Mining Greece: The goldmines of Alexander the Great

MINING GREECE – THE GOLDMINES OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT – 001Alexander the Great reached the edges of the known world of that time. The history of conquests and explorations is pretty much known.  Few men and a lot of determination. But how was the campaign of Alexander the Great funded? Had he hidden financial resources? Perhaps unknown gold mines?

The information is conflicting. Most of the sources even speak of huge debts with which Philip left him, others that he took little money with him in Asia and others that he had much more money and sources of revenue from gold mines initially in northern Greece and later in Asia.

Philip left him with an organized state, conquests that yielded revenue and especially gold and silver mines that constantly produced metal for coins. Philip knew that he would need money in order to carry out the campaign he dreamed of in Asia and for this reason he had found and occupied places that promised revenue. The most decisive action was in 357 BC (before even Alexander was born) when he occupied Amphipolis using rams. Along with Amphipolis he captured the gold mines of Mount Pangeo, the best thing that the land of Macedonia and Thrace had to offer in financial terms.

These mines were the backbone of financing any activity of Philip. They were as important for the kingdom of Macedonia as the silver mines of Laurium were for the democracy of Athens a century earlier: they provided a steady income. It was steady but not enough for the plans that Philip had.  Philip, until his death, organized and planned campaigns and conquests. And each one of the conquests had a cost. It was not only the usual military spending, since Philip was an innovator in martial art. He learned to use military equipment which at that time was considered to be recent innovations of the Syracuseans: crossbows, petrovola, catapults and elepoleis (battle towers). All these were expensive and Philip made them without thinking of the cost as he besieged and conquered one city after another.

Philip conquered also the goldmines in Thrace – near the city Krinides – and renamed them “Philippi”. It is said that these mines were a major source of wealth providing 1,000 talents of gold per year (26 tons). Thanks to them he started minting gold coins which became the most common currency in the Greek world.

Alexander continued to use gold and silver coins of Philip, but then he gave emphasis on silver coins following the Athenian model as to their weight (with Hercules on one side and Jupiter on the other). The preference for silver may indicate a potential shortfall in gold.

Alexander “inherited from his father the crown and many debts as well” according to Curtius and Arrian. Arrian says that Alexander found in the vaults few gold and silver items and only 60 talents. On the other hand, Philip’s debts reached 500 or 800 talents.

The talent as a unit of weight was 26 grams, but as a monetary unit was equivalent to 6,000 drachmas, so the 60 talents were 360,000 drachmas at that time. With the purchasing power of the drachma (one drachma was equivalent to a low daily salary and in purchasing power equivalent to 10 to 20 euros) someone could buy the necessary for a humble day.  That means that the 60 talents were the wages of 1,000 poorly paid people for one year (about 5 to 10 million euros today). But Alexander had with him at least 35,000 men when he started his campaign to Asia and this implies economic need for more than 2,000 talents.

So something is wrong. Had Alexander “hidden” financial resources? When he started his campaign to Asia he took with him 60 talents and food only for 30 days (as Plutarch mentions based on a source named Fylarchos). Relevant sources mention slightly different numbers but they all agree: money was not plentiful. Onisikritos talks about debts of 200 talents (military loan according to Sarantos Kargakos) while Aristovoulos writes that the cost of the preparation was 70 talents. All these are far from the (minimum) required 2,000 talents.

However, things changed in Asia. He went on to conquer the richest country in the world and the loot acquired from the defeated enemy provided him with the necessary – just like on the other side of the earth, in China, the author of the Art of War, Sun Tzu, suggested the generals do the same thing.

The conquered satrapies (Persian provinces) offered anything they could from their own revenues (Alexander made sure not to change the administrative structure of the conquered cities so that the state continue to run smoothly). What is more, according to the testimonies of people that accompanied him, he had with him highly-skilled prospectors (researchers of deposits or geologists) who were sent to “follow” any rumor about the existence of gold mines.

His main concern until his death was the search for resources, even when he had at this disposal all the all the gold of the Great Kings of Persia – an incredible treasure. He died when his ships were ready to sail and begin a series of planned campaigns with an invasion in Arabia which was said to be rich in gold.

The beginning might have been difficult for Alexander with regard to his finances, but in the end he didn’t face such problems.  When Alexander conquered the Persian Empire of Darius in 329 BC and entered the palaces of the Persians, he found himself in front of the greatest treasures of the history. The treasure of Darius was actually all the treasures of all the states of Mesopotamia since the dawn of their history. The gold of 3000 years! The treasure of Darius showed that money does not bring victory. Neither can buy it, if the opponent is Alexander. This was one of the lessons that the Persian king learned.

When Alexander decided to carry the treasure of Darius, he needed 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels.  This wealth was more than the Greek world had ever seen and it was said to amount to 12 million pounds of silver.  Only Darius’s throne tent offered him a treasure of 3000 talents of gold (more than half of billion euros). However, Darius maybe was looking for revenge: Using a perhaps unknown until then form of psychological warfare, he gave Alexander, apart from the gold, his mother, his wife and his harem!

These treasures finally determined the Greek history as well because the Greeks “sponsored” the endless wars between the “Epigonoi” – the   successors of Alexander the Great. They are still considered to be important for the history of economy: their existence created for the first time inflation trends.  The inflation story begins when Alexander took Darius’s gold from the warehouses and started distributing it to the Greeks! The consequence was that the Greeks were (unintentionally) inventors of the inflation. There was so much money and wealth in the market that had come out of the treasuries, in combination with the military needs created by the campaigns, the new soldiers that kept coming and the endless wars between the he successors of Alexander the Great that caused increases in everything. The wages were quadrupled, and so were the prices and cost of living.

The gold and silver mines of Philip and Alexander gave impetus to coinage. The coins of Alexander continued to be minted for years after his death. They may be able to give an indication of the location of the sources of those precious metals. For as long as Alexander lived there were 25 different types in minting coins: two in Macedonia, one in Egypt and twenty three in Asia. It is evident form the minting of the coins that the focus and sources of precious metals had moved east.

However, in terms of quantity it seems that most of the production took place in Macedonia. The biggest gold coins were minted there while the smaller and the silver ones elsewhere. This indicates that the major source of gold was still in Macedonia.

Following Alexander’s death the mints were 31 and even 100 years later his silver tetradrachms were minted in 51 places, indicating that the sources of metals were very rich and kept supplying with coins the Greeks who had indulged in an unprecedented dispute ignoring   the “clouds from the West”, the rising power of Rome. It is ironic, but Greece seems to have been drowned in the gold. When they had so much undreamed wealth, it was then that they got lost.

Alexander’s gold mines existed. They were not a myth, nor were unknown. They were found to finance the most audacious campaign of the centuries and helped create the largest so far state of the world. The fact that this state didn’t last is a different story, perhaps not entirely unrelated to the wealth it had. In this respect, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the gold mines of Alexander played a role of “life and death” in the history of mankind in general and Greece in particular.

[Source: Archaeological Mysteries in Greece ~ Archetype Publications]