Monday, August 13, 2007 08/13/07-Roman Mining

In today's excerpt, the mining operations of the Roman Republic during the first and second centuries BC:

"The vast sway of the Republic's power, won in the cause of the honor of Rome, stood nakedly revealed [after the rape of Pergamum] as a license to make money. ... In the east great cities were ransacked for treasure-but in the west it was the earth. The result was mining on a scale not to be witnessed again until the Industrial Revolution. Nowhere was the devastation more spectacular than in Spain. Observer after observer bore stunned witness to what they saw. ...

"The mines that Rome had annexed from Carthage more than a century previously had been handed over to the publicani [private individuals and syndicates that typically bid for the rights to collect taxes], who had proceeded to exploit them with their customary gusto. A single network of tunnels might spread for more than a hundred square miles and provide up to forty thousand slaves with a living death. Over the pockmarked landscape there would invariably hang a pall of smog, belched out from the smelting furnaces through giant chimneys, and so heavy with chemicals that it burned the naked skin and turned it white. Birds would die if they flew through the fumes. As Roman power spread the gas clouds were never far behind.

"Initially, large areas of Spain had been regarded as too remote and dangerous to exploit, the haunt of tribesman so irredeemably savage that they believed banditry to be an honorable profession and used urine to brush their teeth [a joke referring to their lack of hygiene]. By the last years of the second century BC, however, all except the the north of the peninsula had been opened up for business. Huge new mines were sunk across central and southwestern Spain. Measurements of lead in the ice of Greenland's glaciers, which show a staggering increase in concentration during this period, bear witness to the volumes of poisonous smoke the mines belched out. The ore being smelted was silver: it has been estimated that for every ton of silver extracted over ten thousand tons of rock had to be quarried. It has also been estimated that by the early first century BC, the Roman mint was using fifty tons of silver each year."

Tom Holland, Rubicon, Anchor Books, copyright 2003 by Tom Holland, pp. 40-42.


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