A Fistful of Obols?

Since Greece has been in the news and since the below comment in a National Geographic Traveler (Nov/Dec 2009) caught my eye, let’s talk about obols and drachmas.

“The name for the old Greek drachma coin comes from the verb meaning ‘to grasp.’ Originally, a drachma equaled a fistful of silver coins called obols, each worth a sixth of a drachma.”

Not being an ancient coin or a foreign coin aficionado, this, nevertheless, peaked my interest.

Other than Greek coinage, what the heck is an obol and what is a drachma?

As a quick reference, Wikipedia provides good information (though several sources should be used if you need absolute accuracy – they offer cautions about obtaining additional references). Wikipedia’s section on Greek Drachmas explains the overall background of the obol and the drachma.

Similar to the note in the Traveler magazine, Wikipedia says, “Initially a drachma was a fistful (a ‘grasp’) of six oboloi (metal sticks), which were used as a form of currency as early as 1100 BC. It was the standard unit of silver coinage at most ancient Greek and Roman mints, and the name ‘obol’ was used to describe a coin that was one-sixth of a drachma.”

They go on to describe ancient currency equivalents: 8 chalkoi = 1 obolus; 6 oboloi = 1 drachma, 100 drachma = 1 mina; 60 minea = 1 Talent. Minae and Talents were not minted coins, instead they were units of measure for commodities such as grain.


Now, the more modern drachma enjoyed three different eras before Greece adopted the Euro coinage and currency.

The first modern drachma began when the coins were re-introduced in 1832. This first period lasted until 1944. 

After Greece was liberated from Germany in 1944, the second drachma period began with an exchange rate of 50,000,000,000 to 1. (Wow, an exchange rate worse, much worse, than some of the world currencies today.) Only paper was printed for this second period.

In 1954, Greece started their third period for the drachma. This period was an attempt to halt inflation by changing the values of their money at a rate of 1000 to 1.

In March of 2002, the Greek drachma, as a currency, ceased to exist in circulation, being replaced with the Euro.

At the time of conversion, 500 drachmas, one of their denominations, exchanged into 1.47 Euros.

It’s amazing what you can learn when a simple statement in a waiting area’s magazine peaks your interest.

Of course, if you have an interest in ancient or foreign coins, the monthly coin show has dealers who specialize in those types of coins.