– Do they not have plenty of wealth in their homes?
– They have as treasure a silver vein in the bowels of the earth.
Aeschylus, The Persians, translation Herbert Weir Smyth, 1926
The first Persian invasion ended with the victory of the Greeks at Marathon. However, there were many those who supported the view that the threat had not been completely eliminated and that the Persians would attempt a new attack in the future.
This view was shared also by Themistocles, the leader of the democratic faction, who envisioned turning Athens into a mighty naval power, which would avert the Persian danger.
A favourable coincidence enabled his plan, which was ambitious, innovative but also expensive. In 483/2 BC, in the region of Lavrion was discovered a rich vein of silver. The mines belonged to the Athenian state: a part of the income was dedicated to the gods (namely the tithe) whereas another part was distributed to the citizens. Since the new vein gave the city 100 talents, the proposal was put forth to distribute 10 drachmas to each citizen. Themistocles, however, disagreed and suggested that the city should lend one talent to each one of 100 rich citizens, so that each one of them should build a trireme, adding one more talent from their own income.
Themistocles’ proposal was accepted by the Ekklesia of the Demos (the Assembly of the Athenian citizens) and the Naval Law was voted for.
Within the next three years 100 more triremes were built. In 480 BC, on the eve of Xerxes’ campaign, Athens with 200 ships was the largest naval power of Greece, superior also to Corinth and Aegina, cities that until then had the lead in the maritime field.
Thus, the treasure of the land of Lavrion contributed decisively to the victory of the Greek fleet in Salamis.
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