Renowned for Pentelic Marble that’s world-acclaimed and adorns classic buildings, some standing for more than 2,000 years, ancient Greece also produced another commodity that was behind the defeat of an invading Persian Navy that many historians believe was pivotal to prevent the country from being overrun and losing the values that helped create Western Civilization.
It’s the silver mines of Laurion, south of Athens, which produced some of the world’s top-graded product because of a mineralization of lead, zinc, copper and silver associated with an igneous intrusion into older sediments and volcanic rocks, Forbes Magazine reported in a feature on the role silver played at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.
After a massive Persian Army led by King Xerxes got past the valiant 300 Spartans and some of its Greek allies at the pass of Thermopylae it seemed there would be no preventing the conquest of Greece and the bringing of a different culture as the Persians swept across.
That’s when a young Athenian politician named Themistocles proposed an unusual plan: the Greeks should not face the Persian soldiers on a battlefield, but rather invest in a fleet.
In the naval battle of Salamis, the newly-built ships managed to destroy the Persian fleet.
One year later, without a navy to support their armed forces, the Persians retreated to Asia, the magazine story related, adding that “A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have hamstrung the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension Western Civilization.”
That made Salamis one of the most significant battles in human history, still remembered today for how the more maneuverable Greek fleet defeated a numerically superior force, aided by forcing the invaders to have the sun behind them and blinded by the rays bouncing off Greek shields, it has also been said.
The Persian navy rowed into the Straits of Salamis and tried to block both entrances but the great numbers of their ships caused a kind of sea gridlock and the Greek fleet formed in line and scored a decisive victory.
The ships that helped to win the battle of Salamis were paid for with silver from the mines of Laurion, the magazine said, adding that archaeologists discovered almost 200 mines and shafts in the area dating to 480-250 B.C. It is estimated that 20,000 slaves worked there to provide the silver for the fleet wanted by Themistocles.
In 300 years of active mining, Laurion provided almost 3,000 tons of pure silver. No other city in Greece controlled such a rich mining district and it is believed that mining played an important role in the rise of Athens, the intellectual heart of the Golden Age not just of Greece but perhaps in world history for what it brought in math, science, philosophy, medicine, theater and critical thinking as a tool in education.
Abandoned in the 1st century BC, the mines were reactivated in 1864 and mined for their lead by French and Greek companies until 1978.
Renewed mining involved both the processing of ancient slag for remaining lead and silver and the extraction of fresh ore. Mining of zinc ore was a commercially significant in the Laurion area for scores of years and iron ore was also mined through the 1950s.
The mines continued to be active, producing silver and other metals until profitable sulfide deposits were exhausted in 1978, although the role they played in ancient history had long been forgotten.
Referring to the mines in his 354 BC work Ways and Means, Xenophon wrote: “It is clear, I presume, to everyone that these mines have for a very long time been in active operation; at any rate no one will venture to fix the date at which they first began to be worked.”
The victory at Salamis allowed Athens to flourish and the model of democracy is used by most of the world today. After the defeat of Persia, the city-states of Sparta and Athens started the Peloponnesian War and the mines were exhausted for a period, causing Athens for a time to lose prominence. Legendary Sparta itself was defeated by Thebes, leading to the rise of Macedonia and Alexander the Great to conquer the Persian Empire that a century earlier thought it would conquer Greece before running into stubborn Spartans, ships and silver. That was Greece.