Attic units (fl. -500 to +150) are the units of measure of ancient Athens. You see them in the writings of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch and others.
Note: the metric values given below are approximations, in part because Attic units were not as fixed as metric ones, in part because there is some degree of uncertainty.
- 1 talent = 60 minae = 25.8 kg
- 1 mina (pound) = 100 drachmas = 430 g
- 1 drachma = 6 obols = 4.3 g
- 1 obol = 0.72 g
Units changed from city to city. In Aegina, for example, a drachma was 6.1 grams, while in Corinth it was only 2.9.
Money: Expressed as weights of silver. Money was not counted but weighed!
- didrachm (= 2 drachmas)
- tetradrachm (= 4 drachmas)
- Persian daric or stater (about 25 drachmas)
All these were silver coins except the stater, made of gold. There were bronze coins too for small change.
Costs (middle -400s):
- 470 talents – to build the Parthenon (all that marble!)
- 400 talents -yearly income Athens got from taxes and fees.
- 400 talents – yearly tribute Athens got from its empire.
- 10 talents – the prize money Herodotus won for his history.
- 1 talent – the cost to run a warship (trireme) for a month (all those rowers!)
- 0.5 talents – cost to build a warship.
- 6 to 8 drachmas – pair of shoes
- 5 to 20 drachmas – woollen cloak
- 1 drachma – olive oil, 1.25 L
- 1 obol – enough barley to feed a family of five for eight days
a day’s pay:
- 1 drachma – skilled labourer, even the architect of the Parthenon!
- 2 obols – unskilled labourer.
In the late -400s, wages will triple due to wartime inflation.
- 1 stade = 600 Attic feet = distance of a foot race = 180 m
- 1 plethron = 100 feet = 29.6 m
- 1 fathom = 6 feet = 1.8 m
- 1 cubit = 1.5 feet = 0.44 m
- 1 foot = 16 fingers = 0.296 m (English foot = 0.3048 m)
- 1 finger (dactylos) = 1.8 cm
- 1 amphora = 144 kotyles = 39.39 L
- 1 kotyle (cup) = 270 mL
- 1 medimnos = 48 choinix = 52 L
- 1 choinix = 1.08 L
Months start on the new moon:
- summer: Hekatombaion, Metageitnion, Boedromion
- autumn: Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseideion
- winter: Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion
- spring: Mounikhion, Thargelion, Skirophorion
Years: Start with the summer. Named after whoever was archon of Athens at the time.
Thucydides understood that most people, outside of Athens and in the future, would have no idea of who was archon of Athens when, so he dates of the start of the war between Athens and Sparta this way:
“The peace, which after the winning of Euboea was concluded for 30 years, lasted 14 years. But in the 15th year, being
- the 48th of the priesthood of Chrysis in Argos,
- Aenesias being then ephor at Sparta and
- Pythadorus, archon of Athens, having then two months of his government to come,
- in the sixth month after the battle Potidaea and in the beginning of the spring…”
What we would simply call 431 BC, thanks to Christianity becoming a world religion. Notice he does not use Olympiads. That was not yet common.
From there all his dates are in relation to the start of the war: “In the tenth year…”, etc. And, because months were different from city to city, Thucydides generally spoke in terms of seasons:
“The spring following, when corn began to be in the ear…”
– Abagond, 2017.
Sources: mainly the appendices of the Landmark editions of Herodotus and Thucydides; “The World of Athens” (1984) by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers at Cambridge University.
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