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Why Were Some Of The First Coins So Small?

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 Posted 09/30/2019  3:39 pm Show Profile   Bookmark this topic Add jskirwin to your friends list Get a Link to this Message
I'm looking at some of the Lydian stater fractions and most of them are tiny. For example, there's a Lydian silver 1/24th stater currently on auction that's 7mm and weighs .87g. The same auction has a Lydian electrum hemihekte 1/12th stater that's 7mm and weighs 1.16g.

How did the ancients keep from losing these?

I have a hard time accidentally dropping quarters out of my pants pockets, so I can't imagine an ancient person with handsewn clothes made from course hand-spun cloth carrying these around safely. I suppose they used a leather bag but still, it just doesn't seem to me these coins were very "user friendly" for commerce. Imagine pulling out your purse to reach for a 1/24th stater only to drop it on the dirt floor of the merchant.

Is it the case they hadn't figured out using base metals and needed smaller denominations, or were there fingers tinier and eyes sharper than mine?
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 Posted 09/30/2019  4:08 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add oriole to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
@jskirwin, what an interesting question. I suppose that we also need to answer many other questions to get a bigger picture. For example:

Just how much were these used by the average farmer/ peasant?
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 Posted 09/30/2019  4:20 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Finn235 to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Not that they hadn't figured out base metals, but the monetized economy of Europe had to develop a bit to make the leap from exclusively gold/electrum to adding silver (under Croesus - the total process took about 100-200 years) and then again further develop until people could have faith in a lowly metal such as copper. It's interesting how different the three cradles of a monetized economy handled this issue:
- Lydia and the rest of Asia minor relied exclusively on gold until adding silver about 100 years later, then added copper another 100 years after that
- India used silver exclusively until the breakup of the Maurya empire, then added copper, and then gold at a later date
- China used copper pretty much exclusively, and it was an everyday matter of fact that you just took a few pounds of copper coins with you to the market; silver coins were only a store of value until the early 20th century.

As for carrying the coins about, I've heard it said that the small denominations went under your tongue to carry them to and from the market, although I still struggle to imagine actually handling such coins in everyday commerce.

Although, I don't imagine the answer would not be much different than the south Indian countries who used similarly sized coins as late as the early 1900s.

A comparison shot I took a while ago; the three coins on the left are all from early modern India, two gold "bele" from early modern Vijayanagar, and one fanam of Krisharaja Wodeyar III, early 1800s.

I never have found an image of how exactly these coins were handled, except that Travancore (famous for the small silver chuckrams, the size of that fanam) is famous for its counting boards; handfuls of coins were dropped onto a board with grooves big enough for the coin, and then shaken until the holes were all filled. I'd imagine that the ancient Greeks would have treated their 1/48th staters or tartemorii in a similar manner.
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 Posted 09/30/2019  4:43 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add jskirwin to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
That's a great photo Finn235.

Even the Roman denarius is underwhelming when you show it to non-collectors. I think they are expecting pieces-of-eight sized coins, so you can impress them with the tets, sestertii, and similarly sized coins.

But I'm looking at these early coins and scratching my beard. I'd be afraid to sneeze and send a week's pay flying.
Edited by jskirwin
09/30/2019 4:43 pm
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 Posted 09/30/2019  5:03 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Bacchus2 to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
That really is a great photo. Thanks for sharing it.
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 Posted 10/01/2019  08:51 am  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add DavidUK to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
If you consider the amount of effort required in the acquisition of the silver and gold and compare it to the effort required to bake a loaf of bread then you can see why only a small coin would be practical for everyday purchases.

I always image the coins kept in a little leather drawstring bag but perhaps that is just an image acquired from Hollywood representations of the ancient world.
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 Posted 10/01/2019  09:48 am  Show Profile   Check yellow88's eBay Listings Bookmark this reply Add yellow88 to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Less (extracted) gold and silver relative to population size.

Very, very difficult to find and extract more hence why the price of gold, for example, always remained quite stable.

Much lower human population historically as well. Nature kept things in check with the periodic plaque, etc. when density became an issue.

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#2 It is rarer to find a one ounce nugget of gold than a five carat diamond.

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Edited by yellow88
10/01/2019 09:53 am
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 Posted 10/01/2019  10:50 am  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add allranger to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
+1 for the photo share Finn235.
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 Posted 10/01/2019  6:38 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Sap to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Copper/bronze coins were always "token coins" in the West: the face value was higher than the intrinsic value. SO it took a while for people's trust to build up to the point of accepting them.

As for "how did they carry them around", we knkow from archaeological evidence that there were purses in ancient times for carrying coins in bulk, made with very fine leather stitching so even tiny coins couldn't fall out. But for carrying just one or two coins down to the shops, the usual custom was apparently to carry them inside one's mouth. We have the following line from the play "The Birds" by Aristophanes, written in Athens in 414 BC, spoken by the character of the slave Euelpides:

By Zeus! That's what I did myself one day on seeing a kite; but at the moment I was on my knees, and leaning backwards with mouth agape, I swallowed an obol and was forced to carry my food-bag home empty.

So it seems this hapless slave was sent shopping by his master with one obol (a smallish silver coin in Athens at the time) but along the way, was distracted and entranced by the sight of a small bird-of-prey circling overhead. It's assumed that the only logical reason someone would have swallowed a coin while staring up at the sky with mouth open would have been that if that person had been carrying that coin in their mouth at the time. Aristophanes lets the comment pass, without further explanation, so the audience who first heard that line presumably found it funny (The Birds is a Comedy). This is, as far as I am aware, the only literary evidence for this peculiarly disgusting custom.

Ancient coins are also small and thick, compared to modern coins; this helped in counting them back when counting money was always done by weight; you could pour them into a pan balance easily. Coins did not become thin and flat until the custom of counting them as individiaul coins and stacking the counted coins into piles came about, in the late Roman period.
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 Posted 10/01/2019  8:59 pm  Show Profile   Check louisvillekyshop's eBay Listings Bookmark this reply Add louisvillekyshop to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Personally I figured these people were mostly using the tiny fraction silver coins in trading based on weights of what commodity was being traded and the average person probably did not carry the tiny coins. That is only my opinion, I never heard it from anyone else, so that is worth about nothing historically. But somehow it makes sense to me as they are too small to carry for every day use. I always thought they were limited to merchants and mills as you bargained for the very best price you could get and you could add a few more tiny coins until both parties were satisfied.
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