The Other Coin: How Low Can You Go? A Selection of Ancient and
Modern Coins that are Smallest in Size and Value.
Lydians invented coins a little before 600BC, first in electrum (a naturally occurring
silver and gold mixture), then in silver and gold. The stater, about the size of a
nickel, but three times thicker. The gold was used to make large wholesale
payments in goods or tribute, and the silver to pay soldiers. The market place
demanded small change and at first the silver stater was issued in denominations as
small as 1/48 (4mm, .27 grams) or even 1/96 staters as small as 2mm and .14
grams. These small coins could by a glass of wine or loaf of bread at the theater,
sporting event or mall. As small change they were rarely hoarded and often found
dropped under floors or pavements as single coins. The dies were carved with all
the care and delicacy of the larger coins and the small silver coins competed with
bronze coinage, which became acceptable as small change a generation or two after
the invention of gold and silver coinage.
The Greeks continued the use of small coinage, including the 1/8 obol coinage as
small as .07 grams or 1mm. The smallest bronze coin was the chalkous, ranging
from 1-2 grams and 7mm-11mm. Like the penny today, these small bronzes had no
real value and were simply used as change.
The Romans began their coinage with massive bronze coins. but soon developed
fractional silver coinage--the quinarius or 1/4 of a denarius weighed between 1.5g
to 1.85 grams and ranged from 13mm to 15mm. The smallest bronze coin was the
quadrans was about 15mm and 2.5 grams. As the Roman Empire aged the small
bronze coins became smaller and smaller. Late roman bronzes fell to 9mm and less
than a gram in weight. Late silver coins were called the siliqua and fell to 1 gram in
size, and a thin 17mm.
The Byzantine smallest coin was a nummus, and the smallest of those were minted
in provincial cities like Carthage at 9mm and about a gram in weight. The Byzantine
continued the siliqua for some time at the Late Roman weight and standard.
The smallest gold coin was the medieval Indian gold fanam. Medieval small coinage
was the cut silver penny, usually cut in quarters. Copper coinage around the world
saw the British farthing, the Russian quarter kopeck, the German 1/96 pfennig.
The smallest value coinage were coins that existed just before inflation struck a
country. Coins were revalued a hundred or thousands of time more than their
previous value, making their earlier denominations worthless. This recently happen
to Russia, Poland, and Turkey. Russia and Poland revalued their currency at 10,000
to 1 in 1992, and Turkey revalued its currency at 1,000,000 to one in 2005. It
would take 1.35 million Turkish lira coins to equal a dollar, and the Turkish penny,
a kurus would be worth one hundredth of that. Similarly the Russian ruble in 1991
was worth about one ten thousands of a dollar and the kopeck a hundredth of that.
The smallest denomination coin became the ruble, a far cry from the quarter
kopeck coin of the czars. Austria and Germany experienced hyperinflation in the
1920s, although Germany issued stamps in billions of marks rather than coins.
Yugoslavia and Russian during its Civil War issued paper money in denominations
of trillions and hundreds of millions respectively.
Numismatically yours, David Elliott