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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 09:59 GMT
The demise of the drachma
Early coins bearing the turtle of Aegina
The island of Aegina was minting coins 2,500 years ago
The Greek drachma has a history that goes back to the beginning of the use of coins as money.

The world's first coins appeared simultaneously in two places - China and the kingdom of Lydia in what is now western Turkey at the end of the seventh century BC.

Apollo depicted on the 1,000 drachma note
Apollo depicted on the 1,000 drachma note
No-one knows what the Lydians called their coins, but not long after the Lydian ruler Croesus was minting his legendary fortune.

In the middle of the sixth century BC, Greeks in Athens and the island of Aegina had begun producing silver drachmas.

The word "drachma" is Greek for "handful". It was taken as the name for a coin because it was worth a handful of iron spits known as obols, which earlier Greeks had used for money.

It was the mother of all later coinage systems

Jonathan Williams, British Museum
Heavier silver or gold coins were known as staters.

Coins minted on the island of Aegina were stamped with the image of a turtle, those in Athens with an owl.

At each mint the weight was precisely calibrated, though it differed from one city-state to the next.

"It was the mother of all later coinage systems," says Jonathan Williams of the British Museum.

Automatic vending

Before long drachmas were being minted at Greek settlements in southern Italy, with the result that the Romans switched from using bronze bars to coins in about 300 BC.

And at roughly the same time Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great were producing huge quantities of coins to finance their military conquests.

Decadrachm of Syracuse in collection of British Museum
Greek coin from Sicily: Zenith of numismatic art
A big copper five-drachma coin was used in the first recorded automatic vending machine, used to dispense ceremonial water in Greek-governed Alexandria in 150 BC.

Jesus Christ, in one of the parables recorded by Saint Luke, refers to a woman who had 10 drachmas but lost one.

The writer Josephus, reporting on the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 says that starving people in the besieged city were selling bundles of withered grass for four drachmas.

Further afield, Indian drammas, and dirhams from North Africa and Central Asia, which were used in trade all over Russia, are descendants of the drachma.


The ancient Greeks began the art of coin design, and some experts believe Greek artists working in Italy have never been matched.

Usually coins bore images of plants and animals or gods and goddesses, sometimes views of cities or temples.

A coin struck in 2000 to commemorate the forthcoming 2004 Olympics
Coin struck in 2000 to mark the forthcoming 2004 Olympics
It was only in the third century BC that one of Alexander the Great's successors started stamping coins with his own head.

The drachma disappeared for almost a millennium while Greece was ruled by foreign powers, but made its return shortly after the creation of the modern Greek state in 1827.

Jonathan Williams says it was a conscious throwback to the nation's golden age.

"An ancient people gets its freedom back - what more natural for that people to have an ancient Greek name for its coinage," he says.

"It's a symbol of antiquity."

The changeover evokes mixed feelings among Greeks, who will miss the drachma with their hearts, while recognising that it's been a weak currency - now worth only one twelfth as much against the dollar as it was in 1970.

For this reason they will welcome the euro, which promises to be a rock of stability by comparison.

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