Obol (coin)

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For the brachiopod genus, see Obolus (brachiopod). For the modern Greek currency, see Ionian obol.
Not to be confused with Obelus.
Above: Six rod-shaped obeloi (oboloi) displayed at the Numismatic Museum of Athens, discovered at Heraion of Argos. Below: grasp of six oboloi forming one drachma, i.e. a "handful"
Attica, Athens. After 449 BC
LUCANIA, Metapontion. Circa 425-350 BC. Æ 21mm
Silver obol of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius. Extremely small (12 millimeters in diameter), but beautifully crafted.
19th Century revival of the obol in the British-dominated Ionian Islands.

The obol (ancient Greek: ὀβολός obolos, literally "spit, iron rod" plural: ὀβολοί oboloí; hence also obolus, obolos) was an ancient silver coin. In Classical Athens, there were six obols to the drachma (literally "handful"); it could be exchanged for eight chalkoi (χαλκοί "copper pieces"). Two obols made a diobol, weighing around 1.41-1.43 grams of silver. Triobols were also in use.

In English, the coin is usually called an obol, another name for a halfpenny.[1]

An obelískos (ὀβελίσκος, obelisk) is a "small obol", called so in jest because of its huge size.[citation needed]

According to Plutarch, the Spartans had an iron obolus of four chalkoi. Sparta chose to retain the use of the cumbersome, impractical "oboloi" rather than coins proper, so as to discourage the pursuit of wealth (see Plutarch, Lycurgus 9). The obolus is also a measurement of weight. In ancient Greece it was defined as one sixth of a drachma, or about 0.5 gram. In ancient Rome it was defined as 1/48 of a Roman ounce, or about 0.57 gram, but was never issued as a coin as part of the early republican coinage system. Below the drachm was the dupondius (1/5) to the quartuncia (1/480).[2] In modern Greece it is equivalent to one decigram, or 0.1 gram.

The word "obolos", also "obelos" (ὀβελός) or "odelos" (ὀδελός) in other dialects, means a long thin metal nail or rod, such as a spit.[3] "Oboloi" were used as currency in early times. They represented small ingots of copper or bronze of standardized weight, and were traded as such. The French archaeologist T. Reinach defined them as "ustensiles monnais" i.e. utensils-money. During excavations at Argos in the Peloponnese, several dozens of rod-shaped oboloi were uncovered. They are dated well before 800 BC and they are displayed at the Numismatic Museum of Athens.

For the price of an obol, one could obtain a kantharos with a chous of wine, equivalent to about six pints (three liters).[4] Three obols was the standard fee paid for a prostitute's services.

A coin for Charon[edit]

Main article: Charon's obol

The deceased were buried with an obolus, placed in the mouth of the corpse, in order that, once a dead person's shade reached the underworld of Hades, it would be able to pay Charon for passage across the river Acheron (or Styx depending on the legend). Legend had it that those without enough wealth, or whose friends refused to follow proper burial rites, were forced to wander the banks of the Acheron for one hundred years.

The obolus, along with the mirror, was a symbol of new schismatic heretics in the short story "The Theologians" by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges.[5] In the story's discussion of the circularity of time, eternity, and the transmigration of the soul through several bodies the author uses a quote of Luke 12:59, mistranslated as "no one will be released from prison until he has paid the last obolus"[5] since Luke calls the coin a lepton (a somewhat smaller denomination) rather than an obolus.


  1. ^ Albert Peel, Seconde parte of a register: being a calendar of manuscripts under that title (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 175, note.
  2. ^ Sayles, Wayne G. (1997). Ancient coin collecting 3. Iola: Krause Publications. p. 19. ISBN 0-87341-533-7. 
  3. ^ LSJ entry ὀβολός (other variants: ὀβελός, ὀβελλός, ὀδελός)
  4. ^ Davidson, James (1998). Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: Fontana Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-00-686343-4. 
  5. ^ a b Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. pp. 122–24. ISBN 978-0-8112-0012-7. 
  2. Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1914 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 9

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