According to most reference books on Greek coins the smallest silver denomination
is given as the hemitartemorion or 1/8 obol, weighing just over 0.09g when full weight.
However, according to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, there is in their collection
an even smaller Greek silver coin.
This tiny coin, which corresponds to a 1/16 of a silver obol, was issued by the island
city state of Arados off the coast of Phoenicia and was minted early in the 4th century
BC. It weighed just under 0.06g (approx. 2/1000 oz.) with a diameter of less than
3.5mm (14/100 ins.) The obverse depicted the head of Melkert and the reverse showed
a Phoenician Galley. The denomination does not appear to have been given an official
name as such and is simply known by its fraction.
Like most inconveniently small coins they are thought to have been carried under
the top lip in the mouth of the owner to avoid loss. This theory about how very small
denominations were carried is given some credence by a passage in Aristophanes’ Wasps
written circa 422 BC.
“For once Lysistratus, the funny fool, played me the scurviest trick. We had a drachm
between us; he changed it at the fish stall, then laid down three mullet scales.
I thought them to be obols and popped them in my mouth. Oh, the vile smell! I spat
them out and collared him!”
Such a precarious practice must have resulted in the occasional accident – leaving
quite a wait for small change.
The illustration above shows an obol, or twelfth stater, considerably enlarged. In
reality, the coin is approximately 9 millimetres in diameter, and weighs 0.83 grammes.
To put this into perspective, consider the obol in relation to a modern UK decimal
penny, which is 20.3 millimetres in diameter and 3.56 grammes in weight:
The illustration shows the minute size of the obol. Using the same perspective for
the one-sixteenth obol with its diameter of 3.5mm and weight of 0.06g, less than
a fiftieth of the penny, we can see how impossibly small such a coin turns out to
The smallest coin in the modern UK coinage is the silver penny struck for the Royal
Maundy. In comparison, this is a giant amongst coins, with a diameter of 11.5mm and
a weight of 0.47g, being three times the size and seven times the weight of the one-sixteenth
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sixteenth-obols aren't the commonest of coins, which
is why this note has been illustrated using the image of an obol. The design of the
sixteenth is, like most of the Arados silver coinage, of the same design and general