he ancient Greeks and Romans obtained many different metals by mining. Gold and silver were mined because of their value. Copper, tin, iron, and lead were mined because of their usefulness. The Greeks and Romans developed various methods of mining metal ores, including sifting through alluvial* deposits, mining mineral deposits in open pits at the earth’s surface, and digging mines deep underground.

* alluvial referring to earth, sand, and other substances deposited by running water from rivers and streams

The Greeks primarily sifted through river beds and streams to obtain metal ores. Once these sources were used up, the Greeks turned to underground mining. One of the most productive mining areas was around Laurium in southeastern Attica, the region in which Athens is located. Rich in lead, zinc, and silver deposits, Laurium was mined from as early as 1500 B.C. until 103 B.C., when a slave revolt brought a halt to the mining there. Another productive Greek mining area was Siphnos in the Cyclades islands, where abundant deposits of gold and silver were located. The Greeks also mined gold and silver in northern Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and on the island of Thasos.

Italy had few precious metals. Therefore, the Romans traded with Carthage in North Africa and with the kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean for gold and silver. As the empire expanded, however, the Romans acquired the metals that were mined in the conquered lands. The Romans controlled vast mineral resources in Iberia (Spain), Gaul (France), Britain, Asia Minor (Turkey), and in the provinces* near the Danube River. While the Romans did not develop new mining areas, they greatly expanded the mining that was done in existing regions and extracted a greater variety of ores from them. Production at the major Roman mines reached its peak during the first 200 years of the Roman Empire. Starting in the A.D. 200s, Germanic tribes invaded the empire, disturbing mining production in many areas.

Although the Romans adopted the tools and techniques of the Greeks, Egyptians, and other peoples they conquered, they also made their own advances in mining technology. Since only gold and copper existed in a natural state, the Romans developed better methods for turning metals that occurred naturally as mixed compounds—such as silver, lead, and tin—into usable materials. The Romans also constructed mines that were deeper than those of the Greeks. Since some deep mines extended below the underground water level, draining water from the mines was a serious problem. Although some Roman mines used men to bail out water, others used pumps or water-lifting wheels. Miners used iron picks, hammers, and chisels. They placed ore in buckets, which they then hauled to the surface by hand or by pulley.

Providing adequate ventilation in mines was also a major problem. Both the Greeks and the Romans constructed mine shafts in pairs, with connecting passages between the two shafts that facilitated the movement of air. Sometimes fires were lit in one shaft to cause a down draft in the other. Wherever the shape of the land allowed, openings were made at different levels to increase air flow in the mines. Still, many workers died from inhaling poisonous fumes or from suffocation.

Working in a mine was grueling and dangerous work. The Greeks primarily used slaves. The Romans used slaves, criminals, and, in the late Roman Empire, Christians to work in the mines. Many slaves, chained underground, did not see daylight for months at a time. Many were forced to work until they died. By the A.D. 100s, forced labor was in short supply, and miners were often skilled free men. (See also Construction Materials and Techniques; Quarries; Slavery.)

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Remember: Consult the index at the end of Volume 4 to find more information on many topics.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!