The Iron Money of Sparta Likely a Myth

In his work Life of Lycurgus, the 1st Century essayist and philosopher Plutarch gave a description of a iron based money in use by the ancient Spartans. The given account is that, after seeing the supposed evils prevailed by commerce, the “legendary lawmaker” Lycurgus ordered that all money be iron and be prohibitively heavy in order to make transactions impractical. This account has been frequently been taken at face value, even being included in World History and Geography: Ancient Civilizations by Jackson J. Spielvogel, published by McGraw-Hill in 2019 — currently used in many six grade classes in California. However, a review of available and contemporary literature returns insufficient direct evidence which comports to Plutarch’s account of an iron money ordained by Lycurgus in ancient Sparta.

The most credible theory is that iron skewers or rods called “obeloi” were used as a currency. According to The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage edited by William E. Metcalf, iron spits or iron skewers could have been used as displays of wealth and were objects of dedication to the gods (34). A large bundle of spits were excavated in the Sanctuary of Hera and were found with a “massive” iron bar that one scholar proposed would have been for an offering (85–86 Kroll 2001). A Brown University blog post citing Ancient Greek Coins by G.K Jenkins and Archaic and Classical Greek Coins by Colin M. Kraay summarizes the hypothesis well and asserts that Obols in Aegina were produced from one gram of silver and replaced “iron cooking-spits” around 600 BC.

The literary connection comes in the form of the argument that a grouping of obeloi would be referred to as a “drax”, which has been proposed as an origin of the name for the Greek drachma as seen in Seltman’s Greek Coins and in Reinach’s L’Histoire par les monnaies. Because the term for the spits later lends its name to the denominations of later coins, some commentators suppose that things were valued in terms of the spits. Though there is skepticism that the origin of these names is correct.

As concluded by Richard Seaford, Richard A.S. Seaford in their book, it is not inconceivable that spits were used as money until widespread coinage because of their standardized size and functionality. Kroll’s piece in the aforementioned Metcalf compilation reads, “Heracleides of Pontus attributes the changeover from iron spits to silver coins to Pheidon, the obscure seventh-century ruler of Argos…who minted the first coins on Aegina.”

There appears to be good support for the ancient Greeks believing in some intrinsic worth of iron. Interestingly, in the Iliad and Odyssey, there is mention of some iron articles, e.g. arrowheads, but no mention of iron money (Jevons, F. B. “Iron in Homer.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 13, 1893, pp. 25–31., doi:10.2307/623888).

A fair narrative of the issue is taken up in H. Mitchell’s article simply titled The Iron Money of Sparta in the Phoenix Vol. 1, Supplement to Volume One (42–44, Spring, 1947). Mitchell’s conclusion is that, despite definite archeological evidence that the skewer-like objects existed, some have indeed been recovered, there is a lack of historical evidence that they were used as a type of currency. There seems to be no archaeological evidence that shows that the iron skewers were generally used as a medium of exchange or store of value.

An essay by Charles Seltman on Greek coins in Cambridge Ancient History states that the first mint in Sparta was created around 280 BC and that the historical evidence points to Spartans using foreign coinage, not anything they themselves minted or forged. Implying it is doubtful that Spartans used the iron skewers as “money”.

Some other scholarship estimates that given the estimated value of the metals in ancient Greece, the weight ratio of an iron spit would be equivalent in value to an equal amount of gold and about fifteen times more valuable than silver (104–105 Seaford 2004). However, specific evidence of the iron spits used as a medium of exchange and a store of value once again appears lacking, and no connection to Sparta specifically is mentioned. In a 4th-3rd century B.C report by Dicaearchus of Messana, Aeginetan obols were brought to a formal dining meeting as a contribution, but from context it is unclear that they are not simply gifts (qtd. In The Deipnosophists; or, Banquet of the learned).

With respect to the possibility of iron skewers or pits, neither seem to satisfy Plutarch’s description of the iron money being prohibitively heavy or unwieldy. They were in fact quite portable.

Public Policy Research Associate| Ad hoc consultant| Former Comparative Political Economy Researcher| Oakland, CA. B.A Political Science, UC Berkeley

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