"The Divine Bounty has bestowed upon us inexhaustible mines of silver, and advantages which we enjoy above all our neighbouring cities, who never yet could discover one vein of silver ore in all their dominions." — Xenophon of Athens

Persian Gold: The Golden Archers of Emperor Xerxes

The Greek city-states and their foes the Persian Emperors struggled for dominance using both warfare and violence, and through monetary machinations. The Lydians had favored gold above other metals, and the same was true of the Lydians' eventual nemeses and conquerors: The Persian Emperors.

Striking gold coins was at one point a monopolized right of the Emperor— though regional governors were sometimes allowed to mint silver coins of lower denomination and lesser prestige. A Persian gold coin called the Daric was eventually struck, featuring a depiction of the emperor bearing arms. These golden coins became known as "archers." It was these coins that Emperor Xerxes referred to when he boasted: "I will conquer Greece with my archers."

Gold Daric (The Persian Archer) CoinCredit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Around the year 490 BC, however, rich seams of silver struck in the Laurion mines provided the Athenians with a wealth of silver to coin into money. The Athenian silver owl coins were struck from their rich stock of Laurion silver to contend with the Persian gold, and in time it was the Athenians who were victorious:  Xerxes and his "Archers" were defeated by the Greeks with the Athenian "Owls."

Athenian Silver & The Laurion Silver Mines

Map of LaurionCredit: Heusca, public domain image from Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romainesUnlike the Lydians and the Persians, the Athenian Greeks had a preference for minting coins in silver. Athens rose to prominence, in no small part through the value of its silver coinage. The metal itself was wrought from the rich seams of silver found in the Laurion mines. In order to extract the silver ores, tens of thousands of slaves—often prisoners of war—were forced to labor in the infamous mines. The name of the mines apparently derives from the "laurai," the horizontal passages driven into the hillsides. Over 2,000 shafts were sunk at the Laurion mines, the deepest of which was said to be around 400 feet deep and 6 feet wide. 

The Athenian Silver Owl

Athenian Silver OwlCredit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5Freely occurring silver was rare in Europe, and was known to exist mainly in Tartessus and in the Alps. According to Glyn Davies in A History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day, the rarity of silver had at certain times made it even more valuable than gold in parts of Greece, and reportedly also in Egypt. As Davies observed, "The changing relationships between gold and silver have bedevilled monetary history from the beginning of time,"  and in ancient Greece the valuable Laurion silver played a key role in bedevilling and confounding Emperor Xerxes' in his ambitions to conquer the Athenians with his gold archers.  

Peisistratos was said to have been among the first to recognize the importance of the Laurion silver, and to have had the first Athenian Owl coin struck from the rich yields of silver wrought from the mines circa 546 BC. The Athenian silver Owl would go on to become a famous coin throughout the ancient world. In Greece, the silver Owl became one of the most favored forms of money circulating in the islands, available in multiple denominations, and minted for an estimated six centuries, until the supply of silver from the Laurion mines finally dwindled. 

Silver Owl TetradrachmeCredit: Creative commons photograph by MatthiasKabel, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Silver Owls Confound the Golden Archers

Hostilities between the Greek city-states and Persian Empire flared up in 547 BC, when Cyrus the Great conquered Ionia and appointed tyrants to rule over the independent Greeks. The Ionians began a six year revolt in 499 BC, and Athenian and Eretrian forces burned what was now the Persian regional capital at Sardis in 489 BC. The Persian Emperor Darius vowed revenge on the Greeks, and his ambitions for conquest were taken up by his successor Xerxes.  

At the urging of the Athenian general Themistokles, powerful Athenians were apparently persuaded to forgo their dividends from the Laurion silver mines, in anticipation of Persian invasion. Themistokles instead persuaded the Athenians to invest the money into the construction of a much larger war fleet. 

Ten years later, the Persians had overrun much of Greece and won major victories, including setting fire to an evacuated Athens. The Athenian war fleet, however—funded by the Laurion silver—turned the tide by defeating the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis, a critical battle that some historians believe was crucial to the survival of Greece, and consequently also to western civilization. After the battle, Xerxes was forced to retreat to Asia, never again to attempt the conquest of Greece.

Gold Archer (Daric) CoinCredit: Creative commons photograph by Deflim, released into the public domain.The golden "Archer" coins did not lose their value to the Persians, however. The Spartan King Agesilaus II was later confounded by the bribes which the Persians paid to other Greek city-states using these same golden coins. According to Plutarch, in the Life of Agesilaus: "Persian coins were stamped with the figure of an archer, and Agesilaus said, as he was breaking camp, that the King was driving him out of Asia with ten thousand 'archers'; for so much money had been sent to Athens and Thebes and distributed among the popular leaders there, and as a consequence those peoples made war upon the Spartans."

Athenian Silver vs the Iron Money of Sparta

The Spartans, in their turn, would also end up making war on the Athenians in the 5th century BC, in the Peloponnesian War.

The experience of Agesilaus II was not the only account of Sparta's negative experiences with money to find its way into the annals of Greek history. Sparta was already known for its reluctance to embrace coinage (as well as democracy, commercial markets, and other trends favored elsewhere in Greece), and was said to have long disdained the commercialism of the Athenians.

The Spartan Lawgiver LycurgusCredit: Creative commons image by Larsinio, released into the public domainAccording to Plutarch, the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus took a dark view of money and commerce, and ordained that Spartans could use only iron as their currency. By this account, Lycurgus decreed that the iron money was to be so cumbersome and unwieldy that "to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen."

Alexander Del Mar in A History of Monetary Systems, suggests that Spartan iron currency was likely still awkwardly serviceable as money since it was declared legal tender by an edict of the state— and because the militaristic Spartan government had the strength of arms necessary to enforce such an edict. Appropriately enough, given their martial inclinations, the Spartan authorities reportedly also tolerated the use of iron spear-tips as money. 

In 407 BC, the Spartans cut Athens off from their traditional source of silver, capturing the Laurion mines and releasing some 20,000 slaves (many of whom were prisoners of war). Athens was suddenly faced with a massive shortage of silver coins and money, and were forced to melt down golden statues and treasures of the Acropolis in order to create more coins for the financing of the ongoing war.Golden Statue of Athena & OwlCredit: Photograph by Dean Dixon, Sculpture by Alan LeQuire, licensed under the Free Art License (FAL)

By some accounts, the Athenians minted 84,000 gold drachmae in this way, but when the coin shortage continued to grow even worse over the following two years, the government resorted to the minting of a new issue of bronze coins covered in only a thin silver plating.

This greatly debased form of money immediately gave rise to the widely observed monetary dynamic in which poor money drives good money out of circulation: The coins with the higher content in silver and gold were hoarded by the Athenian citizens, leaving only the inferior coinage in regular circulation. (This dynamic would later became known as "Gresham's Law," after the Elizabethan finance minister Thomas Gresham.)

The Spartans were the victors of the Peloponnesian War, and by many accounts, Athens never regained either its power or its former prosperity. Spartan Silver CoinCredit: Creative commons photograph by Ori~, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0However, the Athenians apparently did make efforts to restore the prestige of their coinage. By 393 BC the low-valued bronze coins were demonetized and withdrawn, and the Athenian majority even voted in favor of rebuilding the golden statues and treasures that they had melted down in the depths of the crisis— an undertaking which reportedly took them another half century to complete.

The Spartan sovereigns, in turn, did not hold fast to their traditional prohibition against all forms of money other than iron, and ended up minting a significant number of silver coins of their own.