Just fifty 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 unexpectedly ceased 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 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 the silver and lead from the Laurion mines alone at that time was 920 talents.
The talent (“talanton”) was an ancient unit of mass and a commercial weight, and represented corresponding units of value equivalent to these masses of a precious metal. The 920 talents were equivalent to 5,520,000 Attica drachmas, silver coins each weighing 4.36 grams.
At 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 to 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 built a wall across Piraeus to defend the territory of Attica, and 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 the Greeks avoid fighting on land since they were outnumbered by the Persians.
He suggested instead that the Persian king Xerxes’ army 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 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 simply could 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.
A year later, without a Navy to support his troops, the Persian King Xerxes retreated to Asia, thereby 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 fought 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 largely in Western history are now part of the Laurion Technological and Cultural Park.