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LAURION Attica, Greece.

In antiquity, even as now, Laurion was understood as Attica's SE corner, the place of the silver mines, a clearly identified system of low hills stretching N from Cape Sounion for a distance of ca. 17 km. For most of this length, Laurion has a single backbone marked by a succession of peaks, the highest of which, Vigla Rimbari, located near the chain's midpoint, has a height of 372 m; but to the S, where it reaches a maximum width of 10 km, the system is divided by the Legraina valley. Along the E coast, other cultivatable valleys penetrate the hills, especially at Thorikos, where the low, flat land is large enough to constitute a small plain and, for millennia, to have helped support a settled community. Otherwise, most of Laurion's 200 sq. km is rugged and waterless, and would have given little to Athenian economy had it not been for the early discovery, particularly in the hills on its E side, of rich deposits of ore—mixed sulphides of lead, zinc, and iron—from the first of which silver could be profitably extracted.

Exploitation of this mineral wealth may have begun as early as the Middle Helladic period, but the evidence admits of no assessment of the extent, or continuity, of the industry in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. By the archaic period, however, from the time of Peisistratos' tyranny (Hdt. 1.64) and with the issuance of Athens' silver coinage, the mines of Laurion had assumed political as well as economic significance. And in the 5th c. B.C. this importance increased with deeper mining and the discovery of the ore bodies of the “third contact” (Arist. Ath.Pol. 22.7). But progress was halted by the placing of the Spartan fort at Dekeleia in 413 B.C. (Thuc. 6.91 & 7.27), and recovery may have been slow, for Xenophon (Vect. 4) makes clear that even in the middle of the 4th c. the industry still needed encouragement. Despite this setback, the Classical period marks the heyday of the Laurion mines. Thereafter the story is one of decline, accompanied by a slave revolt (Ath. 6.272), and by Strabo's time men had ceased to go underground but were now reworking the slag-heaps (9.1.23). Even this activity is missing from Pausanias' description of the place as one where “the Athenians once had silver mines” (1.1.1).

Of this ancient and extensive industry, particularly from the Classical period, the remains that survive throughout Laurion are almost beyond count, many still to be properly cleared and studied. A fair sample of them may be seen alongside any of the roads that serve the mining area: the mines themselves, some nothing more than a rudely hacked horizontal passage, others a complex system of deep galleries linked to the surface by well-cut shafts as much as 100 m deep; milling and washing establishments, the latter with nearby cisterns for the storage of water; furnaces (the excavation of a heavy-walled building containing a bank of them was begun in 1971 near Megala Peuka); slag and other waste; living quarters and cemeteries; roads and culverts. But to some Laurion did not mean only mining: there are also, in some less accessible places, instructive examples of farmhouses and marble quarries, in one of which one can see where column drums were removed. Finally, at the top of Vigla Rimbari there is a rubble enclosure wall, perhaps a direct answer to Xenophon's suggestion (Vect. 4.43-44) that the area needed a third stronghold, in addition to those at Anaphlystos and Thorikos, to protect in war one of the city-state's most valuable assets.


B. Ardaillon, Les Mines du Laurion dans l'Antiquité (1897)MPI; G. P. Marinos & W. E. Petraschek, Λαύριον (1956)MPI; J. H. Young, “Studies in South Attica, Country Estates at Sounion,” Hesperia 25 (1956) 122-46PI; R. J. Hopper, “The Laurion Mines: A Reconsideration,” BSA 63 (1968) 293-326; H. F. Mussche et al., Thorikos 1-5 (1968-71)MPI.


hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.64
    • Thucydides, Histories, 6.91
    • Xenophon, Ways and Means, 4
    • Xenophon, Ways and Means, 4.43
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