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The Standard of the Heraion


When the Archaeological Institute of America engaged in its first campaign of excavation in Greece, it chose as the site the Argive Heraion, a location that seemed particularly promising, since it was that of one of the most famous sanctuaries of Greece and probably the original seat of the cult of Hera, the most important female figure of received mythology, the wife of Zeus. This sanctuary was known as the Heraion of Argos in classical times, but it is much closer to Mycenae than to Argos and probably it became a dependency of Argos only at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. Both Mycenae and the Heraion were located on the lower slopes of Mount Euboea, being linked by a sacred road that is not longer than three kilometers.

The director of the excavation, Sir Charles Walston (then Charles Waldstein), thought that he most significant finding of this campaign was a set of most unusual iron objects that were unearthed in 1894. They consist of a bundle of 180 iron roasting spits (oboloi) and of a solid bar of iron weighing the same as the bundle and having the same length (about 120 centimeters). Sir Charles recognized that the obols were the objects that ancient authors mention as having been used as money in Greece in early times; he noted also that there are texts that mention the dedication of these very obols at the Heraion. The texts state that Pheidon of Argos, having ”invented” metra kai stathma kai nomisma, set up iron obols as a sacred object at the Argive Heraion. Sir Charles recognized that he had found some objects that were considered famous and significant in antiquity; but, in spite of the fact that the objects are most peculiar to our eyes and are connected with highly revealing historical texts, by a series of fortuitous circumstances a veil of oblivion tended to be drawn upon them. It was a period of recrudescence of anti-Semitism in connection with the Dreyfus affair, and some objection was raised to the selection of Walston as director of a major archeological campaign. In the winter following the excavation of the iron objects, when the staff of the expedition had withdrawn to Athens for the usual seasonal interruption of the digging, an incident took place, or a series of incidents, in which Walston was insulted or felt insulted on account of his ancestry. He judged that hje could not let the occurrence go by without some sort of response, with the result that a polemic arose in the American academic community on the issue of whether one who had the privilege of being accepted in a circule customarily closed to him does not have the obligation of being particularly deferential or restrained. Walston denied that he had to be forbearing towards people whom he considered inferior in refinement of culture and of manners. The outcome was that charles Waldstein had to continue his academic career in England where he became Sir Charles Walston, and was no longer connected with archeological activities. The report about the campaign of excavations appeared with delay and was cut short. A strange upshot was that it became proper among American archeologists to ignore the most important finding of the excavation of the Heraion, the iron objects. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the origin of money in Greece I based it on these objects, which I considered the equivalent of the Paris meter for the study of Greek metrology, and I happened to mention the name of Sir Charles Walston in the first line, without having any suspicion of the personal background of a discovery that interested me purely as providing a vital piece of technical evidence. I was feeling a great sense of frustration because fundamental data about the objects of the Heraion had been lost, as it will appear below; for this reason, after the completion of my thesis, I approached some opf the senior memebers of the Archaeological Institute of America to ask them whether they had any personal recollections about the details of the discovery and to inquire whether there were in existence unpublished notes or a journal of the archeological campaign. Furthermore I hoped to receive institutional help towards a metallurgic test of the objects of the Heraion and of other specimens of Greek iron money. All that I could learn was the dismal gossip I have reported, with the additional intimation that I had been guiklty of a faux pas in bringing up the deeds of an indiscreet individual. The reality of the academic customs is such that some who possibly could be the victims of the same prejudice to which Walston was exposed, gave me with friendly intentions the advice to the wise and to forget these ”controversial” pieces of iron.

Ioannes N. Svoronos, Director of the National Numismatic Museum of Athens, describes a consequence of the events I have related.

Unfortunately, even though Walston had immediately recognized the importance of his discovery, when the bundle of obols was transported to Athens it was looked upon as an object unworthy of mention. Not only was it not entered in the registers of the National Archeological Museum but by letting most of the obols break, it was split into fragments; it was thrown into the cellars of the Museum where the humidity working undisturbed for twelve years completed the catastrophe.

In 1906 the curator of antiquities Kuruniotis, knowing that Svoronos was interested in the early history of coinage, mentioned to him that he had a recollection to the effect that the objects described in Walston’s report had been brought to Athens. The two of them were able to trace them and had them brought to the National Numismatic Museum of which they became in Svoronos’ words ”the most sacred” possession. Svoronos proceeded to examine with due piety these objects that are ”most unique and most precious for numismatic science,” but his report is incomplete. He declared: ”We have already called upon some specialized professors of our National University to test with the exactness of scientific precision the weight and the size of the ingot, as well as the chemical composition of the ingot and of the obols.” He expressed the hope to be able to publish soon a report of these tests, but it never appeared in print, as far as I know.

Svoronos states that the objects were found ”buried at great depth and amidst other objects that are all older than the invention of coined money.” But this statement is based on a misunderstanding of Walston’s preliminary report written as the excavations were proceeding. We can be certain that the iron objects were to be seen at the Heraion in historical times. But even Walston’s final report is not unequivocal: it seems to say that the objects were found in an area at the northeast of the second terrace (terrace at a lower level constructed for the temple erected after the earlier temple on the first or higher terrace had been destroyed by fire in 423 B.C.), where there was an accumulation of rubbish belonging to the period in which the temple was abandoned at the close of Roman times.

If my understanding of Walston’s report is correct, the objects should have been in sight at the Heraion through Roman times. But writers of the fourth century B.C. mention the bundle of obols and not the bar, and the tourists’ guide of Pausanias does not mention either. It is possible that after the fire of 423 B.C. the objects were no longer in a prominent place, but were kept in one of the several small buildings near the northeast corner of the second terrace. But this is a mere guess and somebody else may venture another better than mine.

Svoronos found that the bar has a length of about 120 cm. It is rectangular in section with a side of 88 mm. Towards one end it was flattened down so as to become 15 mm. thick and enlarged to a maximum width of 270 mm. Svoronos states that the bar is of wrought iron, but it would seem that he based this assertion on the asusmption that the bar was flattened by hammering as described. He states that the bar was ”cast” as rectangular and then flattened at one end. Apparently Svoronos did not have the scales necessary for an accurate weighing of the bar, since he states that its weight was 57 modern Greek okas (72,960 grams), putting in parentheses the figure of 73 kg. He may have used the scales of some merchant.

Svoronos states that the bundle of obols was kept together by melted lead poured into the two extremities of the bundle. But it is remarkable that Walston does not mention the lead; I am inclined to thinkthat the lead was poured by the excavators in order to keep the bundle together when it was being prepared for transportation. The bundle was originally kept together by two rings of coiled iron wire that clearly appear in one of Walston’s photographs. Svoronos found that only 32 obols were intact; 32 more had been reduced to 2/3 of their original length by breakage and 112 were even shorter. altogether he counted 176 obols plus about 100 broken pieces. He concluded that the bundle had been originally composed of 180 obols.

Svoronos weighed six of the best preserved obols and found them to be 495, 417, 401, 385, 378 and 342 grams. The average of the six specimens is 403 grams, so that by multiplying 403 by 180 there results a weight of 72,540 grams. He concluded that the bundle of obols had the same weight as the bar.

The obols were rectangular in section with an end shaped like the point of a spear. Svoronos advanced the opinion that the rectangular bar was flattened at one end for the purpose of resembling as much as possible the shape of the obols.

In 1924 another scholar, the English numismatist C.I. Seltman, paid attention to the iron objects of the Heraion and stressed their importance. He properly related the weight of the bar to that of the Egyptian qedet which he computed as averaging 9.096 grams; according to my findings the basic sheqel, of which the qedet is an example, can be either 9.0 or 9.1125 grams. In my opinion the bar must have had a weight of 72,900 grams, corresponding to 180 minas of 405 grams (45 x 9 grams).

Seltman asked A. M. Woodward to determine the exact length of the bar, which is bevelled at one end. The latter reported that the bar has a maximum length of 1195 mm. and is 1182 mm. on the opposite side. The bevelled end is roughened by corrosion, so that Woodward may have been a few millimeters off in his computation. Svoronos had concluded that the bar was both a standard of length and of weight; Seltman is of the same opinion and believes that the bar represented a length of 4 Attic feet of 295.7 mm. In my opinion the bar provided two lineal standards: a standard of 4 natural basic feet (also known as Egyptian feet) of 300 mm. each, or 1200 mm.; and a standard of 4 trimmed basic feet (also known as Attic or Roman feet) of 295.945 each, or 1183.8 mm.

The bar together with the bundle of obols had a weight of 145,800 grams and obviously represents a single unit divided into 360 parts. This unit is the basic Egyptian unit of volume and weight, the cube of the Egyptian royal cubit. When the cube of the Egyptian royal cubit is computed as 16,000 basic sheqels of 9.1125 grams, it is 145,800 grams. But the unit of 403 grams represented by the average of the obols is based on the basic sheqel of 9 grams, with a discrepancy komma, since 45 x 9 = 405.

In discussing the similar bronze bar of Nippur, I have explained that a length of 4 feet indicates the perimiter of the base of a cube. A cube with an edge of 300 mm., or a natural basic foot, corresponds to a weight of 27,000 grams, and a cube with an edge of 295.9454 mm. or a trimmed basic foot corresponds to a weight of 25,920 grams. A weight of 405 grams is contained 64 times in a basic talent netto of 25,920 grams. The total weight of the bar and the obols is 360 times a unit of 405 grams, that is, 6 basic talents netto reduced of a diesis. The length of 300 mm. is the foot from which there is calculated the Egyptian royal cubit of 525 mm.; but the total weight of the objects is 145,800 grams, a weight corresponding to the special Egyptian royal cubit of 526.125 mm.

In conclusion, the bar was computed with a certain ingenuity, as was the bronze bar of Nippur, so as to indicate the essential elements of the ancient system of measures. But in the main it expressed the standards used in Egypt.

The iron bar of the Heraion is similar to the bronze bar of Nippur which is about two millennia older: both are a standard of weight and of length, both are 4 feet long. The bronze bar of Nippur indicates a mina of 432 grams, that is, 1/60 of basic talent neto, whereas the bar of the Heraion indicates a mina of 405 grams, that is, 1/64 of basic talent netto; there is a difference of a diesis between the two standards of mina.

The bar of Nippur was cast in the shape of a bismar and for this reason it was thickened at one end by a blob of metal, since the bismar is essentially a bar with a conterweight at one end. It may be that the bar of the Heraion was flattened towards one end so as to suggest the shape of an obol, but it must be asked whether its shape was influenced by the shape of the bismar.

The obols of the Heraion are mentioned by the philosopher Hercleides of Pontus in his work on Etymologies in order to explain the origin of the name of the monetary unit obol, which is 1/6 of drachma. Information similar to that provided by Heracleides was contained in the work On Inventions by the historian Ephorus. Since Ephorus was born around 405 B.C. and Heracleides around 390 B.C., it is not possible to tell whether one copied from the other. In my study of ancient chronology I will show that after 403 B.C. there arose a lively controversy among Spartans concerning what was the exact purpose of the alleged monetary regulations of the lawgiver Lycurgus. As a result of the spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War Sparta for the first time in her history was collecting tributes from her allies, so that there arose the question whether it was legitimate for silver money to enter Sparta. The polemical treatises written on that occasion discussed the reforms of Lycurgus in connection with the monetary reforms connected with the name of Pheidon of Argos, so that it is likely that these writings were the source of Ephorus and Heracleides.

The text of Heracleides clearly states that the obols were deposited at the Heraion in order to abolish their use because Pheidon had introduced a system of measures. Up to the moment the iron objects were dedicated at the Heraion the Greeks used as medium of exchange utensil money which does not conform to any standard of weight, but is judged by its shape and appearance. Heracleides, as quoted by Orion, said:

The sentence is so highly compressed that it can be translated only with difficulty, but its general meaning is clear: before the establishment of the metric standards associated with Pheidon, in the matters in which weights are normally used, there were used as standards rough obelisks. The obols or obelisks are called trachys, ”rough, uneven,” probably because they provided only an approximate standard. The six obols tested by Svoronos vary between 495 and 342 grams.

The purpose of the dedication of the Heraion was to supplant a currency of obols with a currency of iron measured by weight and in general with a currency of metals measured by weight. Heracleides states that the purpose of Pheidon was ”to abolish the obeliskoi.” For this reason a bar of iron, representing a new standard, was set up at the Heraion. A standard of weight implies also standards of length, and for this reason the bar provides also lineal standards. But it was necessary to establish also that the new currency of weighed iron was equivalent to the old currency: for this reason next to the bar was placed a bundle of obols corresponding to the weight of the bar. It was thereby proved that by using weighed metal the parties to a transaction would receive the same amount of iron that they were receiving on the average by being paid in obols.

The bar was rectangular in section like the obols and flattened out at one end, so as to suggest a similarity between thebar and the obols. it is likely that the bundle of obols and the bar were suspended at the two opposite ends of a balance.

The oboloi, as used up to the time of the dedication of the Heraion, did not have to conform to a standard of weight, but since all the obols in the bundle had the length of four natural basic feet, it must be asked whether they had to conform to a standard of length. It is possible that the obols of the Heraion were given that length, but that the obols in circulation had more or less a length of that order, their length being determined by their practical use as roasting spits. But there is a passage that suggests that they had to conform to a standard of length. According to a quotation from the Constitution of the Sikyonians by Aristotle, this Pgilosopher offered a different etymology of the word obolos: the term would have been derived from the word ophello, “to increase”, because oboloi “grow up to a length.” Pollux to whom we owe - this quotation of Aristotle, observes that this etymology is “somewhat newfangled”, but even in providing an incorrect etymology, Aristotle may have referred to a correct fact.

By putting together the several texts that draw on Heracleides and Ephorus, the following three assertions can be gathered:

1) Pheidon of Argos was the first to set up a public standard for the metric system of Greece; he established or invented metra kai stathma ka nomisma.

2) He dedicated iron obols at the Argive Heraion in order to abolish their use.

3) He was the first to strike silver coins in the island of Aegina.

The first coins of Greece proper were struck at Aegina; these were also the first coins of pure silver, since the earlier coins of Ionia were of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Some of the texts ascribe the very invention of coinage to Pheidon, whereas others deny him the credit for this invention. This reveals how the striking of coins at Aegina came to be ascribed to Pheidon. There was ascribed to him the ”invention” of metra kai stathma kai nomisma; since the term nomisma, ”standard,” is ambiguous, but was definitly understood as meaning ”coin” in the fourth century B.C. But since it was rather well known that coins originated on the coast of Asia Minor, there was chosen to ascribe to Pheidon the first coinage of Greece proper, a coinage based on the standard of the Heraion. But even though Aegina is not too distant from the Heraion, it remained obscure how an Argive came to strike silver coins at Aegina.

There is a text that states that Pheidon struck gold coins at Euboea, that is at the Heraion; this text possibly reflects an effort to bridge the geographical gap between the Heraion and the island of Aegina.

Greek writers telescoped into one two stages of development. The dedication of the Heraion had the purpose of introducing the practice of circulating iron in the form of weighed metal. Up to that moment iron had circulated in the Peloponnese and some other parts of Greece as utensil-money in the shape of obols. The traders, probably Phoenicians or Aramaic-speaking merchants, who were interested in linking Greece with theEgyptian market, were used to pay and be paid in a currency consisting of weighed metals. If they bought iron, they wanted to pay for it by weight and when they paid for this or any other merchandise, they wanted to pay with weighed gold and silver, most usually silver.

I have traced three factors that may have contributed to creating a need for causing the Greeks to accept the monetary practices in Egypt:

a) Iron began to become a common metal in Egypt in the age of the Assyrian invasion, and the Heraion was an important metallurgical center.

b) Probably because the Assyrian expansion cut the usual Egyptian supplies for the thyia-resin, necessary for the making of mummies, the Egyptians became interested in the thyia woods of Delphi, in the reign of the last king of the Ethiopian Dynasty.

c) The following Saite Dynasty came to power with the help of Greek mercenaries, and therefore must have been concerned with the provision of a form of payment acceptable to them. Earlier Gyges had made himself king of Lydia by the use of Greek mercenaries; we are told that it was Gyges who first gave to Psammetichus I the idea of using Greek mercenaries. In my study of Greek chronology I will list the evidence that suggests that Gyges invented coins just for the purpose of paying his Greek troops: Gyges computed in pieces of metal measured by weight, but the Greeks were used to judge currency by its shape, so that there arose the coin which satisfies both demands.

In any case, it is in the course of the seventh century B.C. that Greece came out of a period of isolation and great economic decay and became engulfed in the trade currents of the eastern Mediterranean. I have shown that the alphabet, which came to Greece in this century, is intimately connected with the system of measures.

The myths indicate that the cult of the Heraion and the area of Nauplia fell under strong Egyptian influence. It is not possible to date the setting up of the obols at the Heraion, but the setting up of the obols and the establishment of a system of measures at Delphi may be clearly linked with the last ruler of the Ethiopian Dynasty and with the first of the Saite Dynasty.

The iron objects of the Heraion seem to sanction the principle that, henceforth, iron used as means of payment shall be weighed by a mina of 405 grams. The unit of 405 grams is 15/16 of the unit of 432 grams used later for Corinthian-Athenian coinage.

The standard of the Heraion is associated with the monetary standard called Aeginetic, which according to my computation is based on a mina of 607.5 grams, equal to 1 minae of the Heraion, divided into 100 drachmae. Seltman, who uses a similar figure for the Aeginetic drachma, argues that the standards of the Heraion had the purpose of setting an equivalence between an obol of iron (equal to 405 grams by my reckoning and to 403 by his) and 1/6 of Aeginetic mina (1.0125 grams by my reckoning and 1.008 by his). The fact that 1/6 of drachma came to be called obol strongly supports this contention. His inference is that the iron objects set up at the Heraion had the purpose of establishing a relation of value 1:400 between silver and iron. The entire bundle of 180 obols would have been the equivalent of 30 drachmae of silver. This interpretation of the evidence is not absolutely certain, but is highly credible. Seltman does not say so, but his interpretation implies my conclusion that, as a result of the dedication of the Heraion, payment could be made either in iron or in silver, both being measured by weight.

When silver began to be issued in the form of coined pieces at Aegina, silver coins began to be preferred to the currency of weighed iron and silver. But in order that a currency replace another the rate of exchange must be favorable to the one that survives according to Gresham’s law.

If it is assumed that the standards of the Heraion were set up under Egyptian influence and that the Egyptians were importing Greek iron, the rate 1:400 may have been favorable to silver. If the rate was favorable to silver, iron would have been driven off the market. Howev er, it must be kept in mind that in a rather primitive economy the operation of Gresham’s law may have been sluggish and have taken several decades. It is a fact that iron currency was driven off the market throughout Greece with the exception of Sparta.

It must be kept in mind that the relation of the Heraion was established in order to favor trade between those who had to offer iron and those who had to offer silver. At the beginning Gresham’s law worked for the benefit of both sides: those for whom iron had lesser value acquired silver, and those for whom silver had lesser value acquired iron. But when silver began to circulate in the form of coins around 600 B.C., silver became definitely preferable to iron.

My contention is that the reform of the Heraion introduced an iron currency of weighed metal, replacing that of obols. By the beginning of the sixth century this new currency of weighed iron was driven off by the currency of coined silver, except for Sparta.

The texts mentions the iron obols in general in speaking of Lycurgus’ reforms, but specifically state that Spartan currency consists of weighed iron. Several texts suggest that there were in Sparta weighed pieces of iron intended to have the nominal value of an obol. Most valuable is the statement of Plutarch that the Spartan pieces had the weight of an Aeginetic mina, and the actual value of 4 chalkoi.

In classical times the chalkous is a small divisional coin made of copper. It has not been noticed that in inscriptions this fractional unit is called either chalkous or siderous, indicating that it could be of copper or of iron. In Athens the obol is equal to 8 chalkoi, but at Delphi, where the Aeginetic drachma circulates, it is roughly equal to 1 Attic drachmas, the obol is equal to 12 chalkoi. If it does not matter whether the unit is of copper or of iron and if the unit has the same value in different monetary systems, the conclusion can be drawn that there was originally a utensil-money of copper or iron nails that as a divisional currency continued later than any other for of utensil-money. Walston thought to have found at the Heraion the remainders of a currency of copper and iron pins, but the problem has never been investigated. A currency of iron nails may explain a puzzling passage of the Syriac translation of St. Epiphanius:

Concerning the obol. The obol was coined among the silver [coins]. The one, however, made not of silver but of iron is one-eighth of an once, for this used to be a dart. For the life of man before the coming of Christ was hemmed in by wars, so that they had need of darts against those of the enemies. By means of such things as these they did business, everyone giving five or ten darts when purchasing bread or anything else. But this was in weight one-seventh of an once; and with our own eyes we have seen this king, O lover of the good. For in the island of Cyprus many kings and tyrants seized the government in antiquity. And going up for a walk to one of the ancient castles which had revolted once upon a time, we entered where there had been a palace, where there was stored a portion of the tyrant’s pay which was given to the soldiers under him from time to time. And there had been placed in a heap these obols, which were fashioned by early man for use as money. But they were also employed in the wars.

St. Ephiphanius is trying to explain what obols were originally, but refers to objects that weigh 1/7 or 1/8 of the ounce. Pieces weighing about 3 or 4 grams would hardly have been taken for darts by St. Ephiphanius. I would suggest that the text originally spoke of pieces being 1/7 or 1/8 of a mina; a currency of iron nails would weigh about 1/7 or 1/8 of an Attic mina. St. Epiphanius may have confused this currency which he saw with the currency of iron obols that he found mentioned in literary texts. The discrepancy in the two figures of St. Epiphanius may be explained by considering that in Athens a chalkous is 1/8 of a silver obol, whereas in Delphi it is 1/12 of an obol, although the Aeginetic silver obol of Delphi is slightly less than 1 times an Attic one. According to the standards of the Heraion the iron obol (worth a silver obol) had the weight of 2/3 of an Aeginetic mina. The Spartan iron obol weighing an Aeginetic mina should have been equal to 12 chalkoi of silver currency according to the rate of the Heraion, whereas Plutarch says that it was equal to 4.

It is significant that the iron currency continued to circulate in Sparta that was an iron-producing center. The rate of the heraion may have been favorable to silver, even in an iron-producing area, and the driving off of iron currency may have been resisted by the producers of iron. The preference of iron currency in the Peloponnese is indicated by the frequent occurrence in the area of regular cois of ionr, obviously used as divisional units. The historical texts state that Lycurgus deliberately banned silver currency in Sparta; there must be some truth in this, even though under ancient conditions a currency could not be abolished by a fiat of a legislator, but it could be driven off by altering the rate of exchange. I presume that a rate favorable to iron was established in Sparta. My hypothesis that the Spartans drove off silver coins by making iron obols of cast iron may be proven true or false by metallurgic tests. The statement of Plutarch implies that Spartan iron money had a value that related to that of silver as 1:1200.


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