished from trading activities of merchants, and payment of governmental obligations that resulted in issues of tetradrachms and drachms whose bullion value far exceeded what was required to pay for most things which individual citizens needed to buy. Coins then traded as bullion, and prices of food and other daily necessities were very low by modern standards.

The obol was the standard of value from which drachmas and their multiples arose. Obols were originally bronze or iron rods (cooking-spits, like modern kebab skewers). In pre-coinage days, a handful (six) of these comprised a drachma. When silver coins became the currency, obols emerged as small coins weighing about 0.8 grams, subdivided into their minor fractions. One such fraction was the tetartemorion or 1/4 obol, weighing about 0.2 grams. These tiny coins were 7 mm in diameter, about a third of the diameter of a modern US dime.

There has been much discussion regarding engraving of the dies from which these coins were struck. This observer is among those who believe that the fine detail visible in Greek and Samarian minor fractions indicates that optical magnification must have been available, since the resolving power of the unaided human eye has not changed since antiquity.

The specimen illustrated here depicts a level of engraving detail and artistry remarkable in such a miniscule coin. It may be viewed (and acquired) at:

Other fine examples of the obol (and minor fractional) coinage of Samaria under the Persian Empire are listed at: