Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The coin showing here is a bronze Corinthian coin (stater), circa 5th century B.C., weight approximately 8 grams. It is fairly typical of a coin that was minted between 600 and 330 B.C., but I was assured upon getting this image that this particular coin had been dated to approximately the rein of Pericles in Athens.

The obverse side shows a winged pegasus; the reverse, an image of Athena in a Corinthian helmet. The offset pegasus shows just how imprecise a hand tool could be, and suggests the coin was punched very quickly, along with a great many other coins (no time to get prissy about centering the image). Note also the detail on either image, particularly the Athena ... quite astounding.

These coins were made early enough that an additional ridge had not been added to the outer edge of the coin – something that became very common in Roman times. The ridge here is almost certainly caused by the punch alone. It was a common practice (right up into the late middle ages) to ‘shave’ coins, gaining the precious metal and retaining the value of the coin. It wouldn’t be possible to say if the upper left side of the pegasus had been shaved ... the coin is more than 2000 years old and could simply have worn down with use.

While precious metals had begun to show their bartering superiority sometime about 2,000 B.C., the actual coin bearing the stamp or shape as issued by a given state did not begin to appear until the 8th century B.C. Thus these two coins are an example of the technological development of numismatics after four hundred years. Clearly, the importance of a distinct image, something that would be difficult to duplicate, has asserted itself.

This particular coin, as minted for almost three centuries, was quite common in the ancient world – Corinth straddled an important shipping point, where goods and passengers were disembarked off ships on one side of the Corinthian Isthmus, hauled two miles, and re-embarked. The coin would have been carried everywhere, from Italy and Carthage to Egypt and Colchis (the far end of the Black Sea). It would have helped set the standard for coinage for centuries afterwards. I’ve had the opportunity of examining an extensive coin collection, right to the end of the Roman Empire, and I assure you the size of the coin depicted here is very usual.

In D&D, the thought of a coin weighing 1/10th of a pound is laughable. At 8 grams, there would be almost four of these coins per ounce, and 56 coins per pound. Allowing for space between coins, there would be about 15 coins per cubic inch (remembering that bronze has a specific gravity ranging between 7 and 8), enabling as many as 80 coins to fit easily into quite a small belt pouch.

A thousand coins would weigh a bit more than 17 and a half pounds, which is hardly the great encumbering weight designed to load down parties. A box one foot square would be large enough to hold more than 25,000 coins – granted, weighing 457 lbs. But that’s the weight of metal for you.

My point is, the whole encumberance methodology as shown in the DMG is highly suspect. I don’t use it, obviously. I’m sure that others would, even while being aware that no society would comfortably consider carrying around ten coins that weighed a pound. An American quarter weighs 5 grams – go purchase 89 of them and spend the day with that in one of your pockets ... this is the equivalent of carrying around just ten original D&D gold coins.


Rob Conley said...

It gets worse the English silver penny weighed between 1.3 gram and 1.5 gram. My father has one minted by King John and it is quite small.

For my own game I use the Harn system which has 1 silver penny = 1/256 of a pound. So roughly 250 per lb.

The rest of the currency is based on a gold to silver ration of 20 to 1. So a gold penny is worth 20 silver, and a 1 oz gold crown is worth 320 silver.

Snarls-at-Fleas said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there 50 coins = 1 pound in D&D?

Alexis said...

AD&D, snarls. No other edition exists on this blog.

Cameron said...

One other aspect of game currency that gets overlooked is that by the time even a single character reaches a high level, that character's moved through enough gold to prop up the wealth of medieval Europe. In an adventure-based economy, the inflation would be gi-freaking-normous.

Alexis said...


Have a look at this.

Cameron said...

Right. Excellent - exactly the kind of thing I've been looking for. Also, thanks for the Mumford tip; when I get to work (ah, the joys of working in a bookstore) I'll see if it's still available anywhere.

Tom said...

Wasn't there an article in Dragon #80 (How many coins in a coffer) that pretty much covered this exact thing?

R said...

Excellent post. More, please.

Alexis said...


Maybe. I haven't read a Dragon mag in twenty years.

Carl said...

This one weighed an ounce (a Roman ounce) for a while:


This massive hunk of brass weighed nearly two-pounds (two Roman pounds) for a while:


It's name literally means "two-pounder"

I had to go through and standardize the weights of the coins. Fortunately, the only other coin flying around in quantity at my time period is the Tetradrachm. Also, many prices outside the "big
cities" were still in cows.

Here's a big coin from your period, Alexis -- 30 grams!


Alexis said...


I've found 17th century coins weighing up to 60 grams, such as the loeser taler, a massive silver coin more than two inches across. Such coins were usually special mints, intended to serve as tributes, loans and such - minted large as a sort of guarantee that said coins couldn't be stolen and then 'sold' elsewhere. Since such coins are extraordinarily rare, the assumption is that they were usually melted down for the value of the metal.