Laurion and Thorikos

by christos1

Laurion and Thorikos

In this essay I plan to look at the impact the silver mines at Laurion and Thorikos had on Athens both economically and politically. The silver mines covered the area from Thorikos in the north to the line of the Sounion coast road to the south of Attica. The silver mine of Laurion was situated in the Laurion hill district of southern Attica. Laurion was one of the largest ancient mining complexes in the ancient world. Laurion and Thorikos were also one of the earliest mines discovered in Greece and had been worked from the early Bronze Age. Before the Athenians found the mines in Attica; they were using silver obtained from the mines in Macedonia and Thrace during the 6th Century. However, the Persians from 512B.C., which meant Athens had to look elsewhere in order to produce silver, occupied these mines, meaning that Athens looked for her own mines at Laurion. Thorikos was also a mining complex but had also turned into an urban town, which was very unique in Greece. From the town it is evident that as well as mining there were also industrial and agricultural activities taking place there, showing how prosperous the region had become. From archaeological evidence we can see that Thorikos had five ore washeries in the western zone of the industrial quarter, which were situated around miming pits, where the ore would be washed and melted. It appears as though the town had a population of roughly 5000, not including slaves who predominantly worked the mines and were involved in industry. The silver that came from these mines was either sold or was used to make the silver coins, which were used in Athens as currency.

It was not until the 5th Century that Athens discovered a rich layer of high-grade ore deep below the surface at Laurion meaning that they were able to produce silver, in addition to silver Athens also produced other minerals like lead but silver was the mainly sought after mineral because of its value. The first instance we get off the wealth that was accumulated in the silver mines comes in 483B.C., where Athens had just defeated the Persian threat of Persia. Consequently Athens was looking to extend her borders and try and secure an Empire. It was because of this factor that Themistocles proposed that rather than share out the profits from the mines, they should in fact use it to benefit Athens militarily and economically. Themistocles proposed that they used the 100 Talents from the mines to build 200 ships, which would give them control of the seas, which was imperative if they were to try and secure and Empire, as it was very difficult to maintain an empire without ships as one would not be able to go and keep them in check. Themistocles in proposing this motive used the pretext of Athens on going battle with Aegina rather than using the threat from the Persians, so when it was approved the Athenians used the ships to defeat the Persians in 480B.C., which made Athens the most powerful state at that time enabling her to take control of the seas. Because of Themistocles proposal he became very prominent in Athenian politics and was one of the leading generals in Athens at that time, showing how important to politicians the mines could be to their political careers if they were to use the money from them properly and in the interests of the state. However, because of Themistocles proposal he later annoyed people by constantly telling them of how he had suggested using the money for ships and he was later ostracized. After this Athens along with the other states who had been affected by the Persians set up the Delian league with their aims being to make sure that the Greeks were free from the Persian threat. This alliance lasted until 449B.C. when Athens made the Peace of Callias with Persia, thus finishing the purpose of the league. However, Athens was not prepared to let the league disband and so consequently Athens believing that she had paid for the majority of the campaign against Persia sought financial compensation from the allies who were in the league. So between the years 449- 433B.C, Athens was using force where necessary to get money off her allies in order to rebuild Athens, thus turning the Delian League into an empire for Athens. It is evident that none of this would have been possible if it had not been for Athens using the windfall of 100 Talents to build ships, which defeated Persia and made Athens the masters of the seas, showing how economically important the mines were for Athens as they were a important source of income for them, as well as showing how important the money from them was politically as it was from this money that Athens had in effect secured an Empire. Unfortunately though apart from the figure of 483, we do not have any other figures for the amount of silver that was being produced so we have no idea of the exact amount Athens was receiving from the mines. Despite this problem the mines must be seen as a huge factor in Athens ever increasing wealth and power throughout the 5th Century, as they would have used the money from it to finance war ships and also the building programme at home, which was constructed under Pericles. The mines would also have played a big part politically in this time as the generals would always have known that regardless of whether they were receiving tribute from their allied they would always have the money from the mines. This meant that they did not have to worry about not making expeditions because of lack of finance, as they knew that they always had the money from the mines to fall back on.

It appears as though the mines were very hot property in Athens and so they came under state ownership from the very outset of them being mined, as is evident in 483B.C., where although as already stated it was Themistocles proposal to use the money for ships, the final decision on the matter was decided by the state. Further evidence that the mines were state owned comes from the fact that there was a board of governors called the Poletai who were agents of the state, of which there were 10 who were annually elected. It appears as though this board was invented as part of Cleisthenes constitution, although it is evident that they appear in 5th Century inscriptions there is no precise date for when they assumed the administration of the mines. We have a statement from Aristophanes Wasps in 424, which said that the state owned the mines. From the evidence we have it appears that although the mines were state owned and they would get the money from them, they would also auction out contracts where people would pay so that they would be leasing the mines from the state. The reason I believe this to be the case is because Xenophon who wrote in the 4th Century tells how a labour force of slaves were privately owned by Nicias, son of Niceratus, who once had 1000 slaves in the mines who he had let to Sosias the Thracian at the price of an obol a day per man. Further evidence of this is the fact that he also mentions Hipponius who had 600 slaves who he let out at a mina a day net. Indeed it is largely assumed that about 10-20,000 slaves who worked in the 350 or so mines in the area manned the mines. We that there were roughly that many as when the Spartans occupied Decelea in 413B.C., about 20,000 slaves ran away, showing just how much man power was needed to excavate the mines. Further evidence of this comes from the 4th Century author of the Athenian Politeia who also described the function of the Poletai who were responsible for auctioning contacts relating to the mines at Laurion, as well as the general supervision of the mining activity. It is unlikely that this board just came to be formed in the 4th Century but is much more likely that it had a board of governors from the outset. Therefore from the evidence we have it appears that while although the mines were state owned, they would auction out contracts to people who would pay for the right to mine them, presumably as they would get a percentage of the profit which in turn led people to rent out their slaves to these people to work in the mines. From the evidence we have it appears as though there were two types of leases available with different prices. Firstly a payment of 20 drachmas was paid to the state as a fee to secure the right to mine in that area for silver. Once silver had been found it appeared there was another auction this time for the sum of 150 Drachma where people could outbid the person in order to mine that silver, or alternatively having discovered the silver they would have to increase their fee to 150 Drachma to mine it. It is unclear which one of these was the most likely but it would explain why the initial payment to the state was so small as there was no guarantee of finding any silver. However, the fee of 150 was presumably not fixed and could increase depending on the amount of silver in the mine. It appears as though there were different lengths of tenure, with the length varying between 3 –7 years depending on the amount of silver in the mines. This shows just how important the mines were economically as not only was the state getting a profit from the mines but they were also getting money from the people who would pay to buy the contracts for the mines. From this we can see that the mines would have been a very important topic politically as the generals would have wanted to make sure that the mines were being looked after properly and that there full money making ability was being watched, as it was obviously an extremely good source of income which could pay for actions both at home and abroad.

It appears as though the mines were extensively mined until 413B.C, when Sparta seized Decelea , which caused the mines to close and were not reopened until 338B.C., because Athens did not have enough capital for the enterprise. Perhaps showing that although the mines were a good source of income they were also expensive to mine, so consequently after the defeat against Sparta in 404B.C., Athens sis not have the capital to fund mining them which in turn further affected the economy as it meant that the mines income was also stopped. Between the years of 330-323B.C., the mines were again extensively mined in the area, presumably helping to fund the war against Alexander. Further evidence of the mines as a political entity is evident from Lycurgus in 330B.C., where there is an inscription, which appears to be a state decree making a concession to a man called Socles. However, there has been some debate as to whether it is an actual mining concession. But we do have other evidence, which shows that Laurion was originally the mining domain of the tyrants Peisitratus, before it was confiscated by the state. This therefore shows that the mines were state property and were not incorporated into the local deme system but where in actual fact the property of the state showing their political importance. Because as the mines were represented as a state domain, the mining rights and surface land alike were consequently owned by the state. It is largely assumed that Athens during the period 483-413B.C. was making a lot of money from the silver mines as her power and wealth increased during this period tremendously. One figure that has been quoted is that from the 350 or so mines in the area, Athens was receiving about 1000 Talents a year. If this figure is accurate then it is easy to see why Athens wanted to have them governed properly and why they were an important political topic, thus explaining why Athens set up a board of governors to make sure they were mined properly. It would therefore appear that the role of the Poletai was extremely important, as it was their responsibility to make sure that they were governed properly and that the mines were excavated to their full potential, as well as explaining the reason why the mines were kept as state property and auctioned off to rich Athenians to mine thus making the state a lot of extra income not just from the mines but also from the leasing of them. To try and get an idea of how much 1000 Talent was worth as a value, during this time to keep a fleet of 200 ships in active service manned by 200 men cost 1 T a month, therefore the sum of 1000 T would keep a fleet of 200 in active service for 43 weeks. This shows just how important the mines were economically and why Athens was so keen politically to keep them in good condition and being run effectively.

By the 3rd Century due to extensive mining there was a lack of silver as well as the fact that the price had dropped, despite this fact they were still mined until l03B. C., where a slave revolt meant the mines had to close. As well as this new silver mines had been opened in Macedonia and Thrace. The importance of the mines can be well seen, as consequently when the mines in Attica close it was also the end of Athenian dominance which must evidently show how economically important the mines were to Athens as a source of income for affairs both internally and externally.

As has been seen the mines were by the looks of it an extremely important source of income for Athens, however, unfortunately we do not have many figures during the period to show just how much profit the mines gave to Athens apart from the figure in 483B.C. If the figure of 1000 T is accurate then it is evident that the mines were extremely important economically for Athens, and this would show why a political board of governors was set up to make sure the mines in that area were looked after properly. It would also explain why Athens decided to make them state owned and only lease them to people as during at least the 5th Century and in parts of the 4th Century they were a great source of income for Athens. However, by the 3rd and 2nd Century the mines had been extensively mined and cheaper silver prices meant that the mines were becoming redundant, I believe that it is no coincidence that as the mines in southern Attica closed so did Athens power both economically and politically which caused them to stop being a major player in the ancient world.

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