The ancient Romans’ feats of engineering, technological advancement, and mankind’s general conquest over nature through agriculture and construction were truly remarkable for their time.
This same spirit of ingenuity and engineering prowess has animated Americans since at least the early stages of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. In various forms, this entrepreneurial drive still exists in the United States to this day. As the leading power of the Western world, America and its Northern European founders inherited this legacy from the Romans, along with many of its civic, legal, and cultural foundations.
One central goal that drove this mindset of engineering dominance was the extraction of gold from the ground—and then the use of this precious metal to facilitate commerce, trade, and war around Rome’s sprawling territory.
Ancient Gold Mining
Many ancient cultures that preceded the Romans by thousands of years engaged in gold mining using rudimentary methods. The exploitation of alluvial deposits—basically gold particles found in surface mud—was the principal way that gold was gathered. The lack of technology made this the most accessible means ancient peoples had to mining metals. The relative scarcity of gold led, even early on, to the tradition of widespread recycling and re-melting the yellow metal.
The Egyptians were the first culture to extract gold from ore through a system of mining operations that developed over the course of centuries. Egypt was plentiful in gold—far more so than silver—and they used similar processes for exploiting veins of gold in large quantities that the Romans did. However, Roman technology allowed the republic, and especially the empire, to expand and improve upon these forms of gold mining to an unprecedented scale.
The Ancient Romans mastered a number of hydraulic methods for mining gold that made the task vastly more efficient. They used ground sluicing to exploit placer deposits, a concept which is still used in various more sophisticated forms to this day. They also perfected hushing, an ancient method that takes advantage of flooding or water torrents to access and loosen gold veins from mineral deposits. Given their advancements in building aqueducts, it’s not surprising that advanced hydraulic mining was one of Rome’s great contributions to technology. Everywhere the Romans went, the state seized control of areas with historically rich gold deposits and rapidly produced far more gold than their ancient predecessors. Subsuming lands (and shorelines) known to be abundant in gold into the Roman orbit was also a common practice. Besides the Mediterranean, gold-rich areas were known in antiquity along the Red Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and Aegean Sea. Some shores along the Arabian Sea controlled by the Persian Empire were even said by the Greeks to have been so rich in gold, that the mud of the alluvial deposits practically sparkled.¹
This conquest-oriented mining activity certainly benefited the Roman treasury, but it also served other purposes. Rome is well-known for leaving its mark on the ancient world by building a vast network of transportation and infrastructure across its enormous empire. This allowed for the easy movement of supplies and Roman legions. Setting up a gold mining operation nearby was a prudent step toward encouraging that region’s development and integration into the empire. Like the British Empire, maintaining many mines abroad also allowed Roman gold coins to be struck or distributed across its territories when needed.
The pursuit of more gold in part motivated the Romans to invade places as far-flung as the British Isles and Transylvania in present-day Romania. Mines were established in Macedonia and around Greece. The ancient Dolaucothi gold mine in the western part of Wales was one among several located in Britain, while the Romans also mined near the Nile River in Egypt and the Rhine River in present-day Germany.
The long list—and staggering scale—of Roman gold mining sites goes on. Roman engineering was once on full display in Spain, where modern research has recently uncovered an extensive network of gold mines using aqueducts that are believed to date to the first century BCE.²
Such enthusiastic advancements in gold mining fit within the larger narrative of Rome’s dominance over the physical environment. The leaps in progress during the Industrial Revolution in 19th-century America that allowed for the California Gold Rush, the ever-greater harvesting of resources, and greater productivity have created this same narrative of material dominance of nature in U.S. history. The “taming” of the deserts, mountains, and Dust Bowls as settlers advanced westward into the early 20th century is often painted by environmental historians as one of America’s greatest triumphs. Americans constructed dams and brought electricity to undeveloped areas with a similar progressive view toward science that the Ancient Romans possessed. While clean running water and plumbing were often not a commonplace convenience in much of the world until the turn of the 20th century, many Romans enjoyed this living standard well over a thousand years ago. The surviving ruins of aqueducts, roads, bridges, monuments, and other complex architectural structures across Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and elsewhere reveal the grand scale and historic legacy Roman engineering left to its modern inheritors.
Unfortunately, Rome and America’s progress and technological achievements have had some ugly consequences along the way, whether it be the relocation and decimation of Native Americans or the fact that Roman mines were, like large-scale farming in the American South, largely operated through slave labor. All the same, mining, engineering zeal, and the expansion they made possible had a direct impact on Rome’s ability to accumulate incredible wealth, gold, and coins from around the ancient world.
Gold coins came into vogue for the peoples of antiquity during the two centuries that preceded the early formation of the Roman Republic. Sometime during the 7th or 6th century BCE, the first bona fide coins appeared in the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor.³ Made from electrum and known as staters, these coins were adopted in concept and appearance by other surrounding ancient cultures even after the Lydians were defeated and absorbed by the Persians. Gold and electrum were purportedly taken by from the alluvial deposits of the Pactolus River in both Greece and Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey). The river is mythologized to have acquired its precious metals when King Midas bathed in the Pactolus to try and rid himself of the curse of his “golden touch.”
Eventually, gold became preferred for early coins. Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, so it was easier to control the purity and content of a pure gold coin. The Greek city-states generally adopted silver coins as a common standard, being less gold-rich than the Romans, who produced gold from possessions outside of Rome proper, particularly from the Iberian Peninsula after Rome’s victory in the Second Punic War.
The notion that gold coins facilitated trade and commerce among ancient civilizations should not be taken for granted. Even states where gold was not mined could eventually trade for enough gold to participate in foreign commerce. For instance, the long-occupied (as Mesopotamia, Assyria, or other kingdoms) ancient area of Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has no substantial gold deposits. Nonetheless, archaeologists have found quite a bit of ancient gold ingots and coins there, revealing how gold from all over the world made its way along trade routes. Rome’s aggressive extraction and minting of gold played an key role in this wider trend as the Romans were increasingly at the center of the international gold trade. The accumulation of virtually all of the world’s gold by the United States in the wake of World War II mirrors this path toward economic and commercial ascendance.
As an illustration, consider that the Romans introduced the first organized minting of gold coins to Ancient Egypt during the period of Ptolemaic rule after the death of Alexander the Great (circa 323 BCE). Roman coins have been found in Britain, mainland Europe, North Africa, and even as far east as India. It truly was the first “global gold coinage standard” in the world.
As has frequently been the case throughout history, later rulers of Rome chose to debase their coins (i.e. reducing the amount of precious metal in coins but issuing them with the same face value) in order to surreptitiously increase seigniorage for the treasury. One might observe a modern-day version of this subtle theft in the U.S. dollar’s loss of value to inflation despite its place as the de facto reserve currency of the world financial system.
Research by the gold prospecting club known as The New 49’ers aptly sums up the influence of Ancient Roman gold coins:
“In a relatively short period of time, from 640 B.C. to the end of the Roman Empire, civilization saw the intense evolution in the use and value of gold and its use in coinage. The demand for it caused the development of mining techniques that vastly increased the availability. War and conquest produced a melting pot that recycled gold from all world sources into a common pot. Gold went from a possession of royalty to a medium of exchange available to the average citizens of the Roman Empire. The power of Rome was based in large part on the use of gold to extend its influence and culture across the known world. Gold, which is too soft to be used for weapons and tools, cannot help produce a food crop or heal the sick. It offered no practical benefit to ancient society beyond its possession, but had become the ultimate possession and measure of wealth of civilization.”
- John Hiller, “Gold in the Ancient World.” The New 49’ers: True Life Gold Prospecting Adventure. 2013. <www.goldgold.com>
- Liz Leafloor, “Researchers discover vast ancient gold mines in Spain, the largest of the Roman Empire.” Ancient Origins: Reconstructing the Story of Humanity’s Past. 25 Nov 2014. <www.ancient-origins.net>
- Everett Millman, “The Importance of the Lydian Stater as the World’s First Coin.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 27 March 2015. <www.ancient.eu>