Silver mines, the rise of money and the advent of democracy

Lecture / Seminar
Time: 14:00
Title: EPS Department and Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science
Location: Sussman Family Building for Environmental Sciences
Lecturer: Prof. Francis Albarède
Organizer: Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Details: École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France
Abstract: Over the last 2½ millenia, the world economy depended on prevailing currencies: ... Read more Over the last 2½ millenia, the world economy depended on prevailing currencies: the Athenian owl (530- 168 BCE), the Roman denarius (211 BCE-250 AD), the Spanish piece-of-eight (16th to 18th C), and today the US dollar. These reference monies were accepted everywhere and all, at least in the beginning, were made of silver. What is so special about this metal? Silver is useless and rare, but still abundant enough to match the wealth of nations and of their long-distance trade. Silver ores are associated with rare and recent tectonic environments, the Mediterranean world, notably the periphery of the Aegean Sea and Southern Iberia, and the American cordillera, Peru and Mexico. In contrast, they were markedly scarce in South and East Asia. After the virtual destruction of soils by the Anatolian farmers at the end of the Bronze Age, the Near and Middle East societies depended almost exclusively on the agriculture of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Late Bronze Age collapse (ca. 1200 BCE) corresponded to the migration of Greek people and resulted in the annihilation of all the empires outside of the flood plains. Silver by weight was nevertheless used to save populations from famine and trade wheat, barley and copper. Military innovations, hoplites and their phalanx, were, with silver mines, the main resources of the Greeks. Mercenaries received their wages in silver, notably through the tributes exacted in silver by the Achaemenid (Persion) kings. By minting silver, the returning Greek mercenaries emerged as strong middle classes . They soon claimed their share of the power, toppled the tyrants, and installed democracy in many poleis from Greece and Southern Italy. Modern economics teaches us that egalitarian distribution of wealth is unfortunately unstable and this case is well illustrated by Syracuse. At the beginning of the common era, the Roman Empire found itself the owner of centuries of silver extracted from Greece and from Iberia. This bullion was used to buy luxury products, frankincense from Arabia, spices and cotton from India, ivory and precious wood from Africa. Leakage of silver towards the Indian Ocean was so strong that coins were quickly debased by copper and by 250 AD most of the silver had been lost. The progressive replacement of silver by a bimetallic system, gold for the rich and bronze for the working class, progressively fractured the society and ushered the brutal Middle Age regimes. Silver famine had finally destroyed the democratic ideal of the Greeks. This is food for thought as disappearing mining resources may severely affect our current vision of societies.
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