Ancient History & Civilisation


Out of the earth come minerals and fuels as well as food. Lighting is provided by graceful lamps or torches—burning refined olive oil, or resin—or by candles. Heat is derived from dry wood or charcoal, burning in portable braziers. The cutting of trees for fuel and building denudes the woods and hills near the towns; already in the fifth century timber for houses, furniture, and ships is imported. There is no coal.

Greek mining is not for fuels but for minerals. The soil of Attica is rich in marble, iron, zinc, silver, and lead. The mines at Laurium, near the southern tip of the peninsula, are in the phrase of Aeschylus “a fountain running silver”10 for Athens; they are a main support of the government, which retains all subsoil rights, and leases the mines to private operators for a talent ($6000) fee and one twenty-fourth of the product yearly.11 In 483 a prospector discovers the first really profitable veins at Laurium, and a silver rush takes place to the region of the mines. Only citizens are allowed to lease the properties, and only slaves perform the work. The pious Nicias, whose superstition will help to ruin Athens, makes $170 a day by leasing a thousand slaves to the mine operators at a rental of one obol (17 cents) each per day; many an Athenian fortune is made in this way, or by lending money to the enterprise. The slaves in the mine number some twenty thousand, and include the superintendents and engineers. They work in ten-hour shifts, and the operations continue without interruption, night and day. If the slave rests he feels the foreman’s lash; if he tries to escape he is attached to his work by iron shackles; if he runs away and is captured his forehead is branded with a hot iron.12 The galleries are but three feet high and two feet wide; the slaves, with pick or chisel and hammer, work on their knees, their stomachs, or their backs.13 The broken ore is carried out in baskets or bags handed from man to man, for the galleries are too narrow to let two men pass each other conveniently. The profits are enormous: in 483 the share received by the government is a hundred talents ($600,000)—a windfall that builds a fleet for Athens and saves Greece at Salamis. Even for others than the slaves there is evil in this as well as good; the Athenian treasury becomes dependent upon the mines, and when, in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans capture Laurium the whole economy of Athens is upset. The exhaustion of the veins in the fourth century co-operates with many other factors in Athenian decay. For Attica has no other precious metal in her soil.

Metallurgy advances with mining. The ore at Laurium is crushed in huge mortars with a heavy iron pestle worked by slave power; then it goes to mills where it is ground between revolving stones of hard trachyte; then it is sized by screening; the material that passes through the screen is sent to an ore washer, where jets of water are discharged from cisterns upon inclined rectangular tables of stone covered with a smooth thin coat of hard cement; the current is turned at sharp angles, where pockets snare the metal particles. The collected metal is thrown into small smelting furnaces equipped with blowers to raise the heat; at the bottom of each furnace are openings through which the molten metal is drawn. Lead is separated from the silver by heating the molten metal on cupels of porous material and exposing it to the air; by this simple process the lead is converted into litharge, and the silver is freed. The processes of smelting and refining are competently performed, for the silver coins of Athens are ninety-eight per cent pure. Laurium pays the price of the wealth it produces, as mining always pays the price for metal industry; plants and men wither and die from the furnace fumes, and the vicinity of the works becomes a scene of dusty desolation.14

Other industries are not so toilsome. Attica has many of them now, small in scale but remarkably specialized. It quarries marble and other stones, it makes a thousand shapes of pottery, it dresses hides in great tanneries like those owned by Cleon, rival of Pericles, and Anytus, accuser of Socrates; it has wagon-makers, shipbuilders, saddlers, harness makers, shoe manufacturers; there are saddlers who make only bridles, and shoemakers who make only men’s or women’s shoes.15 In the building trades are carpenters, molders, stonecutters, metalworkers, painters, veneerers. There are blacksmiths, swordmakers, shieldmakers, lampmakers, lyre tuners, millers, bakers, sausage men, fishmongers—everything necessary to an economic life busy and varied, but not mechanized or monotonous. Common textiles are still for the most part produced in the home; there the women weave and mend the ordinary clothing and bedding of the family, some carding the wool, some at the spinning wheel, some at the loom, some bent over an embroidery frame. Special fabrics come from workshops, or from abroad—fine linens from Egypt, Amorgos, and Tarentum, dyed woolens from Syracuse, blankets from Corinth, carpets from the Near East and Carthage, colorful coverlets from Cyprus; and the women of Cos, late in the fourth century, learn the art of unwinding the cocoons of the silkworm and weaving the filaments into silk.16 In some homes the women become so highly skilled in textile arts that they produce more than their families can use; they sell the surplus at first to consumers, then to middlemen; they employ helpers, freedmen or slaves; and in this way a domestic industry develops as a step to a factory system.

Such a system begins to take form in the age of Pericles. Pericles himself, like Alcibiades, owns a factory.17 No machinery is available, but slaves can be had in abundance; it is because muscle power is cheap that there is no incentive to develop machinery. Theergasteria of Athens are rather workshops than factories; the largest of them, Cephalus’ shield factory, has 120 workmen, Timarchus’ shoe factory has ten, Demosthenes’ cabinet factory twenty, his armor factory thirty.18 At first these shops produce only to order; later they manufacture for the market, and finally for export; and the spread and abundance of coinage, replacing barter, facilitates their operations. There are no corporations; each factory is an independent unit, owned by one or two men; and the owner often works beside his slaves. There are no patents; crafts are handed down from father to son, or are learned by apprentices; the Athenians are exempted by law from caring for the old age of parents who have failed to teach them a trade.19 Hours are long but work is leisurely; master and man labor from dawn to twilight, with a siesta at summer noons. There are no vacations, but there are some sixty workless holydays every year.

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