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ARGENTUM The use of silver among the Greeks, although no doubt later introduced than that of gold, dates from pre-historic times. In the archaic tombs opened by Dr. Schliemann at Mycenae were several vessels and ornaments of silver. Homer mentions on several occasions vessels of silver, sometimes as coming from Sidon (Il. 23.743), sometimes as imported from Egypt (Od. 4.125), sometimes as of home manufacture (Od. 19.57). Our museums exhibit numerous specimens of all these kinds of ware. The method of manufacture in early times was the same for silver as for gold and copper: the material was beaten out with a hammer and fastened either with nails or solder, or else cast in moulds.

In Asia, in the time of the Persian Empire, silver must have been common, for we know that it was thirteen times less valuable than gold (Hdt. 3.95) ; and the stores of gold accumulated by kings, such as Croesus, and even by private individuals, such as Pythius (Hdt. 7.27), were enormous. From Asia it came to Greece in the way of commerce. But there were also silver mines in Hellas of great importance. Among these the most prolific were the mines of Laurium, the property of the Athenian people and the chief source of their wealth. With regard to the working of these mines we possess many details; as to which see Boeckh On the Silver Mines of Laurium, and Rhangabé in the Mémoires de l'Acad. des Inscr. 8.297. There were also extensive silver mines in the Pangaean range in Thrace and in Epirus. From these sources came the supplies of Greece before the age of Alexander. Silver was at that time in great demand in Greece. It was used by the rich for drinking vessels, by ladies for mirrors and toilet-boxes, by the pious for statues and ornaments to be dedicated in the temples. Among Greek silversmiths the most celebrated was Mentor (Plin. Nat. 33.154), whose name is mentioned by the Romans in conjunction with those of Polycleitus and Scopas, and whose works were eagerly sought out by the connoisseurs of later times. Mys and Acragas and other silversmiths had wide reputation. But the chief use to which in earlier and less luxurious times silver was put was in coinage. The usual issues of Asia Minor were in silver, and that metal was almost the only currency in Hellas proper, and used conjointly with copper in Sicily and S. Italy. As early as the 6th century Aegina, Corinth, Euboea, Athens, Samos, and many other cities issued an abundance of silver coin, and during the next century the example was followed by nearly every Greek independent city of any pretensions. It may be remarked here that all the Greek 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. Antig. 295), as aes is in Latin.

In the time of Alexander the mines of Laurium were of diminished richness, and their produce decreased until in the time of Pausanias and Strabo they were looked on as exhausted (Paus. ad init.). But their place was far more than supplied by the enormous treasures of silver which the Persian kings had laboriously hoarded, and which Alexander and his captains spent with lavish profusion. A whole corps of Alexander's soldiers bore silver shields (the ARGYRASPIDES), Mithradates Eupator had numerous chariots of silver, and we read in Athenaeus' description of the pomp of Ptolemy Philadelphus (v. p. 196 sqq.) of such things as a silver bowl holding 600 metretae and embossed with figures of animals.

Italy is less richly furnished by nature with silver than Greece. In early times, indeed, the Etruscans were celebrated for working in silver, many of their productions still surviving; and they issued silver coins as early as the 5th century. But we may suppose the metal imported either from the Gauls to the north or the seafaring Phoenicians. Certainly at the same period silver was rare at Rome, as is shown by the fact that Rome long contented herself with copper money, and only followed the example of her richer neighbours in striking silver in B.C. 269. Before that period Greek silver was in circulation at Rome; and the principal silver coin of the Romans, the denarius, was borrowed from the Greek drachma. This dearth of silver disappeared when the Romans acquired the rich mines of Spain, which the Carthaginians had worked before them. These were situate at Osca and elsewhere, but those near Carthago Nova were so rich (Plb. 34.9) as to employ forty thousand miners, to the great profit of the Roman state. This makes, more surprising the statement of Pliny (33.141) that at the capture of Carthage the booty in silver only amounted to 4370 pounds. It was really the victories of Scipio Asiaticus which flooded Rome with silver as with other luxuries, until silver tables of 100 pounds' weight became common at Rome, and even the cooking utensils of the wealthy were sometimes made of the same material (Plin. Nat. 33.140). Statuettes and parts of statues of silver of the Roman period have been found, together with many silver cups and vessels. Some of these latter were found at Pompeii, some at Caere, but the largest hoard, weighing upwards of 100 pounds, at Hildesheim in Germany. This treasure, consisting of upwards of seventy vessels, must have been part of the baggage of a Roman officer on the frontiers, [p. 1.184]and forcibly illustrates the luxury of wealthy officers in late times. It also shows what immense strides the practical art of the silver-smith had made since early Greek times. The Hildesheim vases, which are now in the Museum of Berlin, are composed of a body of silver, over which is fastened a second layer covered with alto-rilievos of beaten work, admirably designed and excellently adapted to the forms and purposes of the vessels. On the subject of working in silver, Pliny has a dissertation (33.127 ff.).

Silver as Coin.--We have already stated when and where silver was principally used for currency; and for further details, see NUMMUS, DENARIUS, AS, DRACHMA. But we must add here a few words as to the alloy of silver. In the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. the silver issued in the Greek world is usually of almost perfect purity. Of a number of pieces of S. Italy tested, many offer a proportion of 94 to 96 per cent. of pure silver, none less than 91 per cent. The coins of Aegina are about .96 fine. Those of Athens, which were noted in antiquity for their purity, give a percentage of .986 to .983. Even after Alexander the coins of Athens retain their purity, the analysis of some specimens yielding .966 of silver, .032 of copper, and .002 of gold. But in some places the standard of fineness rapidly falls in late times. A tetradrachm of Philip, one of the last kings of Syria, yielded only .678 of silver, and the contemporary coins of Egypt are still more debased. When the Romans occupied that country, they found the money so debased in quality, though it still retained its weight, that a Roman denarius was equivalent in value to the Ptolemaic tetradrachm of nearly four times its weight. Among the Romans silver retained its standard, excepting in the case of some denarii of M. Antony [NUMMUS LEGIONARIS], until the time of Augustus, who fixed the purity at 98-9 per cent. But after Vespasian we find a continual decrease in the standard of silver currency, with occasional slight reactions, until the so-called silver money is but copper plated. The substances used for adulteration of silver were copper, tin, zinc, and lead, all of which are found in the later Egyptian money. For fuller details see Lenormant, La Monnaie dans l'Antiquité, vol. i.

Proportionate Value of Silver as compared with Gold and Copper.--A few words must be said under this head as to the relations held, in value one with another, of the three precious metals,--gold, silver, and copper. According to Herodotus (3.95), in reckoning the revenues of the Persian Empire gold was esteemed at thirteen times the value of silver. And Brandis tries to show by induction that this relation, or more exactly that of 13 1/31 to 1, held between gold and silver in the Levant during many centuries. But in the 4th century the value of gold began to fall in Greece. The pseudo-Plato (Hipparch. 231 D) speaks of the comparative value of the two metals as 12 to 1; and after Philip of Macedon had possessed himself of the rich gold mines of Thrace, and his son of the treasures of the Persian kings, it fell to 10 to 1 (Menander, ap. Pollux, 9.76). Mr. Head (Coinage of Syracuse, p. 26) shows reasons for supposing the relation in value of gold to silver in Sicily to have been 15 to 1 until about B.C. 344, and afterwards 12 to 1. Roman laws of the middle of the 2nd century show that the relation of 12 to 1 was then current in Italy; but Roman gold coins bearing marks of value show considerable variations in the relation, from 9 to 17 to 1. Under the empire it was about 10 or 12 to 1. (See Sabatier, Production de l'or, de l'argent et du. cuivre, p. 50.) The relation between silver and copper was in Sicily 250 to 1, and nearly the same result is given for Rome (if we accept the theories of Mommsen as to the reductions of the as), by a comparison of the weights of silver and copper coins of the 3rd century which bear marks of value. At a later time copper would seem to have become far more valuable in proportion. It is, however, difficult to prove this, because copper coins of later time are mere money of account, and not struck up to the full. value.


hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.95
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.27
    • Homer, Odyssey, 19.57
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.125
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 295
    • Homer, Iliad, 23.743
    • Polybius, Histories, 34.9
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