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Silver in Ancient Greece Unlocked Trade and Built Democracy

Silver Ancient Greece
Athenian silver Tetradrachm struck in 515 BCE at the time of tyrant Hippias. Public Domain

The minting of silver into coins in ancient Greece highlighted the trading talents of Greeks and paved the way for the formation of democracies in the 5th century BC, a new scientific study says.

According to a project called SILVER of the European Research Council, silver was valuable in antiquity as far back as the 4th millennium BC and used in coins by Lydians, inhabitants of western Asia Minor, in the 6th century BC.

Looking at silver’s past through the ages offers insights into the movements and evolution of ancient civilizations, as well as into the origins of money.

The project, which is scheduled to wrap up in March 2024 after six and a half years, is led by Professor Francis Albarède, a geochemist at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France.

After analyzing lead and silver isotopes, Albarède argues that the minting of silver into coins in the Mediterranean area paved the way for the formation of democracies in the 5th century BC.

“I believe silver was crucial in the invention of democracy because it helped people to be heard and understood,” he said.

Ancient Greek mercenaries spread silver throughout the Med.

Evidence suggests the Achaemenid Empire in Persia used silver coins to hire large armies of Greek infantrymen as mercenaries, according to Albarède.

He said that, after these “hoplites” returned home with plenty of money, they formed an ambitious middle class that aided the spread of democracy.

The mercenaries also redistributed silver around the Mediterranean. That’s the only way to explain excesses of the metal in non-silver-producing states around the Aegean Sea and coastal areas of southern Italy colonized by ancient Greeks, according to Albarède.

“You see that silver is lubricating long-distance exchange,” he said.

Silver-mining areas widespread in Ancient Greece

His team also found that silver-mining areas in ancient times were more widespread than previously thought. Meanwhile, by 480 BC, the Lavrion silver mines near Athens established the modern-day capital as Greece’s leading power, contributing to its role as an eastern Mediterranean monetary hub.

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

The researchers found a way to trace the metal’s origins using silver isotopes in addition to lead ones.

This endeavor was previously tricky because silver-isotope ratios in coins differed too little to distinguish the source mines.

But when Albarède’s team instead examined ores before conversion into coins, it found much bigger differences. This enabled the researchers to rule out particular mines as origins of bulk silver.

“Lead isotopes tell you the potential sources of silver and silver isotopes where it cannot come from,” said Albarède. “Putting the two together, you get a better idea of which sources are possibilities.”

Besides Lavrion, the possible sources include the Halikidi region of northern Greece and the islands of Thassos, Sifnos and Evia.

Silver coins were crucial in accelerating transactions

His team is also gaining insights into the reasons that people first minted coins. Its view is that, thanks to being resistant to decay, relatively light and less valuable than gold, silver coins were crucial in accelerating transactions.

“Minting coins improves what people call the velocity of money and frees you from the tyranny of weight,” Albarède said. “During crises like war, that’s critical.”

He believes the past can offer lessons for contemporary societies, citing intrinsic links between monetary and trading systems. For example, the Greeks turned to Egypt for wheat in exchange for silver when their soils became degraded.

Albarède sees another connection between the past and present: the persistence of societal inequalities and their destabilizing effects.

“We should look to the disasters of ancient societies and their social conclusions for lessons,” he said.

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