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GreekReporter.comAncient GreeceHow the Mines of Laurion Changed Ancient Athens and the World

How the Mines of Laurion Changed Ancient Athens and the World

Mines of Laurion
A washing table at the mines of Laurion, Greece. Credit: Heinz Schmitz, CC BY-SA 2.5

Just 50 kilometers south of Athens, between Thoricus and Cape Sounion, lie the mines of Laurion. Silver, copper, lead and even rare metals have been mined there since the Late Neolithic Period, approximately 3,200 BC, until mining ceased unexpectedly for centuries until the sixth century BC.

The mines thrived during Greece’s Classic Period, with slaves doing the backbreaking mining of the metal ores. The city-state of Athens exploited the mines to the full, and they became a vital source of revenue.

In the 4th and 5th centuries BC, the output of the Laurion mines represented fully 25 percent of the Athenian state’s annual wealth.

According to Dr. Elias Konofagos, a chemical engineer and member of the energy committee of the Academy of Athens, the annual gross revenue from just the silver and lead from the Laurion mines at that time was 920 talents.

The talent (“talanton”) was an ancient unit of mass and a commercial weight, as well as representing corresponding units of value equivalent to these masses of a precious metal. The 920 talents were equivalent to 5,520,000 Attica drachmas, with those silver coins each weighing 4.36 grams.

In the beginning of the fifth century BC, the annual output of the Laurion mines was an astounding 20,000 kilograms of silver and 8,000 tons of lead. Archaeologists have discovered almost 200 different mines and shafts in the area dating back to the years 480-250 BC.

Mines of Laurion helped defeat Persian army

Themistocles, who was elected Archon of Athens in 493 BC, had a grand plan to make Athens a leading nautical power. He also built a wall across Piraeus to defend the territory of Attica. Soon, the Port of Faliro was replaced by the port of Piraeus.

Themistocles ordered the construction of 200 long warships called triremes, which required 170 rowers each, amounting to a total force of 34,000 men. The funds used for the construction of these ships derived directly from the Laurion mines.

It is estimated that 20,000 slaves worked in the mines to provide the silver for the fleet that Themistocles demanded. The end result of all their toil was that Athens became a fearsome naval power.

In 480 BC, the vast Persian army defeated the Greek forces at the Battle of Thermopylae, invading parts of Greece and threatening the Athenian state.

Themistocles proposed that since the Greeks were outnumbered by the Persians, they should avoid fighting on land.

He then suggested that the Persian king Xerxes’ army should be stopped at sea. The Athenian-dominated Allied navy engaged the Persian fleet in the nearby straits of Artemisium; unfortunately, the Greeks suffered heavy losses there and retreated.

Themistocles insisted, however, that the Persian fleet should be brought to battle again. After a subterfuge on the part of the sly Themistocles, King Xerxes was lured into a titanic battle at sea, leading his Persian fleet into the narrow Straits of Salamis.

Once inside the narrow waterway, the Persian ships could simply not maneuver, and they became completely disorganized. The Greek fleet was then able to snatch the opportunity to obliterate Persia’s naval forces and score a decisive victory for Athens and Greece.

It was September 22, 480 BC — a day which became one of the most momentous dates in the history of ancient Greece.

One year later, without a Navy to support his troops, the Persian King Xerxes retreated to Asia, forever abandoning his ambition to conquer Greece.

Many historians believe that a Persian victory would have stopped the progress of ancient Greek civilization, and by extension western civilization as a whole, leading them to argue that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history.

The ships which helped to win the Battle of Salamis were paid for with silver from the mines of Laurion. So it would be safe to say that these mines in the southern part of Attica, and the miserable labor of the enslaved men there, contributed significantly to the saving of western civilization.

The rich mines of Laurion stopped operation only in the year 1992, and today, its property belongs to the Greek Ministry of Culture. The ancient mines which figure so very large in Western history are now part of the Laurion Technological and Cultural Park.

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