Corpus Fontium Historiae Fodinarum

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Cite this page: Barbara Tratsaert (ed.), “Corpus Fontium Historiae Fodinarum”, Archiopedia / Αρχειοπαίδεια (2022-), p. 352 (revision #-), ISSN 2732-6012. DOI: To be assigned.

This is a compilation of descriptions and accounts by classical writers referring to the mining of precious minerals and stones.

The compilation will be regularly updated.

The reader must be sure to consult the latest version.


The timeframe is the Roman imperial period; Herodotus (fourth century BC) is also included as his works were often quoted and referred to by later writers. The main authors are, in chronological order, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, Suetonius, Arrian and Photius. It seems that factual knowledge and descriptions of mining were reserved for the western provinces of the Roman Empire, while those for the eastern provinces had a more mythical character. Arrian states that some writers of his time were not so particular about what they wrote on the eastern provinces as, at that time, it was unlikely that people would travel there and witness the operations in these regions. Despite that, Diodorus Siculus and Strabo appear to have obtained a factual understanding of mining in Egypt and India. There is also the prevailing theory that classical writers believed that if the soil and fauna were fertile then by default there was gold. They did not understand the origin of gold in correct geological terms even though they seemed to comprehend that there were different types of stones and that (ground) water could pose serious danger.[1] On only two occasions a deity is mentioned in relation to mining and/or refining gold – Hephaestus – though only Diodorus Siculus refers to him by this name.[2] Pan or Min was the Ptolemaic god taken over by Roman miners in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, as well as the protector of travelers in the desert.[3] However, survey and excavation reveal that the miners preferred to take their personal (household) gods with them when working at the mines. This is particularly visible at the imperial quarries Mons Claudianus, Mons Porphyrytes and Smaragdus Mons, in this desert. There were, of course, also mythical creatures assigned to mining, such as the gold-digging ants who ferociously hunted down those who tried to dig up ‘their gold’ (Herodotus, 3.102–05). Another well-known mythical story is that of the Argonauts searching for the Golden Fleece.[4] Both Diodorus (4.40–54) and Strabo (11.4.8) present the story of Jason and the Argonauts as fact.

Mining in western Roman provinces Mining in eastern Roman provinces "Geography (fertile) as an indicator of the presence of gold
Factual Factual
On alluvial gold: Strabo 3.3.4, 4.6.7 (panning gold), 11.2.19 (describes the use of skins/panning), Diodorus 5.27 On alluvial gold: Herodotus 5.101, Diodorus 3.45, Strabo, 15.1.57, Photius 59–66 Diodorus 3.45, Strabo, 3.2.8, 16.4.18
On primary deposits: Diodorus 5.36–38 (use of the Archimedean screw in Iberian mines), Strabo, 3.2.8, 3.2.9 (use of the Archimedean screw in Iberian mines) On primary deposits: Herodotus, 6.46.47 (on mining an entire mountain to obtain auriferous primary deposits), Diodorus 2.36, 2.50 (nuggets), 3.12–14 (detailed description of an Egyptian mine)
Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21 (mining of primary and secondary deposits)
Myths related to the prospection of gold Myths related to the prospection of gold
Herodotus 3.102–105 (on gold-digging ants, stating he heard the story from a Persian man) Herodotus 4.200 (Persia, the use of a bronze shield to find gold)
Strabo 15.1.37/44/69 and 16.4.15 on gold-digging ants (quotes at least two other authors), Pliny Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21 (though states the story of gold-digging ants is untrue) Diodorus 5.74, Hephaestus the inventor of refining gold, Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.4.12 (the only two references to a god in relation to gold mining)

Herodotus (7.112, Thracia), Diodorus (3.45) and Strabo (16.4.18, both on the Debae in Arabia) describe how indigenous population groups were inexperienced in mining their own gold and invited others to work their mines for them. But they were particular about who excavated their precious minerals. Herodotus (9.75) and Strabo (4.6.7) mention the attempts of outsiders (no names) attempting to confiscate mines and Strabo specifically refers to the Romans. Two classical authors mention on two occasions the greed of the Romans and their conflicts with the local population in certain parts of the Empire (Diodorus, 5.36–38, 5.46.1–4 and Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21 and XXXVII.74). Strabo mentions the effects of Roman mining on local agriculture (4.6.7) and how it affected the price of gold (4.6.12).


Very little is known on Herodotus. It is thought he was born around 484 BC in Halicarnassus (Greek city in modern Turkey), lived in Athens and was a friend of the poet Sophocles. Herodotus was pro-Athenian in his writings and was well informed on their customs and way of life. He was one of the first colonists of the Thuria or Thurii, a city founded by the Athenians on the south coast of Italy. He travelled during and after his period of exile and compiled what he saw in The Histories, which consists of nine books.[5]

Agatharchides of Knidos

Not much is known of this classical historian and his works were little read in his time. He was thought to be the protégé of two prominent political figures in Egypt during the first half of the second century BC. Cineas was a councillor of King Ptolemy VI, and Heracleides was a diplomat involved in negotiations to end the invasion of Antiochus IV in 169 BC. Both men had an influence on Agatharchides’ work in literature and scholarly thinking. His work On the Erythraean Sea was never finished as the political situation brought a premature end to his writing career.[6]

Diodorus Siculus

Of Greek origin, Diodorus born in the first century BC and was a historian during the reigns of Julius Caesar (49–44 BC) and Augustus (30 BC–AD 14). He travelled parts of Europe and Asia and lived for a long time in Rome. His Bibliotheca Historica covers universal history, from mythic times to the beginning of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and consisted of 40 books of which only 15 were preserved completely; the rest is only known from fragments. He copied Agatharchides of Knidos’ description of mining, which has been used many times by modern scholars to explain the organisation of mining settlements in Egypt and the East.[7]


A geographer from Pontus, Amasian, Strabo is thought to have been born in 64BC and died around AD 24. He lived during the reign of Augustus (30 BC–AD 14) and part of that of Tiberius (AD 14–37). His 43 books on Roman history were meant for the intelligent upper class and are now all lost. His Geography was written in 17 books, all of which are preserved except for book seven. His friend Aelius Gallus was the (first) Egyptian prefect in 24 BC.[8]

Pliny the Elder

Gaius Plinius Secundus was born in AD 23 and died during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. He studied law, held a military career in Germany and an administrative position in Transalpine Gaul (N Italy) and Spain under Vespasian (AD 69–79). On retirement during the reign of Nero, he re-entered public life and became procurator of Spain, a position he held until Vespasian won the principate (AD 69–69). He was the uncle of Pliny the Younger, who himself was a lawyer and documented the eruption of Vesuvius. Of his Naturalis Historia, only 37 books have been preserved which cover many topics; of interest are books 33–37 which deal with precious metals and mining techniques.[9]


Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, born around AD 56 or 57 to a family from the south of France or north of Italy (Cisalpine Gaul), may have survived the days of Trajan (AD 98–117) and part of the reign of Hadrian (AD 117–137). A member of the provincial upper class, he was a famous orator and senator and a friend and teacher of Pliny the Younger, and held the highest metropolitan position, governorship of the province of Anatolia (Asia). His works The Annals of Imperial Rome consisted of 10 books covering the period AD 14 to the reign of Nero, and were his last and greatest work, which, together with The Histories, (AD 14–96) were his only historical books.[10]


Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, born around AD 75, came from Hippa Regius (now Algeria). He practised law and served in Bithynia Pontus (north Asia Minor) on the staff of Pliny the Younger in c. AD 110–12. Suetonius was a Roman knight (eques) and held a succession of posts at the imperial court under Trajan (AD 98–117) and Hadrian (AD 117–38). He was also a biographer and his book The Lives of the Caesars covers the lives of 12 Caesars from Julius (49–44 BC) to Domitian (AD 96) and is 97% complete.[11]


Arrian Flavius Arrianus Xenophon was probably born a few years before AD 90 in Nicomedia, a province of Bithynia, into a Greek family, though, like his father, he was a Roman citizen by birth, having likely received citizenship from Vespasian (AD 69–79). He was the pupil of the philosopher Epictetus and had a career in the imperial services, holding the position of chief magistrate in Rome and Athens, and governor of one of the provinces on the Roman frontier. Later he became an Athenian citizen and died at some point in AD 173–180. He is also known as the author of the Campaigns of Alexander (the Great), as well as of numerous books on history and philosophy, and of biographies.[12]


Photius was a ninth-century Byzantine patriarch and classical scholar whose publication Bibliotheca, Codex 250, contains sections of Agatharchides’ On the Erythraean Sea copied almost verbatim. His version is known as the best copy of Agatharchides’ work on gold mining in the Eastern Desert of Egypt as he could still read much of it in its original form. The Bibliotheca is a compilation of 279 reviews of books from various authors, dated between the fifth and ninth centuries AD, though many of the books he refers to no longer exist.[13]



Name-reference Herodotus, 3.102–05
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 217–18; Rawlinson 1996: 270–71
Location of the mine N India, neighbourhood of Caspatyrus in the country of Pactyica

Description-Interpretation: In the desert of India, Herodotus describes gold-digging ants ‘of great size, bigger than a fox though not as big as a dog’. The ants burrow underground and throw up sand in heaps; Herodotus compares them with ‘modern’ ants. The sand has a rich content of gold, which is what the Indians were after. But collecting the gold was not easy as it had to be done when the sun was at its highest and the ants had burrowed deep for shade and coolness. Otherwise the ants, which are extremely fast, would chase and attack the men collecting the gold.

Comments: Further in the text Herodotus admits that he has quoted this story from a Persian man, and even Herodotus seems to have queried its authenticity. Herodotus’ descriptions therefore have to be carefully considered; indeed, he became known as the ‘father of lies’, once it came to light that much of what he described came from local guides who were not always trustworthy. This still happens today when local guides tell tourists fabulous stories for a tip.

Name-reference Herodotus, 4.200
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 308-309; Rawlinson 1996: 374-375
Location of the mine Persia, Berca (Persian era)

Description-Interpretation: Herodotus describes tapping the ground with a bronze shield when prospecting for gold; a difference in tone would signal its presence.

Comments: This is one of the earliest urban legends on how to find gold. Later classical writers were also guilty of proclaiming this type of technique to be an effective and scientific way of prospecting for and mining gold.

Name-reference Herodotus, 5.101
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 352 (footnote); Rawlinson 1996: 431-32
Location of the mine Modern Turkey, Ephesian territory, the Sardian Tribe

Description-Interpretation: The gold dust was brought via the river Pactolus from Tmolus, which flowed through the market at Sardis and joined the Hermus before reaching the sea.

Comments: This is a description of alluvial or placer gold, i.e. secondary deposits.

Name-reference Herodotus, 6.46-47
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 375-76; Rawlinson 1996: 464-65
Location of the mine Scapte Hyde, near Thasos (Phoenician Island) and Thasos self

Description-Interpretation: Herodotus describes the mines he has visited and states that their yield was 80 talents per year. The deposits were discovered by the Phoenicians who came with Thasus, son of Pheoix, to the island to find gold: ‘A whole mountain, Coenyra, and a place called Aenyra were turned upside down in the search for gold.’

Comments: This is an early description of large-scale exploitation of primary deposits by non-indigenous people.

Name-reference Herodotus, 7.112
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 451-52; Rawlinson 1996: 552
Location of the mine Thracia, Range of Pangaeum

Description-Interpretation: The gold and silver mines were mined partially by the Pierians and the Odomanti but mostly by the Satrae, who were said to be enslaved by Xerxes (for this purpose?).

Comments: Brief comments on how countries without indigenous gold were still able to mine for gold or, rather, have it mined for them.

Name-reference Herodotus, 9.75
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1959: 581; Rawlinson 1996: 709-10
Location of the mine Datum [465BC]

Description-Interpretation: Sophanes of Decelea fought the Edoni for the goldmines at Datum but died (he was joint commander of the Athenian army with Leagrus, son of Glaucon).

Comments: Gold mines were precious and countries without would do anything to gain control over the mines of others.


Name-reference Diodorus, 2.36
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: 5
Location of the mine India

Description-Interpretation: Diodorus describes India as a very rich country with underground veins carrying all kinds of ore, including gold. Indian gold was ‘used for adornment, necessity and trappings of war’.

Comments: There are early indications that gold was used for personal adornment and luxury, and for financing wars.

Name-reference Diodorus, 2.50
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: 49
Location of the mine Arabia

Description-Interpretation: ‘There is also mined in Arabia the gold called fireless, which is not melted from ores … but is dug up directly from the earth. It is found in nuggets about [the size of the] seeds of chestnuts. And it is so fiery red in colour that it is used by artisans as a setting for the most precious gems [,] it makes the fairest adornments’.

Comments: ‘Fireless’ gold is a description for nuggets and alluvial gold that does not need smelting to extract impurities, and for other metals such as silver or copper. He describes the technique of combining precious metals with gems and other precious stones. This appeared to be already at the height of production at the time of Diodorus (first century BC) and probably well before.

Name-reference Diodorus, 3.12-14
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: 115-23
Location of the mine Eastern Desert of Egypt

Description-Interpretation: Diodorus is one of two classical writers to quote Agatharchidus of Cnidos’ (mid-second century BC writer) description of an underground gold mine in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.[14]

12. At the extremity of Egypt and in the contiguous territory of both Arabia and Ethiopia, there lies a region which contains many large gold mines, where the gold is secured in great quantities with much suffering and at great expense.. For the earth is naturally black and contains seams and veins of a marble that is unusually white and in brilliancy surpasses everything else which shines brightly by its nature, and here the overseers of the labour in the mines recover the gold with the aid of a multitude of workers. Photius 59–62, similar description of the geology.  For the kings of Egypt gather together and condemn to the mining of the gold such as have been found guilty of some crime and captives of war. Photius 59–61, does not refer to a ‘king’ or any royalty. As well as those who have been accused unjustly and thrown into prison because of their anger. Not only such persons but occasionally all their relatives as well, by this means not only inflicting punishment upon those found guilty but also securing at the same time great revenues from their labours. Those who have been condemned in this way – and they are a great multitude and are all bound in chains – work at their task unceasingly both by day and night, enjoying no respite and being carefully cut off from any means of escape. Guards of foreign soldiers who speak a language different from theirs stand watch over them, so that not a man, either by conversation or by some contact of a friendly nature, is able to corrupt one of his keepers.  Photius does not mention any type of guards.  The gold-bearing earth, which is hardest, they first burn with a hot fire. When they have crumbled it in this way they continue the working of it by hand; and the soft rock which can yield to moderate effort is crushed with a sledge by myriads of unfortunate wretches. The entire operations are in the charge of a skilled worker who distinguishes the stone and points it out to the labourers. Those who are assigned to this unfortunate task, the physically strongest, break the quartz rock with iron hammers, applying no skill to the task, but only force, and cutting tunnels through the stone, not in a straight line but wherever the seam of gleaming rock may lead. These men, working in darkness as they do because of the bending and winding of the passages, carry lamps bound on their foreheads. As much of the time they change the position of their bodies to follow the particular character of the stone, they throw the blocks, as they cut them out, on the ground; and at this task they labour without ceasing beneath the sternness and blows of an overseer.  Photius 61, fire setting and division of labour; Photius 61, fire setting and division of labour; specialists, hard labour, sub-surface mining, querns; Photius 61, the brutality of the overseer is copied nearly word for word.

13. The boys there who have not yet come to maturity, entering through the tunnels into the galleries formed by the removal of the rock, laboriously gather up the rock as it is cast down piece by piece and carry it out into the open to the place outside the entrance. Then those who are above 30 years of age take this quarried stone from them and with iron pestles pound a specified amount of it in stone mortars, until they have worked it down to the size of a vetch. Thereupon the women and older men receive from them the rock of this size and cast it into mills of which a number stand in a row. They take their places in groups of two or three at the spoke or handle of each mill and grind it until they have worked down the amount given them to the consistency of the finest flour. Photius 62–63, same detailed description of the use of various age groups during the processes of extraction, washing and of rotating quern.  And since no opportunity is afforded any of them to care for his body and they have no garment to cover their shame, no man can look upon the unfortunate wretches without feeling pity for them because of the exceeding hardship they suffer. For no leniency or respite of any kind is given to any man who is sick, or maimed, or aged, or in the case of a woman for her weakness. All without exception are compelled by blows to persevere in their labour, until through ill treatment they die in the midst of their tortures. Consequently the poor unfortunates believe, because their punishment is so excessively severe, that the future will always be more terrible than the present and therefore look forward to death as more to be desired than life.  Photius 62–63, hard factual description vs. Diodorus’ prosaic version.

14. In the last steps the skilled workmen receive the stone which has been ground to powder and take it off for its complete and final working; for they rub the marble which has been worked down upon a broad board which is slightly inclined, pouring water over it all the while; whereupon the earthy matter in it, melted away by the action of the water, runs down the inclined board, while that which contains the gold remains on the wood because of its weight. Photius 64–65, the only occurrence of this technical term, not mentioned by the other authors. More details on the process of washing gold.  And repeating this a number of times, they first of all rub it gently with their hands, and then lightly pressing it with sponges of loose texture they remove in this way whatever is porous and earthly, until there remains only the pure gold dust. Then at last other skilled workmen take what has been recovered and put it by fixed measure and weight into earthen jars, mixing with it a lump of lead proportionate to the mass, lumps of salt and a little tin, and adding thereto barley bran; thereupon they put on it a close-fitting lid, and smearing it over carefully with mud they bake it in a kiln for five successive days and as many nights; and at the end of this period, when they have let the jars cool off, of the other matter they find no remains in the jars, but the gold they recover in pure form, there being but little waste. This working of the gold, as it is carried on at the farthermost borders of Egypt, is effected through all the extensive labours here described; for Nature herself, in my opinion, makes it clear that whereas the production of gold is laborious, the guarding of it is difficult, the zest for it very great, and that its use is half-way between pleasure and pain.  Photius 65–66, Diodorus follows Agatharchidus closely; Photius 66, is more prosaic and detailed in his description of the hardship of mining in general.

Comments: This description has been used by many modern scholars when discussing mining in Egypt during the classical period. It must be kept in mind that this reference dates back to the Ptolemaic era and can only be used to explain mining up to a certain extent. The labourers who appeared to be forced into working at the mine were condemnati, criminals and prisoners of war. They were guarded by soldiers who were not indigenous to the country and who were purposefully chosen for their lack of understanding of the language of the workers. This, it can be argued, must have been based on the assumption that all miners will try to escape by starting friendships with the soldiers, or that the latter could be bribed, so hoped to halt that activity by placing people in a supervisory role with whom they could not communicate. ‘Guards of foreign soldiers who speak a language different from theirs stand watch over them, so that not a man, either by conversation or by some contact of a friendly nature, is able to corrupt one of his keepers’. Photius’ description, which is considered to be closer to Agatharchidus’ writings, does not mention any type of guard. Could this mean that Diodorus has noticed this setup for miners in his own time, almost one century later?

Only a few specialists are mentioned here, as seems to be common among all classical writers. The emphasis is on the hardship of the miner himself and the techniques applied; specialists appear to take second place in this description, though what little is said about them offers enough information on the organisation. There is a specialist who surveys for and identifies the auriferous deposits, i.e. a surveyor, and two men who are in charge of the refinery. The latter two are similar to modern-day metallurgists or smiths specialised in grinding and washing gold dust and smelting.

Name-reference Diodorus, 3.45
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: 221-25
Location of the mine Coastline of the Gulf of Corinth

Description-Interpretation: The mountainous country called Debae by the Arabs had racing camels, and in the centre ran a river carrying [alluvial] gold in such an amount ‘that the mud glitters all over as it is carried out at its mouth. The natives are entirely without experience in the working of gold but they are hospitable to strangers, but not, however, to everyone... only to the Boeotians and the Peleponnesians’ (ancient friendship shown by Heracles). The land next door was inhabited by the Alilaei and the Gasandi (who were Arabs) who had at least one underground gallery. The climate was mild and the soil fertile but because of the ‘lack of experience of the folk it does not receive cultivation’. The gold, Diodorus describes, comes in its natural form (primary deposit) and ‘is not fused into a mass of gold dust but is virgin gold, unfired gold’. The smallest nuggets are as ‘about as large as the stone of a fruit’ and the larger ones are not smaller than a royal nut. The gold was worn around the neck and wrist, perforated and alternated with transparent stone, and was exchanged for copper and iron in equal parts (due to the lack of these minerals in their own country).

Comments: Diodorus briefly mentions that the indigenous people of the Debae were inexperienced in mining auriferous material and would let others mine the deposits for them, though there were restrictions on who was allowed to work these veins. In the second part reference is made to the favourable climate and fertile soil as if these were criteria that signified gold could be found in the region.

Name-reference Diodorus, 3.46-47
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: (225-)31
Location of the mine Arabia, land of the Sabaeans (Arab tribe)

Description-Interpretation: This tribe inhabited Arabia the Blessed (Arabia Felix in the Roman era), described as a land of plenty. The chief city was Sabae but despite the abundance of gold the country was never invaded because of its secluded location. The gold and silver was used to emboss goblets of every description, couches and tripods with silver feet and other furnishings (gilded columns, silver figures on the capital), ceilings, doors with golden panels and coffers, all set in precious stones.

Comments: This is quite a detailed description for the use of gold when not used for warfare.

Name-reference Diodorus, 4.40-54
Modern reference Oldfather 1953: 469-527
Location of the mine mythical story, origin in Greece


40. Jason, son of Aeson, nephew through his father of Pelias, king of the Thessalians. Jason was eager to accomplish a deed worthy of memory. He saw how in previous times men gained glory from campaigns waged in foreign lands and the hazards attending the labours they had performed; ‘He was eager to follow the examples they had set.’ He received approval of the king who, secretly, hoped that he would lose his life as the king himself had no male children of his own. The king feared that his brother, who had two sons, would make an attempt on the throne. Therefore he urged Jason to sail to Colchis and retrieve the famed ‘golden-fleeced skin of the ram’ as the people living there were hostile to strangers. Jason accepted the request and Heracles decided to join him on his expedition. 41. Jason had himself built a large and well-equipped ship near Mount Pelion. Many were eager to join and Jason picked 54 men, with him as the leader. The vessel was named Argo after Argus, the master builder of the ship who was also part of the crew, in order to make repairs as and when required. The crew chose Heracles as their general as they preferred him over Jason for his courage.

42. They sailed from Ioclus, Athos and Samothrace to Sigeium in the Troad, where they found ‘a maiden bound in chains upon the shore’. Laomedon, king of Troy, had angered Poseidon, who had unleashed a monster upon the city as a response. The oracle of Apollo advised to offer one of their children to the monster to be freed from his terror. Hesionê was chosen. Heracles heard of this story and unchained her; he went to the king and offered to slay the monster. As reward he was to be given Hesionê. So he did.

43. During the next part of their journey they were caught in a storm at sea. Shortly they arrived at Thrace, a kingdom ruled by Phineus. He had his sons locked up and tortured under false allegations from his second wife, who was their stepmother. The sons asked the Argonauts for help.

44. But the king would not allow them to intervene, though they still rescued the sons. The king and his people began battle with the Argonauts but were killed by Heracles. The sons were restored to the throne. Here Diodorus refers to the faiths of the princes given by various writers. The sons gave their kingdom to their own mother and joined the Argonauts on their expedition. Next they entered the Pontus and Tauric Chersonese who were a very barbaric people (they sacrificed strangers to Artemis Tauropolus).

45. Here Diodorus briefly discusses why these people slayed every stranger arriving on their shores. Helios had two sons, Aeëtes – king of Colchis – and Perses – king of Tauric Chersonese, whose daughter was the cruellest of the three siblings and eventually killed her father so she could succeed [him] to the throne; she was very skilled in poisons and hunting strangers. She married Aeëtes and had two daughters, Circê and Medea, and one son, Aegialus.

46. Medea learned about the powers of poisons but refused to use them to harm others. She would rescue strangers who were captured and bring them to safety. She was found by the Argonauts in the sacred precinct of Helius where she had fled from her father. Medea informed the Argonauts of the habits of her people and the dangers they were facing. They agreed to cooperate and Jason promised to marry her. At night they set off to find the Golden Fleece. In the next paragraph Diodorus gives an account of how the Golden Fleece of the ram was created.

47. Phrixus, son of Athamas, fled from Greece with his sister Hellê, as their stepmother plotted against them. When crossing from Europe to Asia on the back of a ram, whose fleece was of gold, his sister fell and drowned in the sea (which is now named Hellespont after her). Phrixus continued to Pontus, then to Colchis where he sacrificed the ram, according to the oracle, and hung it up as an offer in the temple of Ares. The oracle stated that Aeëtes, king of Colchis, would die should strangers take away the fleece. Since then every stranger landing on these shores was captured and sacrificed so no one would ever be able to take the fleece. Many monstrous myths about the guard of the fleece were spread by the Greeks once this was known to the world.

48. Medea led the way to the sacred precinct of Ares and upon entering the guards were killed. The Argonauts were then able to take the fleece and return to their skip while Medea poisoned the dragon guard. Some of the guards, however, managed to escape the onslaught and informed their king of the attack. A battle ensued and the king was killed.

49. The Argonauts returned home and along the road landed at Pontus and Byzas (later the city of Byzantium) where they set up altars and made sacrifices to the gods. They continued their journey to Propontis and Hellespont to land at the Troad where they picked up Hesionê. The king refused and threw the two crew men in prison and set up an ambush to capture the rest of the crew. Priam, son of king Laomedon, opposed and when the king failed to comply he freed them himself. Another battle ensued once the Argonauts were told of the king’s plans. Heracles killed the king and made Priam ruler. The Argonauts continued their journey to Samothrace where they set up another sacred precinct.

50. The king of Thessaly heard the rumour that Jason and his crew had perished in the region of the Pontus. Pelias felt he was now free to eliminate those ‘who were waiting for the throne’, (i.e. Jason’s family). His mother was able to flee and put a curse on the king before she committed suicide. That night Jason arrived in the kingdom where he was told of the fate of his family. The Argonauts stood behind him but could not agree on how to proceed. Medea offered to use her skills with poison to kill the king.

51–52. Upon his death Jason and the Argonauts entered the city and palace. Once the daughters realised the trickery used by Medea and their role in their father’s death Jason took pity on them and spared their lives.

53–54. Jason defended his actions to the people as vengeance for the murder of his family. Pelias, son of Acastus, was given the throne and his daughters were found suitable husbands. Jason himself became a citizen of Corinth. The crew was then disbanded.

Comments: Diodorus is one of two classical authors who published this story; the other is Strabo (11.4.8). The story was probably used to explain the origin of the fleece (see Strabo, 11.2.19).

Name-reference Diodorus, 5.27
Modern reference Oldfather 1993: 167-69
Location of the mine Gaul

Description-Interpretation: ‘Throughout Gaul … there are great quantities [of gold], which Nature provides for the inhabitants without their having to mine for it or to undergo any hardship.’ Diodorus then goes on to describe how the rivers meander through the landscape and how its fast current eats away the banks (sediment) that happen to be full of gold dust. The gold was used to make bracelets, necklaces of solid gold (Gallic torque), rings and corselets, and was used in dedications to theirs gods. The auriferous sediments contained both great pieces and gold dust, which was collected by the indigenous people who were professionals in mining and refining the gold. They washed them in the water, ground or crushed the gold-bearing lumps and smelted the remains in the furnaces. This way the local population was able to amass a great amount of gold used for ornaments (male and female) and deposits for their temple.

Comments: There is a brief description on how eroded gold particles were collected from river sediments (alluvial or placer gold) and refined. The description also mentions the fact that the gold recovered was pure, without impurities, which was typical for alluvial (secondary) deposits, and how it was used for personal adornment and religious activities.

Name-reference Diodorus, 5.36-38
Modern reference Oldfather 1993: 195-203
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: 36. The indigenous people working the silver mines are giving them great revenues. The mines contain gold, silver and copper; the local population dig up one quarter of all the copper and unskilled workers dig up the silver ore (silver dust). This also gives them great wealth. When the Romans conquered Iberia, they brought Italians with them to mine the ore and tool all the wealth. They used slaves who dug the shafts, underground galleries and tunnels. It was their greed that drove them to go to great depths, Diodorus explains.

37. Then a quick comparison is made with Attica (silver mine of Laurium) whose people claimed to be experts in digging deep, for which they required ‘large sums for the undertaking’, but Diodorus states they were not always successful in finding ore when compared with Iberia. Diodorus then returns to his description of the Iberian gold and silver mines and their ‘tangled network of veins which wind in many ways’. He describes the mines going so deep that they were threatened with flooding by underground rivers. Luckily they had the Archimedean screw to divert or pump out the water.

38. In this section, Diodorus describes the use of slaves as mine labour and their wretched working conditions. ‘For no respite or pause is granted them in their labours but are compelled by the blows of overseers. Indeed death in their eyes is more to be desired than life’. He finishes this paragraph by saying that the Iberian mines were not newly discovered ores but had already been mined by the Carthaginians, who used their revenues to finance wars with the Romans, Silicians and Libyans.

Comments: Gold, silver and copper are natural alloys but do not automatically occur in gold mines. Diodorus describes skilled and unskilled workers (36). The first reference to non-indigenous people who came to the region to mine the deposits is to Romans who conquered the region for its precious mineral. There are also references to other unskilled workers but who they were is unclear. Maybe they were the local population who did not have experience but came to work there when the Romans arrived and because local job opportunity was non-existent. Diodorus could also have been referring to slaves (38). Diodorus makes it clear that the Romans were well organised but were driven by greed – an unpleasant observation that he makes not for first time (46.1–4). Other classical writers such as Strabo (4.6.7) and Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21 and Naturalis Historia XXXVII.74) also suggest in their descriptions of mining districts in the Empire that the Romans had a high demand for gold. Whether this implies a hidden reproach or just an observation on the writers’ part is open to interpretation but it does explain the Romans’ intense way of working. For more on the Archimedean or Egyptian screw, as referred to in the text, see Bienkowski, who describes a screw kept at the Museum of Liverpool (37).[15] The use of slaves for mining and their appalling working conditions sound similar to the description of an underground mine in the Eastern Desert of Egypt given by Agatharchidus through Diodorus (3.12–14), and Photius (5.59–66), though they use terms such as condemnati – criminals and prisoners of war (38).

Name-reference Diodorus, 5.46.1-4
Modern reference Oldfather 1993: 227
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: Panchaea was inhabited by the Cretans who were brought there by Zeus when he still lived among men. The land had various gold, silver, copper, tin and iron mines but none of the minerals was allowed to leave the island. The gold was offered to the gods and in time the temples amassed great wealth: doorways of silver, gold and ivory, couches and tables for the gods in gold, and a large gold stele with hieroglyphs.

Comments: This is another example of the use of gold other than for financing wars. It is interesting to note that precious minerals and objects were not allowed to leave the region. Was this to prevent outsiders (or Rome) from realizing their wealth, allowing them to keep it for themselves?

Name-reference Diodorus, 5.74
Modern reference Oldfather 1993: 297-301
Location of the mine -

Description-Interpretation: Hephaestus was the discoverer of every manner of working iron, copper, gold, silver, and everything that required fire for working. He is also acclaimed for having discovered other uses for fire which he gave to humans. Skilled workers therefore called their fire Hephaestus and offered him prayers and sacrifices.

Comments: Only classical writers clearly reference a deity associated with gold, and more precisely with the refining of this precious metal. Here he is mentioned by name, though Pliny (Naturalis Historia XXXIII. 4.12) only refers to him as the ‘god of handicraft’. There is not much known on gods associated with mining as it seems that the miners worshipped their own house gods. Min and Pan are two names for the same god and are linked with miners and travelers in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. A shrine or temple dedicated to him has not yet been found. The name of Min is known from a stele on which he is depicted as an ithyphallic deity, as well as from a few inscriptions in the Eastern Desert.[16]

Name-reference Diodorus, 11.70
Modern reference Oldfather 1956: 307
Location of the mine Greece, fourth century BC

Description-Interpretation: ‘The mines of Mount Pangaeus [now Pirnari] on the mainland yielded both gold and silver. The seizure of these mines by Philip of Macedonia in 35 BC, from which he eventually derived an income of 1,000 talents a year, laid the financial basis for the rise of Macedonia to supreme power in Greece’. In the previous century (484BC) the Thasiaus had already revolted from Athens following a quarrel over (gold) mines but were forced to capitulate.

Comments: On both occasions the mines seem to have been the cause of the conflict and its revenue was used to finance wars.

Name-reference Diodorus, 16.3
Modern reference Sherman 1952: 241 (footnote 31)
Location of the mine Greece

Description-Interpretation: This region was economically blessed as it had mines and forest produce; the latter was used for shipbuilding.

Comments: This is another of Diodorus’ comments on the fertility of the region (3.45). It would be interesting to find out if they used the wood for the furnaces as well.

Name-reference Diodorus, 17.71
Modern reference Wells 1963: 321
Location of the mine Persepolis, fourth-third century BC

Description-Interpretation: Diodorus reports that the usual ratio of gold to silver was 12 or 15 to 1; at the time of Persian rule in 330–291BC, gold was estimated in terms of silver.

Comments: In the past gold was considered valuable as it represented personal, imperial and religious power, but silver was the metal used to barter for goods and gold. It was only with the start of the Roman era that gold was used as a currency.

Name-reference Diodorus, 31.8
Modern reference Walton 1968: 323-33 (329)
Location of the mine Macedonia

Description-Interpretation: In this long passage Diodorus describes how Rome behaves magnanimously towards the conquered Macedonians and Illyrians in the second century BC. Both countries were to be ‘set free again’ providing they pay tribute to Rome. Both had to pay Rome ‘half of the amount they formerly paid their own kings in taxes. The Romans cut off the revenues derived from the gold and silver mines, partly to keep the local inhabitants from being oppressed and partly to prevent anyone from stirring up a revolution... by using this wealth to get control of Macedonia.’ Further in the text Diodorus mentions items as part of tributes paid to Rome: weapons, objects in gold and silver, money (coins), drinking cups and other gold-decorated objects, such as gilded cutlery mainly made with precious metals.

Comments: Diodorus describes the tactics the Romans used to pacify the newly conquered districts while at the same time making profits without any physical exertion on their part. They let the indigenous population work their own mines but demanded part of their revenue, cleverly stating that their own kings would have demanded much more. The tribute described contained the usual items, though for regions with their own mines they had more items made with precious metals.

Name-reference Diodorus, 31.26
Modern reference Walton 1968: 377
Location of the mine Rome

Description-Interpretation: Aemillius is said to have brought a lot of gold as part of his tribute from Spain to Rome, and makes it clear that it was more than the army as a counterpart.

Comments: Another description of gold used as part of tributes (31.8).

Name-reference Diodorus, 31.26
Modern reference Walton 1968: 377
Location of the mine Rome

Description-Interpretation: ‘Of metals, in fact, the whole country of the Iberians is full, although it is not equally fertile and flourishing throughout, especially in those parts where the metal most abounds.’ He reports that the metals were only found in ‘small territories’ and near fertile land, and that they also seemed to occur in Turdetania and surrounding districts. Gold was dug from primary deposits ‘dug from the mines’, and alluvial ‘likewise collected’. He continues to describe that (1) gold derived from panning the rivers was washed in artificially constructed areas next to the same river. ‘The mines in the Cemmenus Mountains [mod. Cevennes] and on the side of the Pyrenees are superior but most people prefer those on this side [Iberian side]. Nuggets were found to be weighing ½ pound [palae] and needed little refining. Splitting open stones produced little lumps.’ And (2) when melting gold, and purifying by means of aluminous earth, its residue is electrum, a mixture of gold and silver. Gold is separated by ‘subjecting it to fire’ to create pure gold as the end product. ‘The fire was made with straw to give a soft flame, as coal causes gold to smelt too fast and could therefore evaporate.’

Comments: Jones translates it as chaff-free, while Hamilton and Falconer use the word ‘straw’. Diodorus (3.14) describes the use of lead, salt and tin, and barley bran to purify the gold dust. Panning river sediments is one of the oldest techniques used to collect secondary gold; it is in these deposits that nuggets are usually found. When gold requires melting it comes from primary deposits found imbedded in the vein.

Strabo describes both the primary (veins) and secondary deposits (sediments, alluvial gold, and eroding, outcropping veins). This description shows that mining was already well established in the region when the Romans took possession of the gold mines during the imperial period. The technique described for the collection, cleaning and refining of gold particles is still very much the same as used in the modern mining industry. Today, however, there are less secondary deposits, apart from newly discovered sites that were not accessible to the Romans, such as in Ireland and the New World many centuries later.[17]


Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 3.2.8
Modern reference Jones 1949: 39-43, 219-220; Hamilton, Falconer 1912: 39-43
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: ‘Of metals, in fact, the whole country of the Iberians is full, although it is not equally fertile and flourishing throughout, especially in those parts where the metal most abounds.’ He reports that the metals were only found in ‘small territories’ and near fertile land, and that they also seemed to occur in Turdetania and surrounding districts. Gold was dug from primary deposits ‘dug from the mines’, and alluvial ‘likewise collected’. He continues to describe that (1) gold derived from panning the rivers was washed in artificially constructed areas next to the same river. ‘The mines in the Cemmenus Mountains [mod. Cevennes] and on the side of the Pyrenees are superior but most people prefer those on this side [Iberian side]. Nuggets were found to be weighing ½ pound [palae] and needed little refining. Splitting open stones produced little lumps.’ And (2) when melting gold, and purifying by means of aluminous earth, its residue is electrum, a mixture of gold and silver. Gold is separated by ‘subjecting it to fire’ to create pure gold as the end product. ‘The fire was made with straw to give a soft flame, as coal causes gold to smelt too fast and could therefore evaporate.’

Comments: Jones translates it as chaff-free, while Hamilton and Falconer use the word ‘straw’. Diodorus (3.14) describes the use of lead, salt and tin, and barley bran to purify the gold dust. Panning river sediments is one of the oldest techniques used to collect secondary gold; it is in these deposits that nuggets are usually found. When gold requires melting it comes from primary deposits found imbedded in the vein.

Strabo describes both the primary (veins) and secondary deposits (sediments, alluvial gold, and eroding, outcropping veins). This description shows that mining was already well established in the region when the Romans took possession of the gold mines during the imperial period. The technique described for the collection, cleaning and refining of gold particles is still very much the same as used in the modern mining industry. Today, however, there are less secondary deposits, apart from newly discovered sites that were not accessible to the Romans, such as in Ireland and the New World many centuries later.[18]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 3.2.9
Modern reference Jones 1949: 220-222; Hamilton, Falconer 1912: 43-47
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: Strabo warns his readers not to believe Poseidonius, who writes that gold can only be obtained from setting the forest and the soil on fire to make gold and silver ‘grow’. The fires melted the earth, which in turn ‘throw the metals up to the surface. These rich subterraneous regions should be regarded as the realms of Plutus.’ Strabo is not flattering Poseidonius when he writes: ‘The flourished style, in which he speaks on this subject, that you would fancy is turgid language, has been dug from a mine itself.’ Poseidonius, in turn, speaks belligerently of the mines of Attica, in ‘that they dug with as much energy as if they thought they could grub up Plutus himself.’ Of the miners of Turdetania, he writes that they ‘are in the habit of cutting virtuous and deep tunnels’ using the Archimedean screw (or the Egyptian screw as it was known as). ‘The Turdetani make a good profit while Attica at times does not.’

Comments: Diodorus (5.37) also uses Attica for comparison purposes. The use of the Archimedean screw appears to have been well established in the mines prior to the Romans putting their mark on the mining industry. The silver mine of Laurium lies in the mining district of Attica, where extraction started around 1500BC, until about 102BC when a second revolt of the slave population brought it to an end. It appears that the deposits were still mined until the end of the first century AD though not in the same professional manner. This must have been around the period of Strabo’s comments.[19]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 3.2.10
Modern reference Jones 1949: 222; Hamilton, Falconer 1912: 47
Location of the mine Iberia, second century BC

Description-Interpretation: In this paragraph Strabo quotes the work of Polybius (second-century-BC historian), who described the silver mines of New Carthage. The mines lay 20 stadia from the city, and covered an area of 400 stadia; 40,000 miners were used, producing revenue of 15,000 drachmae per day. Breaking and washing the silver was the same process as for gold: the silver was washed through five sieves after which the dregs were smelted. Silver was no longer the property of the state at the time of Strabo and was mostly in private hands. The gold mines, however, ‘nearly all belong to the state’.

Comments: There appears to have been not much difference between gold and silver processing; the washing of silver appears to have been similar to that of gold.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 3.3.4
Modern reference Jones 1949: 67
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: Strabo describes the river Tagus as carrying great quantities of gold dust (alluvial gold).

Comments: These lines, and more below, are comments in passing on the region’s resources.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 3.4.2
Modern reference Jones 1949: 81
Location of the mine Coastal region of Iberia, Calpe

Description-Interpretation: Another comment on the presence of gold and other mines in Iberia, in the coastal region.

Comments: See comment in Strabo, 3.3.4.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 4.1.13
Modern reference Jones 1949: 203 -209
Location of the mine Pyrenees, north side of the Cemmenus

Description-Interpretation: The land of the Tectosages tribe was rich in gold, which was used for dedications to the gods. These god-fearing people threw their silver and gold in the sacred lakes, which the ‘the Romans, after they mastered the regions, sold for the public Treasury.’

Comments: This is a typical example of local practices and values interpreted by classical writers, followed by a brief view of Romans’ greed and how far they would go to obtain gold – in this case dredging it up from a sacred lake. This suggests that the Romans had no respect for local religion and beliefs where gold or gold objects were concerned.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 4.6.7
Modern reference Jones 1949: 304-305; Hamilton, Falconer 1912: 277-281
Location of the mine Alps, Italy

Description-Interpretation: ‘The country of the Salassi has gold mines also, which in former times, when the Salassi were powerful, they kept possession of, just as they were also masters of the passes [the country of the Salassi lies in a glen surrounded by mountains]. The Durias River was of the greatest aid to them in their mining – I mean, in washing the gold; and therefore, in making the water branch off to numerous places, they used to empty the common bed completely. But although this was helpful to the Salassi in their hunt for gold, it distressed the people who farmed the plains below them, because their country was deprived of irrigation; for, since its bed was on favourable ground higher up, the river could give the country water. And for these reasons both tribes [those in the plains and those in the mountain ranges] were continually at war with each other. But after the Romans got control, the Salassi were thrown out of their gold works and country; however, since they still held possession of the mountain, they sold water to the publicans who had contracted to work the gold mines, but on account of the greediness of the publicans the Salassi were always in disagreement with them too. And in this way it resulted that those Romans who from time to time wished to lead the armies and were sent to the regions in question were well provided with pretexts for war.’ (They were in the end overthrown by Augustus.)

Comments: This is an excellent example of using local resources, such as the river Durias, for mining purposes, as well as of its effect on the local landscape. This is visible at Las Médulas, NW Spain, where mining filled in the river valley. In this case, the diversion of the river had negative results for local agriculture. Strabo also explains how the Romans tried to confiscate the mines but were driven away (at first) by the cunning of the Salassi.[20]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 4.6.12
Modern reference Jones 1949: 310-311; Hamilton, Falconer 1912: 291-295
Location of the mine Taurisci

Description-Interpretation: Strabo quotes Polybius again, this time when he describes the gold mines of Aquilea and those in the countries of the Noric Taurisci, which were so rich ‘that if one scraped away the surface soil for a depth of only two feet, one found forthwith dug gold, and that the diggings were never deeper than 15 feet.’ He goes on to say that only part of the gold was pure, ‘in the sizes of a bean or lupin, when an eighth has been boiled away, and that although the rest needed more smelting, the smelting was very profitable; and that two months after the Italiotes joined them in working the mine, the price of gold suddenly became a third less throughout the whole of Italy, but when the Taurisci learned this they cast out their fellow-workers and carried on a monopoly. Now, however, all the gold mines are under the control of the Romans. And here, too, just as in Iberia, in addition to the dug gold, gold dust is brought down by the rivers, but not, however, in such quantities as there.’

Comments: Here is another of only a few descriptions of the destructive influence of the Romans’ intrusive way of mining, using local resources and the economy. In 4.6.7 Strabo describes the effects mining had on agriculture (Salassi), talking about the effects industrial mining had on the price of gold. In both regions the Romans were driven away. His terminology shows that he is not specialised in discussing mining as he describes primary gold as ‘dug gold’, and secondary gold (alluvial) as ‘gold dust’.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 4.2.1
Modern reference Jones 1949: 215
Location of the mine Aquitania

Description-Interpretation: Here Strabo comments on gold and other mines in the region of Aquitania.

Comments: See comment on Strabo, 3.3.4.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 5.1.8
Modern reference Jones 1949: 319
Location of the mine Italy, boundary of Aquilea and Heneti

Description-Interpretation: The river running along the boundary is used for transport, and ‘this region has places that are naturally well suited to gold washing and has also iron works.’

Comments: See comment on Strabo, 3.3.4. The question has to be put whether the iron works mentioned here were small workshops that provided tools for the miners. At El Castro de Orellán, Las Médulas (NW Spain), a small workshop/settlement near the outcrop of iron ore was identified, set up to provide the miners with tools to mine the gold.[21]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 5.1.12
Modern reference Jones 1949: 333
Location of the mine Vercelli and Transalpine Celtis

Description-Interpretation: The region of Vercelli had profitable gold deposits. However, they were ‘not being worked here as seriously as before, probably because of other more profitable mines in Transalpine Celtis and Iberiai.’

Comments: A reference to the increased knowledge of the mineral resources and the discovery of more economical auriferous deposits as the Romans conquer new regions.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 5.4.9
Modern reference Jones 1949: 457
Location of the mine Italy, Pithecussaes

Description-Interpretation: The region was once settled by the Eretrian and Chalcidians, and the goldmines were very prosperous.

Comments: See comment on Strabo, 3.3.4.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 7 (34)
Modern reference Jones 1954a: 355
Location of the mine Helveti, Germany

Description-Interpretation: Crenides, the city of Phillipi near Mount Panagaeum (mod. Pinnoni), had access to many goldmines.

Comments: Again, Strabo remarks on the gold deposits as part of a more detailed description of the region. See also the comments on Strabo, 3.4.2, and 5.1.12; his book 7 is only preserved in fragments and it is unclear whether there were references to gold elsewhere.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 11.2.19
Modern reference Jones 1944: 243
Location of the mine Caucasus (above Dioscurias)

Description-Interpretation: The Soanes tribe worked on the alluvial gold that was ‘carried down by the mountain torrents [and] was obtained by perforated troughs and fleecy skins’, which, according to Strabo, is the origin of the Golden Fleece.

Comments: Skins were used to separate the gold from impurities during the washing process. The auriferous quartz was crushed in mills (Diodorus, 3.13) till a powder-like substance was obtained. This was then washed in several stages over skins stretched over a sloping surface. The sand washed away and the heavier, larger gold fragments were left stuck in the skin. The wet and now ‘auriferous skin’ was replaced by a new one and the process started again. Afterwards the saturated skins were either left to dry or burned in furnaces; when the skins were dry, the gold was collected from them directly, or from ashes after they were burned.

Another technique for washing gold was the use of a plant named gors (Pliny Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21). The plant would be positioned in channels or troughs, through which the auriferous gravel/dust was flushed with water. The heavier gold particles got stuck in the plant while the dust and sand washed away. Once the gors was saturated it was then removed from the channel and dried or burned, as was done with the skins. This is visible in the gold mines of Las Médulas, NW Spain, and Dolaucothi, S Wales, UK. The use of water in combination with skins or gors was mainly used in western Roman provinces as there was plenty of water and the plant was local. Diodorus (3.14) describes the use of sloping tables over which water was poured. The water collected in a basin at the bottom and was re-used until it ran clear. Unfortunately, he does not describe the material of the table top. Archaeological evidence of stone washing tables has been unearthed but if they had organic table tops these have long since disappeared.[22] It has been suggested that this table top was made of either wood or had skins stretched over it.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 11.4.8
Modern reference Jones 1944: 231-291
Location of the mine Caucasus (above Dioscurias)

Description-Interpretation: The same story is given by Diodorus Siculus, 4.40–54.

Comments: None.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 11.14.8
Modern reference Jones 1944: 329
Location of the mine Iberia

Description-Interpretation: Memnon was sent to the goldmines of Suspiritis near Catella by Alexander the Great.

Comments: It is unclear from this quote, and from further in the text, whether he was banished to the mines for a crime or for political reasons, or whether he was sent in an administrative or military capacity. Evidence has been uncovered that, during the Roman period, centurions were seconded to imperial quarries by their emperor to assist in their organization and administration.[23]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 13.1.23, 13.4.5, 14.5.
Modern reference Jones 1950: 45, 173, 369
Location of the mine Astura, near Abydos

Description-Interpretation: The territory of the Abydeni was a rich and independent city with goldmines, but the mines were by now exhausted and the city lay in ruins. A similar occurrence happened to the mines on Mount Tmolus, near the Pactolus River. This river was once rich with alluvial gold dust, ‘whence, it is said arose the fame of the riches of Croesus and his forefathers. But [by Strabo’s time] the gold dust has given out.’

Comments: This is another brief reference on how mining districts became populated and depopulated in accordance with the presence (and availability) of gold.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 15.1.30
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 53
Location of the mine India

Description-Interpretation: Strabo mentions a specialist, ‘Gorgus of Eretria the mining expert (metalleutes)’, who accompanied Alexander the Great to India. He writes that the Indians were inexperienced (compared to the Romans) in mining and smelting and were unaware of the value of their resources. The Indians appeared to be ‘handling the gold-mining industry in a simple manner.’

Comments: This is a unique reference to a skilled man, by name. Diodorus (3.12–14) mentions a geologist or surveyor (who pointed out where the miners had to dig) and a cook (who smelted the gold).

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 15.1.34
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 61
Location of the mine India, country of the Musicanus

Description-Interpretation: Strabo describes this country and maintains the people living there could reach over 130 years old. They had access to gold and silver mining but never used it.

Comments: This is probably a combination of myth (130+ years old) and fact (presence of gold mines). Are they related?

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 15.1.37, 44, 69; 16.4.15
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 65, 75-77, 121, 335
Location of the mine India

Description-Interpretation: Strabo describes ants that mine gold, ‘imaginary creatures, sometimes called “antlion”, with the foreparts of a lion and the hind parts of an ant... smaller than a dog, larger than a fox.’ In 15.1.44 he quotes Nearchus on the description of their skin: ‘Their skin is like that of leopards.’ His quote from Megastenes is about how they lured the ants away with pieces of meat from wild beasts so the ants would not pursue the thieves and kill them (for taking the gold). He places the ants (and mines) in the Mountains of India on a plateau, approximately 3,000 stadia in circumference. These ants dug holes during the winter. The soil appears to have been auriferous and soft, and their holes looked like mole heaps. The gold dust was fairly pure and needed little smelting. But, states Megasthenes, the ‘human thieves are unaware and sell the gold dust unwrought to the traders.’ In book 15.1.69, Strabo states that the ‘ants that dig gold have wings’, and in book 16.4.15 that ‘the ants are called lions and have their genitalia reversed; they are gold in colour though not as hairy as those in Arabia.’

Comments: The ants were first described by Herodotus in the fifth century BC, who reports hearing the story from a Persian man (3.102–05). Strabo quotes at least two other writers as sources for his description on gold-digging ants but does not make it clear if he believes them. Later classical writers appeared to be filtering many stories and only used what they believed were technical descriptions. However, over time these stories become more colourful, and the ants became fiercer in Strabo’s description. It is suggested by classical writers that these ants dug up the gold and then protected it by attacking the humans who tried to steal it from them, implying that the animal valued the ore. It seems that the ants were merely protecting their nest which happened to be dug in an alluvial deposit.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 15.1.57
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 97
Location of the mine India, Hyperborea

Description-Interpretation: Strabo admits that he does not always believe Megastenes, but is accurate when he describes the rivers coming from the mountains carrying alluvial gold. Part of this gold was used to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, as was also done in Iberia.

Comments: Later classical writers seemed to be aware that older writers were not always precise in their descriptions of certain regions. See also comments on Strabo, 3.3.4.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 16.4.18
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 345-349
Location of the mine Arabia, Straits of the Arabian Gulf

Description-Interpretation: Strabo describes the country of the Debae, where the river carried gold dust but the local population were farmers and nomads who lacked the expertise to process alluvial gold. The neighbours, who appeared to be more civilised, lived in a temperate climate with enough rain to use water as a means to extract the gold (i.e. they had the knowledge to process the mineral). The gold found in the river sediment came in the shape of nuggets that did not require purification. The smallest had the size of a fruit stone; the medium nuggets were about the size of a meddler and the largest that of a walnut. The Debae made bracelets and necklaces by perforating the nuggets and combining them on a string with transparent stones. They sold these to their neighbours in exchange for three times the quantity of brass and twice the quantity of silver. Strabo states that the Debae considered silver ‘more important for the necessities of life.’

Comments: A similar description of the measurements of nuggets, and on the inexperience of the local population in mining (3.45), can be found in Diodorus (2.50) (also on the Debae). This is further evidence that silver was used to barter for gold (Diodorus, 17.71).

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 16.4.19-20
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 349-351
Location of the mine Arabia, Straits of the Arabian Gulf

Description-Interpretation: The territories of the Sabaeans and Gerrhaeans were very rich in gold and silver ‘as their land is fertile.’ The gold was used to make objects, such as couches, tripods, bowls and houses (the ceilings were variegated with ivory and silver and set with precious stones).

Comments: Strabo is just one of many who describe the use of gold for personal and religious adornment. Other references are from Diodorus, 3.46–47 (on the Sabaeans), Diodorus, 5.46.1–4 (on the Panchaea, Iberia), Strabo, 4.1.13 (on the tribe of the Tectosages, Pyrenees) and Strabo, 17.2.2-3 (on the Meroë, Aethipia). This is another (potential) reference to the fact that gold can only be found in fertile soil.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 17.1.45
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 260-261
Location of the mine Red Sea, Egyptian coast

Description-Interpretation: On the isthmus, extending to the Red Sea near Berenice, mines were found holding emerald and other precious stones. This was discovered by the Arabians who dug deep subterranean passages.

Comments: This refers to the region around Berenice (Berenike), the Ptolemaic-Roman harbour along the Red Sea, SE Egypt (Lat 23˚54.62’N/Long 35˚28.42’E). Sidebotham, who is currently excavating Berenike and surveying its hinterland, refers to various gold and emerald mines along the desert roads that were either in use or newly opened at the time of the Roman occupation.[24] What Strabo suggests with ‘subterranean passages’ is unclear, but it might refer to Sokari, a large sub-surface mine along the Berenike–Edfu road.[25]

Name-reference Strabo, Geography, 17.2.2-3
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 143-147
Location of the mine Island of Meroe, Aethiopa

Description-Interpretation: Strabo copied Diodorus’ description of copper, iron, gold and precious stones from mines on the island of Meroë (Aethipia) and described the local population as farmers and hunters. The region is mountainous and the Meroans had decorated their temple with a golden shrine.

Comments: See comment on Strabo, 3.3.4.

Name-reference Strabo, Geography 17.37.7
Modern reference Jones 1954b: 167
Location of the mine Lybia

Description-Interpretation: The Maurusians were nomads who ‘beautified their appearance by means of golden ornaments and cleaned their teeth.’

Comments: Strabo comments on the peculiar habits and attitudes of local populations towards gold. See also Strabo, 17.2.2–3.

Pliny the Elder

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia III.3, IV.20
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 25, 207
Location of the mine Hither Spain, nearly the entirety of Spain

Description-Interpretation: Pliny maintained that ‘the whole district from the Pyrenees onwards’ – nearly the whole of Spain – contained gold, iron, lead, copper and silver mines.

Comments: Pliny was procurator on the Iberian Peninsula. See also Diodorus, 5.36-38, and Strabo, 3.2.8, 3.2.10, 3.3.4, 11.14.8.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.12
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 361
Location of the mine Caucassus Pass, among the Gurdinian Mountaines

Description-Interpretation: Pliny describes this region as ‘beyond the gates of the Caucassus’. He states that the gold mines were worked by the Valli and the Suari and that the region was ‘one of the most famous in the world’.

Comments: Pliny often discusses gold and other mines while describing the landscape of the regions he has visited.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.22
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 589
Location of the mine India, Ganges and adjacent regions

Description-Interpretation: The country of the Dardae, Setae, produced gold in great quantities as well as silver.

Comments: Here again, Pliny refers to the presence of gold and other mines while describing the area. The fact that silver is still being mentioned indicates that even with gold in circulation as currency silver retained a certain (monetary) value.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.23
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 395
Location of the mine India, beyond the Indus

Description-Interpretation: The Narae on the other side of the Capitalia Range (highest mountain in India) also have gold and silver mines.

Comments: See comment on Pliny, Naturalis Historia VI.22.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.24
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 399, 405
Location of the mine Indian Islands, Chyse and Argyre at the mouth of the Indus

Description-Interpretation: The popular name for the inhabitants of these islands, according to Pliny, was ‘Aborgines’. They had gold and silver mines, though these were rivalled by Ceylon which had more gold and larger pearls.

Comments: See comment on Pliny Naturalis Historia VI.22; he now quotes Megasthenes.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.24
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 399, 405
Location of the mine Indian Islands, Chyse and Argyre at the mouth of the Indus

Description-Interpretation: Pliny makes it clear this quote comes from Onesicritus’ travel accounts. In a passing comment made during the voyage of Nearchus and Onesicritus from India to Faristan with Alexander’s fleet, he mentions that the Carmanita River Hyctanis produces [alluvial] gold.

Comments: See comment on Pliny Naturalis Historia VI.22.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.32
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 459-461
Location of the mine Persian Gulf, Arabian side (first century BC)

Description-Interpretation: Pliny describes Arabia at the time when Aelius Gallus (AD24) was prefect of Egypt, including the people, animals and life of the nomads (dietary and wine production). He also mentions the Sabari, who were wealthy thanks to their thick fertile forest, goldmines, rich agriculture, honey and wax. They were rich because they ‘sell their produce to Rome and Parthia but do not buy anything in return’.

Comments: See comment on Pliny Naturalis Historia VI.22. It appears that the Sabari were well aware of the high demand of Rome for gold, but had different material needs themselves.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.34
Modern reference Rackham 1947: 465
Location of the mine Egypt, Nubia (N Sudan)

Description-Interpretation: Here Pliny talks about the Troglodytes of Egypt and the gold region of Wadi Allaqi (S Egypt/N Sudan). There are two Berenices, Berenice-All-Golden in the locality of Wadi Allaqi (N Sudan), and Berenice (S Egypt), a Ptolemaic-Roman harbour along the Red Sea coast.

Comments: The region of Wadi Allaqi is well known for its gold-mining settlements. The deposits have been mined since prehistoric times until well into the Arab occupation of Egypt. The region has been studied by many modern scientists.[26] The harbour of Berenike is still being excavated by Sidebotham.[27] See also Strabo, 17.1.45.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.4.12
Modern reference Rackham 2003: 11
Location of the mine -

Description-Interpretation: Pliny describes the values the Romans had towards gold jewellery and mentions the ‘gold of handicraft... brooches and other articles of feminine finery like earrings’.

Comments: The Romans liked their luxury items, and jewellery became even more popular once gold and other precious minerals were mined on an industrial scale and became easier [and cheaper] to obtain.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia VI.35
Modern reference Rackham 2003: 479-485
Location of the mine Egypt, Arabian side of the Nile (Eastern Desert of Egypt)

Description-Interpretation: The Red Sea Coast of Egypt runs from Meroë to Napata; Pliny mentions Aethiopia, the Nile Valley and Meroë. These regions could be travelled very easily as there were many pockets of rainwater stored for travellers and, in passing; he also briefly mentions that the region contained a large amount of gold.    

Comments: It seems from this paragraph that travelling the desert might have been easier then than it is now as there was plenty of water available. Or it could be referring to the many praesidia and hydreumata that provided water for travellers, mine and quarry workers and settlers in the region.[28] There are still some wells left but probably only a fraction of what was once available to the Romans.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21
Modern reference Rackham 1968: 51-61
Location of the mine western Roman provinces (generic desciption)

Description-Interpretation: In this long paragraph Pliny describes how both primary and secondary auriferous deposits were excavated and gives examples of where specific technique were used in his time. From the opening paragraph it is clear that Pliny did not believe in the story of the gold-digging ants: ‘Gold in our part of the world, not to speak of the Indian gold obtained from ants or the gold dug up by griffins in Scythia ….’ This indicates his interest in the facts and technology of mining. He describes three techniques to obtain gold: the first method is collecting the ‘detritus of rivers’, for which he gives the locations of mines in Tagus (Spain), Po (Italy), Maritza (Thrace), Sarabat (Asia Minor) and Ganges (India). The gold found in this manner is ‘thoroughly polished by the mere friction of the current’.

People seeking gold begin by getting up segellum – that is, the name for earth that indicates the presence of gold. This is a pocket of sand, which is washed, and from the sediment left behind an estimate of the veins is made. Sometimes by a rare piece of luck a pocket is found immediately, on the surface of the earth, as occurred recently in Dalmatia when Nero was emperor, one yielding 50 pounds in weight of gold a day (AD 54–68). Gold found in this way in the surface crust is called talutium if there is also auriferous earth underneath. The otherwise dry, barren mountains of the Spanish provinces which produce nothing else are forced into fertility by the community. Photius (64–65) speaks of the selangei, gold washers.[1] This is still the same form of prospecting used in modern days. A potential reference to the satellite sites set up by the Romans to provide the miners with tools and food. ‘Barren mountains’ meant barren of gold

A second method involved ‘sinking shafts’ in auriferous primary deposits ‘in the fallen debris of mountains’.

Gold dug up from shafts is called channelled or trenched gold; it is found sticking to the grit of marble, not in the way in which it gleams in the lapis lazuli of the East and the stone of Thebes and in other precious stones, but sparkling in the folds of marble. These channels of veins wander to and fro along the sides of shafts, which give the gold its name; and the earth is held by wooden props. The substance dug out is crushed, washed, fired and ground to a soft powder. The powder from the mortar is called the scudes and the silver that comes out from the furnace the sweat; the dirt thrown out of the smelting furnace as in the case of every metal is called scoria, slag. In the case of gold the scoria is pounded and fired a second time; the crucibles for this are made of tasconium, which is white earth resembling clay. No other earth can stand the blast of air, fire, or the intensively hot material [that held the metal]. Diodorus (3.12) also describes the stone as ‘marble’, primary deposit. Procedure for refining gold and silver (both seem to have been done in a similar manner)

The third method describes the sub-surface galleries, the primary deposits, with tunnels running over long distances under the mountains and mined by the light of oil lamps. Pliny remarks in a footnote that the length of time spent in a mine was determined by the ration of a lamp oil.

The third method will have outdone the achievements of the Giants. The name for this class of mines is arrugiae; cracks give way suddenly and crush the men who have been at work, so that it actually seems less venturesome to try to get pearls and purple fishes out of the depth of the sea – so much more dangerous have we made the earth! Consequently arches have been left at frequent intervals to support the weight of the mountain above. In both kinds of mining, masses of flint are encountered, which are burst asunder by means of fire and vinegar, though more often, as this method makes the tunnels suffocating through heat and smoke, they are broken to pieces with crushing machines carrying 150 lbs of iron, and the men carry the stuff on their shoulders, working night and day, each man passing them on to the next man in the dark, while only those at the end of the line see daylight. If the bed of flint seems too long, the miner follows along it and goes around it. And yet flint is considered comparatively easy work, as there is a kind of earth consisting of a sort of potter’s clay mixed with gravel, called gangadia, which it is almost impossible to overcome. Sub-surface mining, pillars of the veins support the roof. Fire setting to break or crack it sufficiently to break the vein. Diodorus (3.13) and Photius (62-63) describe children used to carry the stones to the surface.

They attack it with iron wedges and the hammer machines mentioned above; and it is thought to be the hardest thing that exists, except greed for gold, which is the most stubborn of all things. When the work is completely finished, beginning with the last, they cut through, at the tops, the supports of the arched roofs. A crack gives warning of a crash, and the only person who notices it is the sentinel on a pinnacle of the mountain. He, by shout and gesture, gives the order for the workmen to be called out, and himself at the same moment fled down from his pinnacle. The fractured mountain falls asunder in a wide gap, with a crash which it is impossible for human imagination to conceive, and likewise with an incredibly violent blast of air. The miners gaze as conquerors upon the collapse of Nature. And nevertheless, even now, there is no gold so far, nor did they know for certain there was any when they began digging; the mere hope of obtaining the coveted material was sufficient inducement for encountering such great dangers and expense. Use of metal tools. Reference to Roman greed, as mentioned before by other classical writers. The destruction of large parts of the deposit so they could reach the auriferous veins. If done manually this would take a much longer time. Ruinea montium, where water tanks were breached to create high velocity ‘waterfalls’. The water ran into various manmade tunnels dug inside the deposit.[2]

Another equally laborious task involving even greater expense is the incidental operation of previously bringing streams along mountain heights, frequently over a distance of 100 miles for the purpose of washing away debris of the collapse [see above, the collapse of an exhausted mine]; the channels made for this purpose are called corrugi, a term derived, I believe, from conrivatio, a uniting of streams of water. This also involves a thousand tasks; the dip of the fall must be steep, to cause a rush rather than a flow of water, and consequently it is brought from very high altitudes. Gorges and crevasses are bridged by aquaducts carried on masonry; at other places impassable rocks are hewn away and compelled to provide a position for hollowed troughs of timber. The workman hewing the rocks are suspended with ropes, so that spectators viewing the operations from a distance seem to see not so much a swarm of strange animals as a flight of birds. In the majority of cases they hang suspended in this way while taking the levels and marking out the lines for the route, and rivers are led by man’s agency to run where there is no place for a man to plant his footsteps. It spoils the operation of washing if the current of the stream carries mud along with it; an earthy sediment of this kind if called urium. Consequently, they guide the flow over flint stones and pebbles, and avoid urium. At the head of the waterfall, on the brow of the mountains, reservoirs are excavated measuring 200ft each way and 10ft deep. In these there are left five sluices with apertures measuring about a yard each way, in order that when the reservoir is full the stopping barriers may be struck away and the torrent may burst out with such velocity as sweeping forward the broken rock. This is yet another task to perform on level ground. Trenches are excavated for the water to flow through – the Greek name for them means leads; and these, which descend by steps, are floored with gorse – this is plant resembles rosemary, which is rough and holds back the gold – and the channels are carried on arches over steep pitches. Thus the earth carried along in the stream slides down into the sea, and owing to these causes the land of Spain encroaches a long way into the sea. The material drowned out at such enormous labour in the former kind of mining so as not to fill up the shafts, is in this latter process washed out. Hushing was used to break down the alluvial deposits – a highly technical engineering project for which it is thought the army was required because of their experience in building hydraulic installations. See appendix A on Las Médulas and Dolaucothi). When cutting leats out of the bedrock of the hills, the slope had to be just right so not to create stagnant water.

The gold obtained by means of an arrugia does not have to be melted, but is pure gold straight away. In this process nuggets are found, and also in the shafts, weighing more than 10 pounds. They are called palagae, or else palcurnae, and the gold in very small grains, baluce. The gorse is dried and burned and its ash is washed on a bed of grassy turf so that the gold is deposited on it. According to some accounts, Asturia and Callaecia and Lusitania produced in this way 20,000lbs in weight of gold a year, Asturia supplying the largest amount. Nor has there been in any other part of the world such a continuous production of gold for so many centuries. We have stated that by an old prohibiting decree of the senate, Italy is protected from exploitation; otherwise no country would have been more productive in metals, as well as in crops. There is extant a ruling of the censors relating to the gold mines of Victumulae in the territory of the Vercellae, which prohibited the farmers in receipt of public revenue from having more than 5,000 men engaged in the work. Use of gorse to separate the gold from the soil; see Strabo (11.2.19), See appendix A on Las Médulas and Dolaucothi; at Las Médulas the river got filled up and a lake was created. Lex sensorial restricted the number of people working at the mine by 5,000.[3]

Comments: Some modern writers describe Pliny as the ultimate source on mining in the classical world, though not all scholars agree.[4] The first method Pliny describes is panning for gold in the (fast) currents of local rivers, usually those coming down from the mountains. After collecting nuggets from the surface (dried-out river bed), this is the second oldest technique of prospecting for gold and is still widely used in rivers all over the world. Panning the gold particles in rivers sometimes leads to the outcropping vein located further upstream.

The second method he describes is open-cast mining (primary deposits) and hushing of alluvial or secondary deposits. The open-cast technique consists of digging trenches following veins along the surface. This practice was used nearly exclusively in Wadi Bakariya and Wadi Daghbag, Eastern Desert of Egypt (Chapter 6, Appendix A.2.). The deposits are usually shallow, though some sections go deeper underground; the description used by Pliny is ‘sinking shafts’.

The method known as hushing, which was used at Las Médulas, NW Spain, and Dolaucothi, S Wales (Appendix A.4.), was more complex and specialised. It required the continuous availability of large quantities of water, so was not applicable for desert areas such as in Egypt. Water was brought to tanks built on top of the sedimentary deposits via leats and canals from the river, which were dug out of the hill slopes. Once they were full the tanks were breached and water flushed down at high speed, taking the sediment with it. At the bottom of the sediment the fast-flowing water was directed via a system of canals to collect the larger debris. A local plant (gorse) was placed in these canals, in which the gold particles were captured, while the finer sand flushed away with the water. When the plants were saturated they were removed and either burned or dried to collect the gold. Pliny then describes refining the gold dust, explaining that it needed smelting to separate the gold from impurities. A similar account on smelting, with different details, is given by Diodorus Siculus (3.14).

The third method concerned full underground mining of primary deposits using long tunnels and galleries. Pliny describes how the miners had oil lamps attached to their heads to light the way, and stayed underground for the duration of their shift, or, if we are to believe older classical writers, until they died. Evidence of residency, however, has been found in sections of abandoned galleries or shafts where the miners had made themselves a comfortable resting (or temporary residential) area.

Finally, Pliny discusses the ruinea montium, a technique still evidenced today at Las Médulas (Appendix A.3.). This was used to mine the larger alluvial (secondary) deposits, not just river banks. The miners dug long, underground connecting tunnels in the auriferous deposits but left only one entrance/exit. Then, similar to the hushing method, a tank was built at the entrance and filled with water. Once the tank was full and the tunnels finished, the tanks were breached and water rushed into the tunnels to saturate the lower levels. Because of the saturation of the lower echelons and the lack of exits, the water broke through the deposit and both water and broken sediment flushed down the mountain in rapid torrents.[5]

As well as describing Roman technologies of mining different deposits and their geological circumstances, Pliny therefore gives details on washing and separating gold and gravel/sand. These techniques were used mainly in the western provinces as they were not appropriate for the dry, arid regions of some of the eastern provinces, such as the Eastern Desert of Egypt. One aspect of mining he does not describe is refining gold using furnaces to separate impurities from the metal (though he mentions this briefly in book XXXIV.47).

[1] Forbes 1966: 111, segellum was viewed by the early prospectors as an indicator of something below the surface but they had no experience to predict what they were likely to find. It is some kind of a band of sand (disturbed by intrusive veins?).

[2] Forbes 1966: 112.

[3] Forbes 1966: 157–58, at Victumulae (near Vercellae, Italy) the owners were not allowed to use more than 5,000 labourers per mine. It is thought these miners were the Salassi. It seems that education was also encouraged in mining settlements; Strabo, Geography, 4.6.7.

[4] Lewis, Jones 1970, this publication discusses Pliny’s description in detail. Healy 1989: 12; Bird 2001: 270–72 warns that Pliny’s terminology can be misunderstood and gives a modern interpretation of Pliny’s text.

[5] Sánchez-Palencia, Fernández-Posse, Manzano, Orejas 1995: 81–82.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIV.47
Modern reference Rackham 1968: 241
Location of the mine Lusitania, Gallaecia

Description-Interpretation: Pliny describes the natural occurrence of lead and tin alloys in goldmines, called allutiæ, found in the surface strata. Gold, lead and tin were separated by heat in furnaces.

Comments: It is clear that Pliny had a technological knowledge of the difference between secondary gold that was pure and primary gold which had to be smelted to separate the impurities.

Name-reference Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIV.74
Modern reference Eicholz 1971: 321
Location of the mine Region of Lampsacus

Description-Interpretation: Here Pliny describes the presence of gold in Lampsacus but gives no further details.

Comments: Often, when looked at as a whole, this type of comment can give an overall picture of mining and of the presence of gold during the Roman imperial era.


Name-reference Tacitus Tiberius
Modern reference Grant 1989: 209
Location of the mine Spain/Iberia (1st century AD)

Description-Interpretation: The gold and copper mines owned by Sextus Marius were confiscated by Tiberius on the grounds of an allegation of incest with his daughter. Although the state confiscated the mine, Tiberius considered it as his property.

Comments: This act, in AD 33, has been considered the beginning of the confiscation of gold mines in the Roman Empire by the state (Imperial governmental policy, 4.1.1.). It has been queried by modern writers, who have suggested that the accusation was fabricated and that Tiberius may have had his eye on the revenue of the mine.[29]


Name-reference Suetonius Gaius (Caligula) 27
Modern reference Graves 1989: 167
Location of the mine

Description-Interpretation: Emperor Caligula was so cruel that he would ‘brand many men of decent families and send them down the mines, or put them on the roads or throw them to the wild beasts.’

Comments: These types of comments and descriptions are the only sources of proof that not all miners (fossor) worked in the mines on a voluntary basis. In situ proof of their presence is often hard to find as their accommodations would have been hastily constructed, if they were given any at all. If they were housed elsewhere it would still be impossible to see the difference between the accommodation used by forced and free labour, as when the mine was abandoned the inhabitants took everything perishable with them and poorly built remains would have been destroyed. Simitthus (modern Chemtou, Tunesia) in Africa proconsularis is the only quarry settlement where remains of a ‘work’ camp have been identified. A stone building at the heart of this camp was identified as a penitentiary centre, an ergastulum. Coinage and pottery provide a construction date of c. AD 170, but it is thought to have been abandoned at the beginning of the third century AD. The building was preserved as it was re-used later as a ‘fabric’.


Name-reference Arrian 5.4
Modern reference De Sélincourt 1971: 260
Location of the mine India

Description-Interpretation: Arrian also describes the gold-digging ants of India and the gold-guarding griffons, but is not really convinced that they exist: ‘Queer things have been invented for diversion rather than as serious history, in the belief that none of the absurd stories they tell about India are likely to be brought to the test of truth.’ He further writes that Alexander and his men have debunked these stories and that India, in fact, has no gold, ‘except in a few cases where they themselves were guilty of invention’.

Comments: Herodotus (3.102–05), Pliny (Naturalis Historia XXXIII.21) and Strabo (15.1.37/44/69 and 16.5.15) all described the gold-digging ants with varying degrees of belief.


Name-reference Photius book 5, 59–66
Modern reference Meyer et al. 2003: 37–44; Burstein 1989: 57–68
Location of the mine An unknown underground mine in the Eastern Desert of Egypt


59–61. Near the Erythraean Sea, the Nile, although it makes numerous meanders and bends, at that point turns sharply and makes a great deviation from the eastward course of its bends, and extends from the sea far inland so that the land between the waters – the salt and the drinkable – is compressed like a mass of clay. At this point at the aforementioned sea [Erythraean or Red Sea], there are found some of the so-called ‘noble rocks’, which contain abundant mineral deposits. In colour they are jet black but contain such great outcrops of quartz that everything else pales by comparison with them for brilliance. As for those who have been overwhelmed by extreme misfortune, these people the tyrannical government condemns to the bitterest slavery of the gold mines. Some suffer together with their wives and children and some apart from them. Diodorus 3.12, similar description of the geology
Diodorus 3.12, gives a slightly different description but to the same effect, with more details of the fate of the condemnati and their families
They [the miners] pursue their tasks in the mountains where the gold is found. They light wood fires on the stone outcrops, which are jagged and extremely hard, and crumble them with the heat. They break the fractured rock into little pieces with iron sledges. A technician, who sorts the ore, is in charge of the other workers. Whenever he points out veins to the miners, the whole task is then carried out by the miners, who are constrained by their misfortunes, in accordance with the following division of labour. Those who are the strongest and young smash the quartz-bearing rock with iron hammers, striking their blows not with skill but brute force. They also cut many galleries through the rock, not in a straight line, but in some places right above the gold-bearing ore and sometimes falling below, and again, turning to the left and sometimes twisting back and intersecting like the roots of trees. They excavate wearing lamps fastened to their foreheads, following a sort of white vein. They often force their bodies to conform (to the shape of the gallery) as they throw on the ground the pieces of rock, not according to their own decision and ability but under the supervision of an overseer, who never upbraids without also striking a blow. Diodorus 3.12, fire setting and division of labour
Diodorus 3.12, specialists
Diodorus 3.12, hard manual labour and tools used in a similar description
Diodorus 3.12, same description of the brutality of the overseer
62–63. Young boys, who go down in to the galleries excavated by these men, gather up laboriously the piles of rock thrown down the floor and carry it outside the entrance. From them the older men and many of the sick take the rock. These men bring it to men called ‘pounders’. They are men less than 30 years old and more vigorous in appearance. After receiving the fragments of rock, they pound them vigorously with iron pestles; and having worked the stone until no piece is larger than a vetch seed, they distribute them immediately to other workers. The next task, however, is that of women who have been led off in captivity with their husbands or parents. For several mills stand one after the other in a line and into these they cast the crushed rock. Three women, standing opposite one another at each handle and so scantily dressed that only their private parts are concealed, do the grinding; and they grind until the portion of rick given them has been reduced to the consistency of flour. All those subject to the harsh lot just described consider death more desirable than life. Diodorus 3.13, same description of division of work but with more details on their miserable existence
Diodorus 3.13, less detailed on the grinding of the gold
This technique was probably for using saddle- shaped querns (found at Wadi Bakariya and Wadi Daghbag)
64–65. From these women, men called selangei receive the crushed ore. These men are technicians, capable of completing the king’s business. Their work is as follows: Diodorus 3.14, describes them as ‘skilled workers’ but explains it differently
They throw the crushed quartz onto a flat board which has been polished smooth but is not level, having instead a slight incline. Then, while pouring on water, they rub the ore with their hands, at first gently, then more vigorously, whence, I think, the earthy part is dissolved and flows away in accordance with the slope of the table, but the heavy and solid part remains unmoved on the wood. After having repeatedly washed the rock with water, the selangeus picks it up with light and very porous sponges. When these are applied lightly to the quartz and worked briefly, the light and loose pieces become entangled in the interstices of the sponge. He takes these up and throws them away, but leaves behind on the board the heavy, glittering pieces he has separated out, since, because of the heaviness of their nature, they are difficult to move. The washing table is similar to those found at Wadi Allaqi, though here the dust seems to be washed directly on its stone surface.
Selangei is a technical term for a gold washer.[30]
"65–66. After thus completely separating out the gold nuggets, the selangeus turns them over to the smelters. These take up the ore by set amount and weight and place it in a pottery vessel. Then, after adding in accordance with a fixed proportion a lump of lead, grains of salt and a little tin and barley bran, they put on a close-fitting lid, seal it all around and smelt it continuously in a kiln for five days and an equal number of nights. On the next day, after cooling the smelted ore slightly, they pour it into a vessel and find that of what was put in with the gold nothing remains, but of the gold there is a solid mass, albeit slightly reduced in size because of the dust. Diodorus 3.14, has quoted the firing process almost word for word
The death of numerous men in the mines brings our exposition to the conclusion already stated, namely that, as its nature clearly demonstrates, the origin of gold is laborious, its preservation is uncertain, it is most zealously sought after, and its use lies between pleasure and plain. Further, the manner in which it is mined is extremely ancient. For the nature of the mines was discovered by the first rulers of the region, but their working was suspended when the Aithiopians, by whom people also say that the Memnoneia were built, invaded Egypt in force and garrisoned its cities for many years, and (again) during the supremacy of the Medes and Persians. Even in our time bronze chisels are found in the gold mines excavated by those rulers because the use of iron was not yet known at that time. Human bones in unbelievable numbers are also found since, as was likely to have happened, many cave-ins occurred in the unstable galleries with their brittle walls, given the great extent of the excavations and their reaching in their deepest sections the sea itself. Diodorus 3.14, only briefly describes the hardships of mining
Metal tools are rare at mining sites

Comments: Agatharchides’ account of the Eastern Desert of Egypt has been copied by Strabo (16.4.5–20, but Strabo had actually copied the information from Artemidorus of Ephesus), Diodorus (3.12–14) and Photius (59–66).[31] Burstein states that although Photius is the least well-known writer he gives the most accurate copy of Agatharchidus’ work. Diodorus’ copies are often more prosaic than factual. Strabo’s version does not mention gold mines; he only refers briefly to the topaz mines and appeared to be more interested in the various population groups living in and close to the desert (Strabo, 16.4.5–20).

Legal sources

These are legal documents referring to sections of the law dealing with banishing people to the mines as part of their punishment. The use of prisoners in government projects is a known practice; it appears anyone could be sent to the mines as penance for various reasons. However, being sent to the mines seems to have been mainly reserved for the working class. There are also references to amnesties from penal sentences or banishment. In Egypt an inscription is preserved that mentions a man being released after fulfilling his prison sentence at an alabaster quarry (December AD 209).[32]

Julius Paulus

Name-reference Paulus, Sententiae, 5.23.14 (2nd-3rd centuries) commenting on the Lex Cornelia Sullæ de sicariis et veneficis of 81 BC
Modern reference Scott 1932; also Shrek 2001: 206.
Location of the mine Roman territory

Description-Interpretation: ‘Persons who administer potions for the purpose of causing abortion, or love philtres, even if they do not do so maliciously, still, because the act affords a bad example, shall if of inferior rank, be sentenced to the mines; if of superior rank, they shall be relegated to an island, after having been deprived of their property. Where, however, the man or the woman loses his or her life in consequence of their act they shall undergo the extreme penalty.’

Comments: This shows the clear distinction between the social classes; banishment to the mines was considered too harsh for the upper class.

Edict of Constantine I on behalf of Christians

Name-reference Edict of Constantine I on behalf of Christians (324 AD)[33] as cited by Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.32.1-2
Modern reference Cameron and Hall 1999: 107
Location of the mine Roman territory

Description-Interpretation: ‘(1) Those also who were condemned either to labour under harsh conditions in mines, or to perform menial tasks at public works, let them exchange incessant toils for sweet leisure, and now live an easier life of freedom, undoing the infinite hardships of their labours in gentle relaxation. (2) But if any have been deprived of their civil liberty and suffered public dishonour, then let them, with the gladness appropriate considering they have been parted by a long exile, take up again their former rank and make haste back to their native lands.’

Comments: This is a section of the law under which Constantine redresses the wrongs committed by Licinius against the Christians, after the defeat of the latter. Although the authenticity of this edict has been challenged, Α.Η.Μ. Jones has demonstrated that a fragmentary papyrus (P. Lond. 878) “proves beyond all reasonable doubt the authenticity of one of the Constantinian documents cited by Eusebius in the Life, and implies that of the rest” (Jones and Skeat 1954: 200).

Sirmondian constitutions

Name-reference Sirmondian constitutions 8 (22/04/386)
Modern reference Pharr 1952: 480-481
Location of the mine Roman territory

Description-Interpretation: ‘With the exception of the five capital crimes, all accused persons whom the celebration of Easter finds in prison shall be released, in accordance with the joy and veneration of so great a festivity [...] [T]hroughout all the intervening time which flows between such venerable and celebrated days, We relieve such persons from their chains, We free them from exile, We remove them from the mines, and We liberate them from the exile of deportation [...] We snatch all persons from the death penalty except those who cannot properly be assisted because of the magnitude of their crimes. [...] We shall not commit an outrage upon the shades of the dead by absolving any person who is guilty of the crime of homicide; We shall not leave unavenged the marriage bed of any person by remitting the punishment of persons guitty of adultery and other such crimes; We keep intact cases of high treason, which extends widely. We do not join to the felicity of absolution those persons who sin against the stars, poisoners or magicians, or counterfeiters [...].’

Theodosian Code

Name-reference Theodosian Code 15.12.1 (01/10/325)
Modern reference Pharr 1952: 436
Location of the mine Roman territory

Description-Interpretation: ‘Bloody spectacles displease Us amid public peace and domestic tranquillity. Wherefore, since We wholly forbid the existence of gladiators, You shall cause those persons who, perchance, on account of some crime, customarily sustained that condition and sentence, to serve rather in the mines, so that they will assume the penalty for their crimes without shedding their blood.’

Name-reference Theodosian Code 15.8.2 (21/04/428)
Modern reference Pharr 1952: 435
Location of the mine Roman territory

Description-Interpretation: ‘If fathers or masters should be procurers and should impose upon their daughters or female slaves the necessity of sinning, [...] they shall not be able to enjoy the right of control over their daughters or slaves, or to acquire any gain from them in this manner. But if the slaves and daughters so wish, as well as the persons hired on account of poverty and condemned to such a condition by their humble lot, they shall be permitted to implore the aid of bishops, judges, and defenders, to be released from all the bonds of their miseries. If the procurers should suppose that they may insist or if they should compel the women to undergo the necessity of sinning against their will, they shall not only forfeit all the power which they had over them, but they shall also be proscribed and delivered to the punishment of being as signed to exile in the public mines. [...].’

Tablets found at Metallum Vipascense


The tablets found at Metallum Vipascense (modern Aljustrel), Portugal, are an insight into the organisation of the mining industry at the time of Hadrian’s reign (AD 117–138) in the Iberian Peninsula, western province. They reveal that the mining districts were treated as individual administrative districts with their own boundaries.[34] By the time these tablets were written the industry had had many years to develop into a professional operation with both state and private entrepreneurs involved. The first bronze tablet was found in 1876 in a clay mount at the Algares copper mine (Portugal) and relates to the organisation of the silver mine or Metallum Vipascense and its associated townships. It contains the lex metallis Vipascensis, a law regulating affairs within the Metallum Vipascense only.[35] The second tablet was found some years later in 1906 and applies to a wider area, perhaps even the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. This tablet holds the lex metallis dicta, a law aimed at securing the mine against unintentional or deliberate destruction. The overall aim was the continuation of the mine. It was written down in the form of a letter to Ulpius Aelianus.[36] The Metallum Vipascense was property of the fiscus with many societates and individuals leasing the rights to open business and mining pits/shafts in the area. The tablets give a view of the responsibilities and duties of a procurator metallorum (4.2. procurator).[37]


The transcript below is of a letter sent to Ulpius Aelianus by the provincial procurator of mines:[38]

1: Punishment for not abiding by the regulations, rewarding whistle-blowers, 2: Silver mines had their specified regulations: on the sale, lease and operation of shafts, 3-4: Regulations to maintain active operations, occupiers/tenants’ rights, obligations and safeguarding of income (and revenues), 5: Socii/Societas and their obligations to the treasury, their partners and profit sharing, 6: Auctioning of (forfeited) mines, 7: Coloni, 8: Set timetable for various tasks in the process of mining, 9: Punishment for free men and slaves upon theft of ore, 10-11: Maintenance, health and safety in the mines, 12: Punishment for non-compliance with the above mining code, 13-16: Health and safety at copper mines, 17-18: Health and safety outlines at silver mines

[...sends] greetings to his friend Ulpius Aelianus. (1) [---] is to pay [the] imperial [procurator] forthwith. If anyone does do so and is convicted of having smelted ore before paying the price as prescribed above, the share of the occupant is forfeit and the procurator of the mines is to sell the entire mine. The person who has proved that the tenant has smelted ore before paying for the half share belonging to the imperial Treasury is to receive one quarter. (2) Silver mines must be worked in accordance with the prescription embodied in this law. Prices from them will be maintained on the generous terms of the most sacred Emperor Hadrian Augustus: ownership of the share that belongs to the imperial Treasury is to pass to the person who first pays the fees from the shaft and delivers 4,000 sesterces to the imperial Treasury. (3) Anyone who, out of a total of five mines, strikes ore in one, is to carry out or work in the rest without interruption, as is laid down above, if he fails to do so, another is to have power to take over occupancy. (4) If anyone begins operations immediately after the expiry of the twenty-five days granted for the accumulation of funds but afterwards ceases them over a period of ten successive days, another is to have the right to take over occupancy. (5) When a mine has been sold to the imperial Treasury and has been left unworked over a period of six successive months, another is to have the right to take over occupancy, on the basis that when ore is produced from it one half is to be reserved for the imperial Treasury in the usual way. (6) The occupant of the mine is to be permitted to have the partners he wishes, on the basis that each partner is to contribute expenses in the same proportion as his interest in the partnership. If anyone fails to do so, then the man who has incurred the expenses is to have an account of the expenses incurred by him post up for three days in succession in the most frequented part of the market place and is to give notice by crier to each of his partners that he is to contribute to have a share in that mine, and that share is to belong to the partner or partners who incurred the expenses. (7) That person or those tenants who have incurred expense in connection with a mine in which there were several partners are to have the right of recovering from their partners what has manifestly been spent in good faith. (8) Tenants are to be permitted to sell to one another at the best price they can obtain also those shares of mines for which they have paid the full price. Anyone who wishes to sell his share or to buy one is to make a declaration before the procurator who is in charge of the mines; buying and selling by other methods are not to be permitted. The owner who is in debt to the imperial Treasury is not to be permitted to dispose of his share by this way. (9) Ore which has been produced and is lying at the mines shall be conveyed to the workshops between sunrise and sunset by those to whom it belongs. Anyone who is convicted of having taken ore from the mines after sunset or at night is to pay 1,000 sesterces to the imperial Treasury. (10) Anyone who steals ore, if he is a slave, the procurator is to have him flogged and sold on the understanding that he is to be kept in perpetuity and is not to be kept in any mines or territories belonging to him; the price fetched by the slave is to belong to the master. If the thief is a free man the procurator is to seize his property and banish him from the confines of the mines in perpetuity. (11) All mines are to be carefully propped and made stable, and the tenant of each is to replace rotten wood with props of fresh and adequate material. (12) It is not permissible to touch or interfere with piers or props left behind, neither as supports nor to do anything wilfully to render those props and piers less secure or to make them less easy to pass. (13) As to anyone who is convicted of having damaged a mine, cause it to collapse, interfered with the installation at its head, or of having done anything wilfully to render that mines less stable, if he is a slave he is to be flogged at the discretion of the procurator and sold by his master on the understanding that he is not to be kept at the mines, while the procurator is to confiscate the property of a free man to the imperial Treasury and banish him from the confines of the mines in perpetuity. (14) Anyone who is working copper mines is to keep away from the channel that drains water off from the mines and he is to leave not less than fifteen feet clear on either side of it. (15) It is not permissible to interfere with the channel. The procurator is to give permission to drive an exploratory shaft from the channel with the purpose of opening up new deposits, on the basis that the exploratory shaft is to have a width and height of not more than four feet. (16) It is not permissible to explore or to work veins less than fifteen feet on either side of the channel. (17) Anyone who is convicted of having acted otherwise in connection with exploratory shafts, if he is a slave he shall, after being flogged at the discretion of the procurator, be sold (by) his master on the understanding that he is not to be kept in any mines, while the procurator is to confiscate the property of a free man to the imperial Treasury and to banish him from the confines of the mines in perpetuity. (18) Anyone who [is working] silver mines is to keep away from the channel that drains water off from the mines and is to leave not less than sixty feet clear on either side of it, and he is to keep those mines that he has taken over or received as his allocation in operation as they delimited. He is not to proceed further nor to collect slag in heaps nor to drive exploratory shafts beyond the confines of the mines allocated to him in such a way that [---].


  1. Forbes 1971: 6, the Romans and Greek did little to understand the structure of metal.
  2. Diodorus 5.74, Pliny Naturalis Historia XXXIII.4.12.
  3. Sidebotham et al. 2008: 342.
  4. Diodorus 4.40–54; Strabo 11.4.8.
  5. Griffith 1996: v–vi.
  6. Burstein 1989: 12–18.
  7. Blackeney 1916: on Diodorus.
  8. Blackeney 1916: on Strabo.
  9. Rackham 1937: vii–xii; Blackeney 1916: on Pliny.
  10. Grant 1989: 7–10.
  11. Graves 1989: 7–11.
  12. De Sélincourt 1971: 13–17.
  13. Burstein 1989: 21–22.
  14. The other writer is Photius who in the ninth century AD copied Agatharchides (see below).
  15. Bienkowski 1987: 135–40.
  16. Tregenza 2004b: 161–62.
  17. Lynch 2002. Mining in World History.
  18. Lynch 2002. Mining in World History.
  19. Forbes 1966: 149.
  20. Rickard 1932: 440. At Las Médulas it created a new industry: fishing, as a large lake was created by damming the river and the filled-in river bed converted to agricultural land that is still in cultivation today.
  21. Sánchez-Palencia, Fernández-Posse, Manzano, Orejas 1995. La zona arquelógica de Las Médulas; Orejas, Sánchez-Palencia 2002: 591.
  22. Various sloping stone washing tables have been found in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Whether the table top was covered by a skin or cloth is unclear as no traces have been preserved. Castiglione, Castiglione, Vercoutter 1995. Das Goldland der Pharaonen. Die Entdeckung von Berenike Pancrisia.
  23. Hirt 2010: 201, 332.
  24. Sidebotham et al. 2008: 19, 38 (fig 3.1), 216, 221–26.
  25. Tratsaert 2005: 7–20.
  26. Castiglioni, Castiglioni, Vercoutter 1995. Das Goldland der Pharaonen. Die Entdeckung von Berenike Pancrisia. Klemm, Klemm 2013. Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. Geoarchaeology of the Ancient Gold Mining Sites in the Egyptian and Sudanese Eastern Deserts.
  27. Sidebotham et al. 2008: 161–65, 171–75.
  28. Sidebotham 1996. Newly Discovered Sites in the Eastern Desert. Sidebotham, 2011. Berenike and the ancient maritime spice route. Sidebotham et al. 2008: 303–28. Brun, Bülow-Jacobson, Cardon, Fournet, Leguilloux, Matelly, Reddé 2006. La route de Myos Hormos. L’armée romaine dans le désert Oriental d’Égypte. Praesidia du desert de Bérénice, I (ed. H. Cuvigny). Krzywinski, Pierce 2001: 61–74, 149–52, on the influence of humans on desert fauna and flora.
  29. Le Roux 1989: 176.
  30. Burstein 1989: 64 (footnote).
  31. Burstein 1989: 22.
  32. Jackson 2002: 17, footnote 23 (the text is identified as SB 4639); Hirt 2010: 222–24 (footnote 3).
  33. I follow the title proposed by Coleman-Norton 1966: 106.
  34. Hirt 2010: 48–49.
  35. Rickard 1932a: 437; Hirt 2010: 48–49, 226.
  36. Rickard 1932a: 437; Hirt 2010: 48–49, 227, 261–62, 268–69; Levick 2000: 85–88.
  37. Rickard 1932a: 437–39; Rickard 1932b: 585; Brunt 2006: 398–99; Hirt 2010: 4, 39, 49–50.
  38. Levick 2000: 85–88; Rickard 1928: 126; Rickard 1932: 437, 442; Hirt 2010: 92, 123–24, 227–28.


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