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Money, Weights and Measures in Antiquity



Money & weights Capacity Length & surface
Equations Some implications Bibliography

A weight of three mina from the Assyrian city Nimrod. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
A weight of three mina from the Assyrian city Nimrod (British Museum)

1 Money and weights

Mesopotamia

1 talent
(G.UN; biltu)
= 60 mina = 3600 shekel = 30.00 kg

1 mina
(MA.NA; man)
= 60 shekel = 500 gr


1 shekel
(GN; šiqlu)
 = 8.333 gr
Four weights found in Persepolis indicate that the mina was 499.80 gr.

Subdivisions of the shekel:

  • 1 shekel = 2 divisions (zzu) or half shekels
    • 1 division = 4.17 gr = ca. 1 Greek drachm
  • 1 shekel is 8 slices (bitqu)
    • 1 slice = 1.04 gr
  • 1 shekel = 12 grains (mahat)
  • 1 shekel = 24 carat (gir)
    • 1 carat = 0.35 gr
  • 1 shekel = 40 chickpeas? (hallru
    • 1 chickpea = 0.21 gr
  • 1 shekel = 180 barleycorn (ŠE, uttetu)
    • 1 barleycorn = 0.0463 gr
The purity of silver:
Silver in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid period contained 1/8 alloy, i.e. silver had 87.5 % purity. Sometimes, and chronologically increasingly, silver is characterized as qal, "pure", which may have had a higher purity. The tetradrachms of the Hellenistic period (see below) had purity well above 90%. Cf. Vargyas (2001) 13-17; Mrkholm (1991) 5.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The weight known as DWd. Photo Chicago Oriental Institute.
The weight known as DWd (Chicago Oriental Institute;  !!!)

Persia

1 Babylonian mina = 6 karš = 60 shekel = 499.80 gr

1 karš = 10 shekel = 83.33 gr


1 shekel = 8.33 gr
  • King Darius I the Great introduced gold coinage based on the Babylonian standard (until then, the Lydian standard of king Croesushad been used). 1 gold piece (dareikos, daric, statr) was between 8.25 and 8.46 gr of gold, which corresponds to the 8.33 gr of the Babylonian shekel. Darics were struck in extremely pure gold, 98-99%.
  • Darius maintained the silver piece or siglos on its old standard. Sigloi were betwen 5.20 and 5.49 of silver. They had a 97-98% purity, although 94-95% is recorded in the fourth century.
  • The later silver standard was 5.40-5.67 gr.

Phoenicia; Israel 

The weight of the sheqel was locally different.
  • Palestinian sheqel 11.5 gr.
  • In the great trade centers of the fifth and fourth century, it was slightly above 7 gr.
  • Tyre went over to the Attic standard ca. 350 BCE.

Persian coin (daric)
Persian coin (!!)

Greek: Attic standard (and Ptolemaic standard)

Weight
In the "Solonian" system:
 
1 talent-weight = 60 mnai = 6000 drachm-weights = 27.47 kg

1 mna = 100 drachm-weights = 457.8 gr


1 drachm-weight (holk) = 4.578 gr
  • The Athenian silver drachm (coin) of the second and first century weighs 4.20 gr.
    • 188 BCE treaty of Apamea:  Antiochus III to pay the Romans 12,000 Attic talents of pure silver, in twelve equal annual payments, the talent to weigh at least 80 Roman pounds (Livy/Polybius);  i.e.  coin-drachma of at least 4.31 g.
  • An Athenian decree about weights and measures (IG II 1013; late second century BCE?) includes that the emporike mina, which had until then been equivalent to 138 coin-drachms, henceforth had to be equivalent to 150 coin-drachms.
Coins
1 talent
(to talanton)
= 60 minae = 6000 drachms = 36,000 obols = 25.86 kg

1 mina
(h mn)
= 100 drachms = 600 obols = 431 gr


1 drachm
(h drachm)
= 6 obols = 4.31 gr



1 obol (ho obols) = 0.72 gr
  • Alternative values:
    • 1 talent = 21.45 kg
    • 1 mina = 357.5 gr
    • 1 drachm = 3.58 gr
    • 1 obol =  0.60 gr
  • 1 stater (ho statr) or tetradrachm = 4 drachms = 17.24 gr
  • 1 didrachm  = 2 drachms = 12 obols = 8.62 gr (= 1 Babylonian shekel?)
  • 1 obol = 8 chalkoi
  • 1 deben silver (Ptolemaic demotic) = 20 drachms
Note. In the Seleucid empire the standard coin was the tetradrachm, “stater”.  Development of weights: Alexander: 17.28 gr.; In Antioch: ca. 300 BC 17.00 gr.; ca. 172 BC: 16.80 gr.; ca. 105 BC 16.30 gr. – decline well below 15.00 gr. Elsewhere in the second century the standard remained 16.80 gr.; Athens New Style tetradrachms show a weight increase to about 17.00 gr. from the 16.60/16.80 of the preceding issues.
In the Ptolemaic empire Ptolemy I Soter began reducing the weight to 15.8 gr. > 14.9 > 14.3/14.4 gr. in ca. 290 BC > 14.2 in the early first century BC. (Mrkholm (1991) 8.

A Roman weight from the Saalburg (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
A Roman weight from the Saalburg

Rome

Weights:
1 pound (libra or as) = 12 ounces
= 323 gr

1 ounce (uncia)
=  26.91 gr
Duncan-Jones: 1 libra  =  323 gr (better than 327 or 324 g)
Coinage, 211-157/156 (1 denarius = 1/72 libra of silver):
1 denarius (X) = 2 quinarii = 4 sestertii  = 10 as = 4.55 gr silver*

1 quinarius (V) = 2 sestertii = 5 as


1 sest. (IIS) = 2 as



1 as bronze
* Also recorded: 4.49 gr


Coinage, 157/156 -ca.130 (1 denarius = 1/84 libra of silver):
1 denarius (X) = 2 quinarii = 4 sestertii  = 10 as = 3.85 gr silver

1 quinarius (V) = 2 sestertii = 5 as


1 sestertius (IIS) = 2 as = 0.97 gr silver



1 as bronze
Coinage, after the revaluation of ca.130 BCE:
1 denarius (*) = 2 quinarii = 4 sestertii  = 16 as = 3.85 gr silver

1 quinarius = 2 sestertii = 8 as


1 sestertius = 4 as = 0.97 gr silver



1 as bronze

Aureus of Augustus.
Aureus of Augustus  (!!)
Augustus:
1 aureus 25 denarii 50 quinarii 100 sestertii 200 dupondii 400 as 7.72 gr
gold

1 denarius 2 quinarii 4 sestertii 8 dupondii 16 as 3.80 gr
silver


1 quinarius 2 sestertii 4 dupondii 8 as silver



1 sestertius 2 dupondii 4 as silver




1 dupondius 2 as brass





1 as bronze
  • 1 denarius = 1 drachm (eastern part of the Roman empire)
  • 1 denarius = 1  tetradrachm (Alexandria)
  • 1 as = 2 semis = 4 quadrantes
  • The weight of the denarius gradually declined from 3.80 to 3.10 gram.
  • Its fineness was slowly reduced from 98% (Augustus) to 45% (Severus Alexander).
  • Gold/silver-ratio:
       
      Augustus
      1 : 11.9
      Nero
      1 : 10.4
      (actual 1 : 11.4)
      Diocletian
      1 : 12


The declining amount of silver in a denarius (in gr.)
Augustus
3.65
Nero (64)
ca.3.00
Vespasian (70)
ca.2.90
Domitian (82)
ca.3.20
Domitian (85)
ca.3.00
Trajan (107)
ca.2.90
Antoninus Pius (148)
ca.2.70
Marcus Aurelius (161)
ca.2.65
Marcus Aurelius (179)
ca.2.25
Commodus (190)
ca.2.15
Pertinax (193)
ca.2.65
Didius Julianus (193)
ca.2.20
Septimius Severus (194)
ca.1.85
Caracalla (212)
ca.1.55
Caracalla (215)
ca.1.45
Macrinus (217)
ca.1.85
Heliogabalus (218)
ca.1.25
Heliogabalus (219)
ca.1.40
Pupienus and Balbinus (238)
ca.1.80
Gordian III (238) to beginning reign Decius (249)
ca.1.00
End of reign of Trebonianus Gallus (253)
ca.0.60
The debasement of the denarius. Design Jona Lendering.


Diocletian, Edict on Maximum Prizes
  • 1 libra of silver = 6,000 denarii.
  • 1 libra of gold = 72,000 denarii.
  • Constantine onwards:  72 solidi per libra of gold


Money & weights Capacity Length & surface
Equations Some implications Bibliography
Bert van der Spek for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 24 February 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other