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p132 Argentum

An article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp132‑133 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ARGENTUM (ἄργυρος), silver, one of the two metals which, on account of their beauty, their durability, their density, and their rarity, have been esteemed in all civilised countries, and in all ages, as precious, and which have, on account of the above qualities and the facility of working them, been used for money. The ancients were acquainted with silver from the earliest known periods (Pliny ascribes its discovery to Erichthonius or to Aeacus, (H. N. VII.56 s57). It is constantly mentioned in Homer but in a manner which proves that it was comparatively scarce. It was much more abundant in Asia than in Greece Proper, where there were not many silver mines. The accounts we have of the revenues of the early Lydian and Persian kings, and of the presents of some of them, such as Gyges and Croesus, to Pytho and other shrines, prove the great abundance of both the precious metals in Western Asia. Of this wealth, however, a very large proportion was laid up in the royal and sacred treasuries, both in Asia and in Greece. But in time, and chiefly by the effects of wars, these accumulations were dispersed, and the precious metals became commoner and cheaper throughout Greece. Thus, the spoils of the Asiatics in the Persian wars, and the payment of Greek mercenaries by the Persian kings, the expenditure of Pericles on war and works of art, the plunder of the temple of Delphi by the Phocians, the military expenses and wholesale bribery of Philip, and, above all, the conquests of Alexander, caused a vast increase in the amount of silver and gold in actual circulation. The accounts we have of the treasures possessed by the successors of Alexander would be almost incredible if they were not perfectly well attested.

It was about this time also that the riches of the East began to be familiar to the Romans, among whom the precious metals were, in early times, extremely rare. Very little of them was found in Italy; and though Cisalpine Gaul furnished some gold, which was carried down by the Alpine torrents, it contained but a very small proportion of silver. The silver mines of Spain had been wrought by the Carthaginians at a very early period; and from this source, as well as from the East, the Romans no doubt obtained most of their silver as an article of commerce. But when first Spain and then Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria, were brought beneath the Roman power, they obtained that abundant supply both of silver and gold which formed don't instrument of the extravagance and luxury of the later republic and the empire. "The value of the precious metals did not, however, fall in proportion to their increase, as large quantities, wrought for works of art, were taken out of circulation." (Böckh).

The relative value of gold and silver differed considerably at different periods in Greek and Roman history. Herodotus mentions it (III.95) as 13 to 1; Plato (Hipp. c6, p231), as 12 to 1; Menander (ap. Polluc. IX.76), as 10 to 1; and Livy (Liv. XXXVIII.11), as 10 to 1, about B.C. 189. According to Suetonius (Jul. Caes. 54), Julius Caesar, on one occasion, exchanged silver for gold in the proportion of 9 to 1; but the most usual proportion under the early Roman emperors was about 12 to 1; and from Constantine to Justinian about 14 to 1, or 15 to 1. The proportion in modern times, since the discovery of the American mines, has varied between 17 to 1 and 14 to 1.

Silver Mines and Ores.— In the earliest times the Greeks obtained their silver chiefly as an article of commerce from the Phocaeans and the Samians; but they soon began to work the rich mines of their own country and its islands. The chief mines were in Siphnos, Thessaly, and Attica. In the last-named country, the silver mines of Laurion furnished a most abundant supply, and were generally regarded as the chief source of the wealth of Athens. We learn from Xenophon (Vectig. IV.2), that these mines had been worked in remote antiquity; and Xenophon speaks of them as if he considered them inexhaustible. In the time of Demosthenes, however, the profit arising from them had greatly diminished; and in the second century of the Christian era they were no longer worked (Paus. I.1 § 1). The Romans obtained most of their silver from the very rich mines of Spain, which had been previously worked by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and which, though abandoned for those of Mexico, are still not exhausted. The ore from which the silver was obtained was called silver earth (ἀργυρῖτις γῆ, or simply ἀργυρῖτις, Xen. Vectig. I.5, IV.2). The same term (terra) was also applied to the ore by the Romans.

A full account of all that is known respecting the ores of silver known to the ancients, their mining operations, and their processes for the reduction of the ores, is given by Böckh (Dissertation on the Silver Mines of Laurion, §§ 3, 4, 5).

Uses of Silver.— By far the most important use of silver among the Greeks was for money. It was originally the universal currency in Greece. Mr. Knight, however, maintains (Prol. Hom.) that gold was coined first because it was the more readily found, and the more easily worked; but there are sufficient reasons for believing that, until some time after the end of the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians had no gold currency. [Aurum.] It may be remarked here that all the words connected with money are derived from ἄργυρος, and not from χρυσός, as καταργυρόω, "to bribe with money;" ἀργυραμοιβός, "a money-changer," &c.; and ἄργυρος is itself not unfrequently used to signify money in general (Soph. p133Antig. 295), as aes is in Latin. At Rome, on the contrary, silver was not coined till B.C. 269, before which period Greek silver was in circulation at Rome; and the principal silver coin of the Romans, the denarius, was borrowed from the Greek drachma. For further details respecting silver money, see Nummus, Denarius, Drachma.

From a very early period, silver was used also in works of art. Its employment for ornamenting arms, so often referred to by Homer, belongs to this head. The use of it for mere purposes of luxury and ostentation, as in plate, seems to have become generally prevalent about the close of the Peloponnesian wars (Athen. VI p229F), but much more so from the time of Alexander, after which it becomes so common as hardly to need any proof or illustration, — more common indeed than with us (Cic. in Verr. IV.21). The Romans distinguished between plain and chased silver vessels by calling the former pura or levia (Plin. Ep. III.1; Juv. IX.141, XIV.62; Mart. IV.38), and the latter caelata, aspera, or toreumata [Caelatura, Toreutice.]

The chief ancient authorities respecting silver, as well as gold, are the 3d, 4th, and 5th books of Strabo, the 5th of Diodorus, especially cc27 and 36, and the 33d of Pliny, from c6 s31; of modern works the most important are Böckh's Public Economy of Athens, Bk. I cc1‑3, with the supplementary Dissertation on the Silver Mines of Laurion, and Jacob's History of the Precious Metals.


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