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AURUM Gold, from its malleability and the circumstance that it is found lying in lumps, was one of the earliest of metals used by man, and among the most primitive resources of civilization. This was suspected by the ancients, who make the earliest age of the world's history an age of gold. In the Heroic age, we find that gold was put to a great variety of uses. Homer speaks of the houses of Menelaus and Alcinous as full of silver and gold; the armour of Glaucus was of gold (Il. 6.236), so were the handmaids of Hephaestus (Il. 18.417), and the doves on Nestor's cup (Il. 11.632). So in the decoration of the shield of Achilles, the chest of Cypselus, and other works of art, much gold was employed. And that this plenty of gold was not a mere figment of the poet, we know from the best testimony, that of graves. At Mycenae, which is in Homer called πολύχρυσος, Dr. Schliemann has dug up a prodigious quantity of gold, cups and jugs and masks and ornaments of all sorts. The graves of the Crimea (though these are of later date) also yield abundance of gold; the corpses which are discovered in them being covered from head to foot with gold, beaten into the shape of animals, rosettes, and designs of all kinds. The use of gold as a concomitant of luxury for personal decoration was associated specially by the Greeks with the wealthy nations of Asia Minor, such as the Lydians and Phrygians, from which notion arose the story of Midas the Phrygian, who turned everything he touched into gold, and the belief that the wealth of the Pelopid princes of Southern Greece was brought by them from their native Phrygia. In the use of gold, the wealthy Ionians of Asia Minor copied these neighbours, even binding their hair with it, in which custom the Athenians are said to have followed them (Thuc. 1.6).

There can be no question that to the smiths of early time gold must have been the metal which gave most scope for the artistic faculty. Its extreme softness and malleability enabled even workmen who had no more elaborate tools than a hammer and nails, to work it into any given shape. All the vessels of Mycenae are thus hammered out and joined into shape by nails, and the earliest statues of the gods were produced by the same method, which was called by the ancients σφυρηλατεῖν. They did indeed sometimes, instead of [p. 1.261]welding two surfaces of gold together, unite them by a solder of borax (Schliemann's Mycenae, p. 231), but practically this process was unusual. Casting in hollow moulds belongs to a later period.

In the preparation of gold, the ancients used only the simplest processes of melting and refining. When gold occurred mixed with silver [ELECTRUM], they frequently did not separate the silver, but treated the mixed as a simple metal.

Asia was the source of gold, from the days when the Argonauts sailed to Colchis in search of the golden fleece, to the days when Alexander and his captains seized and dispersed the enormous hoards, laid up during many generations by the Babylonian kings and their Persian successors. Arrian and Diodorus give us accounts which might well seem fabulous of the quantities of gold seized in the great cities of Asia. According to Diodorus (17.71) in the city of Persepolis alone, Alexander captured a treasure in gold and silver of 120,000 talents. The wealth in gold of Croesus is testified by his gift to Delphi (Hdt. 1.50) of above 100 solid bricks of the metal. A private individual, Pythius, in the reign of Xerxes, possessed three millions of gold Darics (Hdt. 7.27). The sources whence the gold of Asia was drawn were various: India was one of the chief, the north part of that country paying tribute to the Persian king. In Arabia also abundant gold was found and freely exported (Strabo, 16.3, 4). Lydia supplied great quantities of river-gold, both pure and mixed with silver [ELECTRUM]. But the richest source of all in the opinion of the ancients was the country of the Arimaspi, where the gold was guarded by griffins, and with difficulty won from them by the hardy natives. Most modern writers suppose that the reality which gave rise to this fable was the gold mines of the Caucasus, whence gold penetrated through the country of the Scythians to Persia. A similar story was told or invented in regard to the Indian gold (Hdt. 3.102), namely, that it was found in a country infested by huge ants (μύρμηκες), from whose pursuit men could only escape when riding on swift camels. The motive of these stories for deterring adventurers is very manifest.

The gold mines of Europe were also important. The Carthaginians, and after them the Romans, obtained their main supply from Spain, in the rivers of which country was a rich deposit of gold, notably in the Tagus. Both in Gaul and in Spain, at the time of the Roman conquests, whole districts were covered with rich auriferous deposits, yielding nuggets to the inhabitants on the application of the simplest systems of washing. In the provinces of Asturia and Lusitania, according to Pliny (Plin. Nat. 33.78), the workmen went through the laborious process of undermining whole hills by their excavations, and then turning on rivers to wash the fallen earth and separate the particles of metal. Gold was also found in the Italian Padus, in the Hebrus in Thrace, and other rivers. Polybius states (34.10) that in his time great quantities of gold were found on the surface of the ground in Pannonia. In Greece proper gold was found in small quantities in the islands of Siphnos and Thasos, and in larger quantities in the mountains of Thrace. These last, however, seem not to have yielded their full supply until they fell into the hands of Philip of Macedon, who procured from them, it is said, 1000 talents a year (Diod. 16.8),--in fact such large stocks of gold as to alter completely the degree of its rarity in Greece. In earlier days the metal had been decidedly rare in Hellas and Sicily. When the Laconians wished to procure gold to gild a votive statue of Apollo, they had to apply to Croesus for it (Hdt. 1.69), and Hiero I. of Syracuse had much difficulty in procuring gold for a votive offering to Delphi of a gold Victory and tripod (Athen. 6.232). But in course of commerce this poverty disappeared, and gold was poured into Greece in still increasing quantities, until the overflowings of Macedonian wealth made it comparatively common. It was then again used as in pre-historic days for the vessels and ornaments of the rich. It also became a custom for cities to bestow crowns of gold of great weight and value upon their benefactors, and even sometimes to set up their statues in gold. The horns of oxen offered in sacrifice were gilt, both in Greece and Rome.

Diodorus informs us (3.12) that in Upper Egypt, on the confines of Aethiopia, were gold mines which were worked from the time of the early kings of Egypt onwards for the benefit of the state. But here the gold was not found as elsewhere on the surface of the ground, but extracted from the heart of the mountains by a number of miserable slaves. Diodorus describes the process, which appears to be that of extracting gold from quartz. The stone, he says, which contained the metal was softened by fire, and then detached in masses by wedges of iron. These masses were brayed in stone mortars and ground to the fineness of sand. Finally, the gold was detached by washing, the workmen aiding the process with their hands and with fine sponges. The metal was purified by being placed, together with a certain quantity of lead, salt, tin and bran, in jars hermetically sealed, and exposed for five days to the heat of a fire, after which time the foreign substances were found to have evaporated.

In his 33rd book, Pliny traces the history of the use of gold in Rome from earliest times. He says (100.5) that when the Gauls sacked the city, no more than 1000 pounds' weight of gold could be found in it for ransom. The stock of gold in the treasury had increased seven years before the Third Punic War to 17,410 pounds; and after the successful termination of that war, the metal came into commoner use for decoration, as for covering ceilings and walls, as well as for vessels. The custom of wearing gold rings was so late in Rome, that even Marius wore one of iron. The great influx of the metal and its use for all purposes of luxury dated in Rome as in Greece from the time of Oriental conquest. For ancient testimonies as to gold mines see Sabatier, Production de l'or, de l'argent et du cuivre chez les anciens.

Gold as coin.--In many parts of the East and in Egypt, gold wedges and rings of fixed weight passed as currency before the invention of coins properly so called. The earliest gold coins, which however belong to a later date than the Lydian and Milesian electrum, were issued by Phocaea [PONDERA]. For a long period, [p. 1.262]beginning with the reign of Darius Hystaspis, the gold coinage of the world consisted almost exclusively of the Persian Darics (q. v.), which not only circulated throughout Asia, but came over to Europe in large quantities, and were laid up in the treasuries of Greek cities. About B.C. 400, Syracuse and other Sicilian cities began to issue small coins of gold, but the earliest Greek coinage of any importance in this metal was that of Philip of Macedon. The gold pieces of Philip and Alexander were issued in enormous quantities, both during the lives and after the deaths of those monarchs. The Philippi circulated in Hellas, Italy, and the West, where they became the prototypes of the abundant gold coinages of Gaul and Britain (Evans, Coinage of the ancient Britons). The Alexandri, on the other hand, succeeded the Darics in Asia, and continued for many years to furnish the bulk of the gold circulation of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms. Contemporary, however, with them, during the life of Alexander, were issues of gold by Athens, Rhodes, Cius, Panticapaeum, and other wealthy cities, which minted in their own names; and after the death of Alexander these coins gradually gave way to the gold money issued by the Macedonian kings of the East, especially the very wealthy Ptolemaic princes.

Aristophanes appears to speak of an issue of gold money at Athens, about the year B.C. 407 (Ran. 719). We say “appears,” because it is not impossible that the poet may be using the term χρυσίον generally for “money,” and here may even apply it to copper coin. But it is probable that the gold coins of Athens which have come down to us, which are numerous and of all denominations, belong to a later period, not earlier than the middle of the 4th century. At Rome gold was used in making payments as early as the 4th century B.C., but it was kept only in bars, the adulteration of which was punished by a law of Sulla. Gold coin proper was first issued at Rome in B.C. 217, but never in Republican times, except on the occasion of military expeditions. (Mommsen, Gesch. des Röm. Münzw. pp. 400-408.)

The Greeks, when they speak of χρυσίον, quite as often mean coin of electrum (q. v.) as of pure gold: which is intended, must in each case be judged by the context. Gold coin among the ancients, unless intended to pass as electrum, was usually very pure. The gold pieces of Alexander and Philip are almost without alloy; and Augustus, in his monetary reforms, fixed the margin of alloy, under severe penalties, at 002. It is only among barbarous peoples that we find gold, the true measure of value in nearly all countries, debased. Thus in Gaul gold rapidly deteriorated, as it was copied from tribe to tribe, and the kings of Bosphorus, who continued in Roman times to issue their own gold, continually debased it until it was finally no better than copper gilt. (Lenormant, La Monnaie dans l'Antiquité, i. pp. 187-205.)


hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 17.71
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 16.8
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.50
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.69
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.102
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.27
    • Homer, Iliad, 18.417
    • Homer, Iliad, 6.236
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.6
    • Homer, Iliad, 11.632
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