The gold rush in Antiquity
Since men discovered the usefulness of metals, one of their biggest worries has been to locate the places where the gold, the silver, the iron, the tin, the copper, the lead... are.
One of the reasons for the unstoppable development and extension in the four directions of the Roman Empire was precisely the mines detection. The same reason explains, for example, its extension by the Iberian Peninsula, rich in metals as it is related by Strabo in Book III of his Geography dedicated to Hispania.
A real gold “fever” or gold rush existed in Antiquity. Pliny dedicates Book XXXIII of his “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) to metals and there he refers to this fever which also reached the Romans.
Pliny tells us that in the beginning there was very little gold in Rome; rings were made of iron and not of gold and they had no bracelets or other gold ornaments. As they were conquering the world, they became polluted by this desire for luxury and the metal that evidences it, the gold; its use became more widespread: crowns, brooches, bracelets, women throughout the body, hands, arms, feet, waist ... then also men and even some slaves had gold rings.
But, why gold? Why this rush, this burning desire? Probably because it sparkles and it shines because it does not rust, because it is unchangeable; and it is also hard but malleable. Today in addition to jewelry it is used in many appliances like mobile phones, on pins of high fidelity sound, in medicine, in aerospace technology and even in the food of some eccentric persons who are as demanding as the ancient Sybarites.
Pliny believes that the brightness is not the reason for its value, but that it leaves no residue in the fire and you can stretch it a lot and divided it into many slices. Although he also recognizes that:
“And then, more than anything else, gold is subject to no rust, no verdigris, no emanation whatever from it, either to alter its quality or to lessen its weight. In addition to this, gold steadily resists the corrosive action of salt and vinegar, things which obtain the mastery over all other substances: it admits, too, beyond all other metals, of being spun out and woven like wool”. (Naturalis Historia, 33, 20).
super cetera non robigo ulla, non aerugo, non aliud ex ipso, quod consumat bonitatem minuatve pondus. iam contra salis et aceti sucos, domitores rerum, constantia superat omnia, superque netur ac texitur lanae modo vel sine lana
But Pliny criticizes this excessive craving in the already mentioned Book XXXIII, 3:
Would that gold could have been banished for ever from the earth, accursed by universal report, as some of the most celebrated writers have expressed themselves, reviled by the reproaches of the best of men, and looked upon as discovered only for the ruin of mankind. How much more happy the age when things themselves were bartered for one another; as was the case in the times of the Trojan war, if we are to believe what Homer says. For, in this way, in my opinion, commerce was then carried on for the supply of the necessities of life. (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History ; John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed.)
utinamque posset e vita in totum abdicari [sacrum fame, ut celeberrimi auctores dixere] proscissum conviciis ab optimis quibusque et ad perniciem vitae repertum, quanto feliciore aevo, cum res ipsae permutabantur inter sese, sicut et Troianis temporibus factitatum Homero credi convenit! ita enim, ut opinor, commercia victus gratia invecta.
And to get it we are able to introduce us to the depths of the earth: (N.H. 33.1):
It is what is concealed from our view, what is sunk far beneath her surface, objects, in fact, of no rapid formation, that urge us to our ruin, that send us to the very depths of hell. As the mind ranges in vague speculation, let us only consider, proceeding through all ages, as these operations are, when will be the end of this exhausting the earth, and to what point will avarice finally penetrate! How innocent, how happy, how truly delightful even would life be, if we were to desire nothing but what is to be found upon the face of the earth; in a word, nothing but what is provided ready to our hands!
illa nos peremunt, illa nos ad inferos agunt, quae occultavit atque demersit, illa, quae non nascuntur repente, ut mens ad inane evolans reputet, quae deinde futura sit finis omnibus saeculis exhauriendi eam, quo usque penetratura avaritia. quam innocens, quam beata, immo vero etiam delicata esset vita, si nihil aliunde quam supra terras concupisceret, breviterque, nisi quod secum est!
And then he blasts out against who coined gold coin (NH33, 13):
The next crime committed against the welfare of mankind was on the part of him who was the first to coin a denarius of gold, a crime the author of which is equally unknown. The Roman people made no use of impressed silver even before the period of the defeat of King Pyrrhus.
Proximum scelus fuit eius, qui primus ex auro denarium signavit, quod et ipsum latet auctore incerto. populus Romanus ne argento quidem signato ante Phyrrhum regem devictum usus est.
And soon after, Naturalis Historia, 33.14:
But the invention of money opened a new field to human avarice, by giving rise to usury and the practice of lending money at interest, while the owner passes a life of idleness: and it was with no slow advances that, not mere avarice only, but a perfect hunger for gold became inflamed with a sort of rage for acquiring: to such a degree, in fact, that Septimuleius, the familiar friend of Caius Gracchus, not only cut off his head, upon which a price had been set of its weight in gold, but, before bringing it to Opimius, poured molten lead into the mouth, and so not only was guilty of the crime of parricide, but added to his criminality by cheating the state. Nor was it now any individual citizen, but the universal Roman name, that had been rendered infamous by avarice, when King Mithridates caused molten gold to be poured into the mouth of Aquilius the Roman general, whom he had taken prisoner: such were the results of cupidity!.
Sed a nummo prima origo avaritiae faenore excogitato quaestuosaque segnitia, nec paulatim: exarsit rabie quadam non iam avaritia, sed fames auri, utpote cum Septumuleius, C. Gracchi familiaris, auro rependendum caput eius abscisum ad Opimium tulerit plumboque in os addito parricidio suo rem p. etiam circumscripserit; nec iam Quiritium aliquis, sed universo nomine Romano infami rex Mithridates Aquilio duci capto aurum in os infudit. Haec parit habendi Cupido!
Even before the poet Virgil had described masterfully and lapidary the consequences of this cursed thirst for gold in Aeneid, 3, 357:
What do you not force mortal hearts, accursed thirst for gold?
Quid non Mortalia Cogis pectorals,
auri sacra fames?
From then to now the craving and desire for gold has not waned an apex.
Pliny also gives us some information about the operating system and hardships of working in the mine. In another article we will discuss the ruin montium at The Medullas (Spain).
Pliny gives us more information on the various gold deposits, the various forms of exploitation, its extraction techniques and its uses. We can say that they used very advanced techniques, some of them extremely laborious ones. Those interested in these issues should read Book 33 of The Naturalis Historia. Only the Romans had missing some modern techniques such as cyanide leaching or aquiferous arsenic merger, currently employed by international companies in the Northwest of Spain, precisely in the same area where the ancient Romans prospected, evaluated and exploited with remarkable results.
Well now!, these modern techniques frequently and rightly meet with people´s rejection due to the environmental damages they used to cause produced by millions of tons of rubble.
Neither the Romans knew that all the gold there is in the world comes from cosmic cataclysms, from the collision of stars of neutrons, as current astrophysicists have just figured out.
In any case today as yesterday the gold fever or gold rush is still very big and the numerous material and technical obstacles to its extraction or the opposition of groups and citizens concerned about the preservation of the environment are easily overcome, precisely because of the gold itself, become into paper money or transformed into digital money, more modern and suitable yet according to the current times.