Obol (coin)

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Obols through history
Six rod-shaped obols discovered at the Heraion of Argos (above). Six obols forming one drachma.
Silver Obol of Athens, dated 515-510 BC. Obv. Gorgoneion Rev. Incuse square.
Charon's obol. 5th-1st century BC.
LUCANIA, Metapontion. c. 425-350 BC. Æ 21 mm.
An obol of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius, 12 mm in diameter.
A 19th-century obol from the British-occupied Ionian Islands.

The obol (Greek: ὀβολός, obolos, also ὀβελός (obelós), ὀβελλός (obellós), ὀδελός (odelós). lit. "nail, metal spit";[1] Latin: obolus) was a form of ancient Greek currency and weight.


Obols were used from early times. According to Plutarch they were originally spits of copper or bronze traded by weight, while six obols make a drachma or a handful, since that was as many as the hand could grasp.[2] Heraklides of Pontus in his work on "Etymologies" mentions the obols of Heraion and derives the origin of obolos from obelos. This is confirmed by the historian Ephorus on his work " On Inventions". Excavations at Argos discovered several dozen of these early obols, dated well before 800 BC; they are now displayed at the Numismatic Museum of Athens. Archaeologists today describe the iron spits as "utensil-money" since excavated hoards indicate that during the Late Geometric period they were exchanged in handfuls (drachmae) of six spits,[3] they were not used for manufacturing artifacts as metallurgical analyses suggest, but they were most likely used as token-money.[4] Plutarch states the Spartans had an iron obol of four coppers. They retained the cumbersome and impractical bars rather than proper coins to discourage the pursuit of wealth.[5]

In Classical Athens, obols were traded as silver coins. Six obols made up the drachma. There were also coins worth two obols ("diobol") and three obols ("triobol"). Each obol was divisible into eight "coppers" (χαλκοί, khalkoí). During this era, an obol purchased a kantharos and chous (6 pints or 3 liters) of wine.[6] Three obols was a standard rate for prostitutes.

Funerary use

The deceased were buried with an obol placed in the mouth of the corpse, so that—once a deceased's shade reached Hades—he or she would be able to pay Charon for passage across the river Acheron or Styx. 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 river for one hundred years.


The obol[7] or obolus[8] was also a measurement of Greek, Roman, and apothecaries' weight.

In ancient Greece, it was generally reckoned as 1/6 drachma (c. 0.72 grams).[9][10] Under Roman rule, it was defined as 1/48 of a Roman ounce or about 0.57 grams.[11] The apothecaries' system also reckoned the obol or obolus as 1/48 of an ounce or a half-scruple.

Literary use

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.[12] 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"[12] since Luke calls the coin a lepton (a somewhat smaller denomination) rather than an obolus.

See also

  • The British halfpenny, also formerly known as the obol[13]
  • Obelisks (ὀβελίσκοι, obelískoi), which also derived from the bars or the critical mark


  1. ὀβολός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, The Life of Lysander, para. 17
  3. Biba Teržan "L'aristocrazia femminile nella prima età del Ferro"
  4. "The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age" by Harry Fokkens & Anthony Harding
  5. Plutarch, Lycurgus 9
  6. Davidson, James (1998). Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London: Fontana Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-00-686343-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Oxford English Dictionary. "obol, n."
  8. Oxford English Dictionary. "obolus, n."
  9. British Museum Catalogue 11 - Attica Megaris Aegina
  11. Sayles, Wayne G. (1997). Ancient coin collecting 3. Iola: Krause Publications. p. 19. ISBN 0-87341-533-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. pp. 122–24. ISBN 978-0-8112-0012-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 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. Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition,1914 Plutarch, Lycurgus, 9

External links