Monday, 19 February 2018

Paying the iron price: Spartan money

We do not sow! Game of Thrones, HBO, 2016
(... that’s because sowing is the helots’ job)

Welcome to 2018! Our first topic for this year may not actually be a myth. When modern people hear it, they often think it’s a myth, because it sounds pretty daft. But it’s actually pretty plausible that the early and Classical-era Spartans really did use iron spits as a kind of money. It’s just that there are some solid, sensible reasons why they might have done so.

The main piece of ancient testimony comes from Plutarch, a 2nd-century-CE essayist, biographer, and priest:
For first, [Lycurgus] voided all gold and silver coinage, and decreed that they should use only iron; and to this he assigned only a small price for a large weight and volume, so that a value of ten mnai required a lot of storage in the home, and a pair of oxen to transport it. When this was ratified, many kinds of crimes disappeared from Lacedaimon. For who was going to steal something, or take bribes in it, or steal it, or take it by force, when it wasn’t possible to conceal it, to possess it jealously, or even to make a profit by cutting it up? For the red-hot iron was quenched with vinegar, it’s said, so that the hardening took away its usefulness and value for any other purpose, making it weak and unworkable.
Now, Plutarch’s story is certainly distorted. Most of the stories of Spartan exceptionalism that are still popular today -- about the Spartan agōgē, killing ‘defective’ babies, military supremacy, and so on -- were shaped by centuries of myth-making, long after Sparta’s actual heyday. Some of them are pure fiction. Plutarch is one of the most unreliable sources we have for classical Sparta.

So you’d think there’s good reason to raise eyebrows at Plutarch’s story. And yet, there may be a kernel of truth in it. Pre-classical and classical Sparta may have used iron to store value. But it wasn’t a novelty introduced by the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, and in context, it makes complete sense.

Plutarch’s biggest mistake is that coinage wasn’t invented anywhere until the 6th century BCE, when Sparta’s military dominance was already at its height. That’s when coins were first developed in Lydia, a kingdom that dominated western Anatolia. A few decades later, Greek states like Aegina and Athens started making their own coinage.

Lydia doesn’t have a big public profile nowadays, but there are still two names from ancient Lydia that are pretty famous: king Midas, who really was a historical figure, even if we take it as read that the story about turning things to gold is fictional, and king Croesus, who was famous for being wealthy, and for losing his kingdom in the most ironic way possible, and who still survives in the proverbial saying ‘as rich as Croesus’. (The saying is a bit out of fashion now: maybe it’s better known via the parodic version in Terry Pratchett’s 1988 novel Sourcery, ‘as rich as Creosote’.)

Anyway, by the time coinage arrived in the Greek world, myths of Spartan exceptionalism were well on the way. The oddity of Sparta isn’t that they adopted iron currency: it’s that they held off on adopting coinage for a few centuries, until the 200s BCE. That delay ended up being built into the self-image of later Sparta, which was fixated on nostalgia for a distant past that was largely fictional.

As to the use of iron, rather than silver: it was completely normal to use base metals to store value. Anyone who has ever read the Homeric Iliad or Odyssey (mid-7th century BCE) will have noticed that when people give each other wealth, it’s often in the form of metal household utensils: namely, tripods. These tripods were metal stands used to support braziers and the like. And it’s not just Homer: tripods are a frequent subject of interest in the surviving Linear B tablets from Mycenaean Greece. Homer and the Mycenaeans had a real thing about tripods.

Possibly not the best person to burgle: Herakles gets caught red-handed stealing a tripod from the god Apollo (Attic hydria, Madrid Painter, ca. 530 BCE, Museo Arqueológico Nacional of Spain)

That isn’t because of a fetish, and it’s not because they’re made of valuable materials. (They’re normally bronze: even baser than iron.) It’s because
  1. Metal utensils are fungible. They’re interchangeable commodities which will have a similar use-value and exchange-value everywhere.
  2. Metal utensils don’t degrade, they’re hard to damage, and they’re easily transportable. All of these things make them a hell of a vehicle for storing value.
We do see other measures of value in early Greek history, too, like clothes, barley, and oxen: they had fungibility too, but not all the advantages that metal had. Grain spoils; oxen die. Transporting them poses various challenges. On the other hand, they had other advantages: grain and oxen can produce more grain and oxen. So they were strong measures of productivity, more than ownership.

For stored value, metal tripods were the most prestigious unit. But a tripod is a pretty big object, and they have to come in whole numbers. You can’t buy an item for half a tripod, or a twelfth of a tripod. Tripods are for rich people: they’re the $1000 note of the ancient world. What did people do for smaller values? Did they pay bills in bags of grain? Were there shops that sold trinkets for, say, a hat and one shoe? Could a poor girl have a time-share in a cow as her dowry?

All of those are very feasible. But they may also have used smaller metal utensils. And the leading candidate for the utensil of choice is the spit -- the kind used for roasting things over a barbecue. The value of spits wasn’t just tied up in their metal content: they had potential ritual and social functions, which could make them good not only for storing value, but also for exchanging small values. If bronze tripods were the ancient $1000 bill, metal spits were the ancient payWave.

One of the most important venues that involved a large number of small transactions was the communal sacrifice. One relatively well-off person holds a sacrifice, and to spread the cost, invites a whole community to take part. Everyone likes this idea, because meat was a very small component of the ancient Greek diet: a sacrifice like this is where you get an awful lot of your protein. In exchange for a small payment, each participant gets a share of the meat and settles down with their family for a feast. The result is a combo of religious festival, picnic, and restaurant.

And in that context, what better way of paying the entry fee could there be, than the one metal utensil you’re actually going to need at the event? This function is suggested in the terminology: the Greek word for ‘spit’ is obelos, and in cities that adopted coinage, the word for a small-denomination coin was obolos. We’re a single unstressed vowel reduction away from a definite link.

A ‘handful’ of obeloi at the Numismatic Museum, Athens: could the Spartans have used these as currency?

(The larger unit, the drachmē worth six obols, is often thought to come from a dragma or ‘handful’ of spits. But it could also have an independent origin. Hesychius tells us that drax, another form of the same root, was a ‘handful’ in the sense of a quarter of a xestēs ‘pint’: that suggests a measure of grain rather than a handful of metal spits. See Hesychius δ.2319; similarly LXX 3 Kings 17:12.)

We don’t have 100% certainty (a) that this is how the word ‘obol’ came about, and (b) that when Plutarch reports a story about the Spartans using iron money, the story is actually about iron spits. That’s the theory that we find in some lexicographers, like Zonaras, but there’s no guarantee that they weren’t just guessing. But it does look plausible enough to treat it as the standing theory on the subject.

Even Plutarch’s more limited claim, that the Spartans prohibited silver and copper coinage, needs some careful interpretation. The Lycurgan ban is certainly fictional -- if Lycurgus was ever a real person, he died before coinage was first invented -- but Plutarch reports on another ban of other cities’ coinage in 404 BCE, which could well be historical (Plutarch Life of Lysander 17). Yet it’s a pretty common principle of ancient history that bans like that happened because the practice was actually going on fairly commonly -- that’s why the ban was needed. Moreover we have a report from a 4th-3rd century BCE writer, Dicaearchus of Messana (reported in Athenaeus iv.141c), that when Spartiates brought food contributions to their dining societies (syssitia) they also regularly brought a cash contribution of 10 Aeginetan obols. So even in times when there was a ban on other cities’ currency, Spartans may well have used it on the black market pretty regularly.

There’s no certainty here: we have no guarantees that the obolos ‘small denomination coin’ and obelos ‘spit’ are related, and that the Spartans really did use iron money. They may have simply used other cities’ coinage. But the weaker form of Plutarch’s story has something going for it: that the Spartans may well have used metal utensils to store value, as many people did in archaic Greece; and/or that there was a genuine ban on foreign currency in 404 BCE.


  1. If you look at the articles on "obelos" and "obolos" in the online Liddell-Scott (obolos, obelos), you'll find that both forms are being used for both concepts. It's of course still possible that these are two words for different concepts originally that became mixed up by their similarity or by folk etymology, but it's also possible that the distinction obolos "unit of currency" and obelos "spit" is due to a later differentiation of two by-forms of what originally was a word meaning "spit".

    1. That's good info. I agree caution over a possible folk etymology is needed, but the idea of metal spits as money is certainly not to be dismissed, at least not outright.

      Some do see a problem in the form of Hesychius' "pelanor" (π 1286 in the newer edition), which he says is a Laconian tetrachalkon, and which elsewhere is valued at an obol. It's maybe not so easy to reconcile something called a "meal-cake" with an iron spit! It does sound more like a conventionally shaped coin, though maybe not pressed. If obelos and obolos do have a common origin, I suspect spit-money must be quite a lot earlier.