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E - 75 : Silver makes the Greeks go round, the Greeks go round, the Greeks go round

When writing about the Gulf of Corinth, I came across a few papers which described ancient Corinth as Greece’s most important town. It lost this position to Athens however. How comes

The Corinth Canal - the remains of the Diolkos, the ancient track way for ships, is on the left

Corinth was established as early as 6’500 BC and was from the very beginning an important centre for trade. Through the Gulf of Corinth, it connected the Adriatic to the Aegean and Black Sea. The Isthmus linked the Peloponnese to mainland Greece. It was the perfect hub for commerce. Not surprisingly, Corinth founded over 20 colonies in the Mediterranean (the most prominent are Corfu and Syracuse), was for the longest time the centre of Greece's pottery industry (goods need storage!), had one of the strongest army and could afford public building projects like the Diolkos, the paved track way to pull ships over the isthmus. It was a wealthy town.

Contemporary painting of the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC

At the Naval Battle of Salami, where the Greek city states defeated the twice as large Persian Fleet, the Corinthians were a junior partner though. Athens contributed 180 ships to the total of 370, Corinth only 40. Also, in the 5th century BC, Corinth lost its position as the leading pottery manufacturer to Athens. I wondered. How was this possible? How could the most important trading town be poorer than its landlocked rival 75 km to the east? Athens had a lot of clay – so did Corinth. Firing pottery in a kiln required considerable quantities of wood – Athens had less than Corinth. Same is valid for building a fleet. Or for making steel.

Location of the Laurion silver mines at the tip of Attica

What was I missing? I found the answer when googling “Mines in Attica”. Was looking for iron mines but found something different which solved the riddle. At the same distance as Corinth but to the southeast, there were the silver mines of Laurion.

Detailled map of the many silver mines around Laurion

Archeological evidence indicates that mining started as early as 3’200 BC but systematical exploitation only commenced in the 6th century BC. Almost 700 shafts in and around Laurion were sunk into the limestone to reach the ore containing silver. According to several sources, the workers in these mines were mostly slaves.

Restored Mine Entrance today

The numbers I found were between 10'000 and 30’000. Life there was apparently hellish and short.. Wonder whether these slaves were prisoners of war with Persia. Athens was not waging wars like Rome thus could not easily replace 5'000 slaves per year. I guess the story of misery is exaggerated. Mining requires considerable knowledge. The slaves were too valuable to be wasted like this - no source indicated that they were criminals.

Restored Mine Shaft - very narrow compared to today's standards

Over 300 years, the mines in Laurion provided Athens with several thousand tons of silver. At the outbreak of the second Persian war, the Athenian Treasury was said to held 3’000 tons of silver. The number is probably severely inflated. The mines' annual production was 20 tons only. Did they really hold 150 years of gold supply? Have never seen a treasurer in history who had achieved that. People want to spend the riches they have.

The Silver Ore was washed on these tables before being put into a smelter

In any case, the Athenian leader Themistocles convinced his people to spend the silver on building a fleet of 200 trireme to fight Persia. This is why Athens could afford sending 180 trireme to the Bay of Salamis in 480 BC. Tried to find out the magnitude of the Persian ship losses but the numbers are unreliable. It must have been somewhere between one third to one half of their 700 vessels otherwise they would not have retreated. The Persians also must have lost a good part of their supplies for the land army which had just occupied and burnt down Athens.

Athenian Drachme coing with 4 grams of silver

After the war, the citizens of Athens lost patience with Themistocles, the Hero of Salamis, and sent him into exile. Have not heard a convincing reason as to why this happens. I guess it was over the dispute how to best use the silver. There was always a strong faction in Athens which preferred to distribute it amongst the citizens rather than investing into defence. They eventually won. That Athens became the centre of fine pottery and overtook Corinth has a lot to do with Athen's new purchasing power. They could afford to have the best artists to make the finest vases. As always, the good life did not last. By 350 BC, the mines were depleted. Not able to work with the purse any longer, Athens lost its leading position in Greece and would not get it back until 1832 when it became the country's capital.

If you want to watch a fun video game which walks you through the silver mines of Laurion, go to the link below – it is amazingly well done!

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