By Jack Caldwell

Let us bring crashing down another of those myths: the ancient Greeks were nice folk. Seems they got most of the money to support their poetry, philosophy, development of “democracy,” and sundry other habits from mining. It appears that ancient Greece was a society founded on mining, and the money from mining supported a small upper class that had time and slaves to sit around thinking, talking, writing, and leaving a legacy to impress future generations. Certainly, I like many others, was taught of the glories of the Greeks in literature, theater, andlearning. Nobody ever told me this was made possible by large-scale mining.

This link in a learned fashion discusses the mines of ancient Greece. Roger Backnell writes:

"Modern discussions of the ancient world tend to emphasize the many advances the Greeks contributed to civilization. These were indeed impressive, but it must not be forgotten that these advances rested on wealth and on economic development. All wealth comes at a cost to people and environment; it is not free. The Greeks knew this, at least to some degree. But the upper-class gentlemen who wrote the classics of Greek literature considered the details of moneymaking beneath them and outside of their concept of history."

Let me quote this link:

"Athens was the only Greek polis(city-state) with the ability to dig its own wealth straight from the ground. Laurionwas an area near the east coast of Attica rich insilver-bearing ores which had been exploited since the Bronze Age. In 482 BC a new vein was discovered which led to a massive increase in activity. Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to spend this new revenue on building a fleet of triremes which were used to defeat the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC. There were about 350 mines producing 1000 talents a year, worked by 10-20,000 slaves. Mining rights were owned by polis, but leased to individuals by 10 annually elected poletai."

Another insight into the reality (nastiness) of the times, more or less, comes from the book Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. In this he writes about mining in ancient Greece:

"Worse than torture or death was to find yourself a slave in the privately administered silver mines of Laurion southeast of Athens, source of much of Athens’ prosperity, where miners were routinely starved, savagely beaten, and, seldom seeing daylight, worked to death."

The first link quoted above says:

"All the miners were slaves. Numbers were large: Thucydides mentions 20,000 deserting to Decelea (encouraged by the Spartans to put economic pressure on Athens). Factories were designed to minimize risks of slaves getting hold of silver. “Trusty” slaves were given incentives (own houses). Slaves would be owned by wealthy Athenians (like Nicias) and hired out to the lessees of the mines. They were usually prisoners-of-war, not criminals. Their life expectancy was short and they lived and worked in conditions of indescribable squalor."

This link provides the most intelligent analysis I found. Of environmental impacts the writer notes:

"Mining and refining had environmental consequences. The Athenians were perfectly well aware of them. In Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates, the philosopher says to Glaukon, “I know that you have not gone to the silver mines so as to be able to say why the amount from them now is less than formerly.” Glaukon admits that this is true. “The place,” says Socrates, “is said to be ‘heavy.’” “Heavy” in this context (the Greek word is baru) means unpleasant, distasteful, distressing. Gentlemen of means would avoid such a place, leaving it to managers and slaves. The environmental costs were numerous. The dumping alone was considerable: mine tailings, the dross removed from the ore, and the litharge (lead oxide) cast off in smelting. In addition, we must reckon with deforestation, noxious fumes from the smelting, and smoke from the combustion. In modern times, this region has not seen much farming, and there is little evidence that things were any better in antiquity. This wasn’t great farmland anyway, but the results of silver production must have finished it off."

This from our trusty friend Wikipedia:

"Deposits of metal ore are common in Greece. Of these, the best known are the silver mines of Laurium. These mines contributed to the development of Athens in the 5th century BC, when the Athenians learned to prospect, treat, and refine the ore. Fortuitously, the composition of the earth below the mines rendered drainage unnecessary, an important provision given that ancient mine drainage techniques did not allow for excavation below the level of subsoil waters. The passageways and steps of Greek mines were dug out with the same concern for proportion and harmony found in their temples. The work was extremely difficult, due to the tunnels’ depth—they were sometimes more than Template:Convert100. The miner, armed with his pick and iron hammer and hunched over in two, labored to extract lead ore. The Laurium mines were worked by a large slave population, originating for the most part from Black Sea regions such as Thrace and Paphlagonia. With these metals, Weapons, armor tools and a variety of other goods were created."

Thus we can start the week, cogitating on the biases of history and a classical education. Or take a cruise and see all the tourist sites and the crumbling buildings. Rather go out of town and see the mines where it all was made possible.