- Bill Prast
Updated: Jan 16
This article was written by Bill Prast. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
The recent enthusiasm for revisionist history prompts me to recall the oft-quoted remark which opens J P Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go-Between”.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
This aphorism seems to be particularly apropos in the case of metals. A brief and unpleasant life spent mining under horrific conditions or being poisoned by roasting ores was the lot of untold thousands of slaves who were unlucky enough to be captured during the wars of ancient times.
We measure those times in epochs, and qualify them with appropriate metallic adjectives. There was the Iron Age, and then the Bronze Age. Before all of that, was the Stone Age which I suppose qualifies as a time of reliance on non-metallics. More recently, plutocrats of recent years had their Gilded Age, which seems to continue unabated in the contemporary capitalist world.
Honoré de Balzac is sometimes paraphrased as having written, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” He actually didn’t quite say that, but no matter what one’s contemporary social or political point of view may be, the past is exactly that. It is past. Nothing can change it.
So what are we to do with the past? Maybe we can start with ancient Athens. The wealth of the newly-discovered silver veins at the near-by Laurion mines provided them with the necessary funds to build a fleet which in 480 BC overcame the Persians in the bay of Salamis. It was fortunate timing, for the Athenians.
Laurion was the destiny of slaves, and remained a large-scale operation for decades. Estimates are there were up to 20,000 slaves there at any one time, with hundreds of shafts dug.
Athens promptly went on to found the Delian League, allegedly a defensive alliance of the Greek city-states against Persia. However, it quickly evolved into a system of enforced tributes. Those who declined to join Athens were overcome by force. The Athenian navy dominated the Aegean Sea; it was a thalassocracy, a sea power rather analogous to similar maritime empires that would arise after the Age of Discovery in Europe.
The Spartans, a land power, were the significant exception and refused to be part of the Delian League. Eventually, nearly fifty years later the Peloponnesian War began between the two. This war continued from 431 to 404, by which time Sparta had built its own fleet and created a war of attrition. Ultimately the Spartans broke the Athenian economy by creating an opportunity for the slaves at the Laurion mines to run away. Which they did. En masse. The loss of the labourers at the silver mines was the death knell to Athenian power and glory.
So should we ignore the contributions to our heritage made by the men of science, arts and letters, philosophy, and architecture who were drawn to Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC? They couldn’t have done what they did without a lot of slave labour.
Athens has been credited, correctly, as having first introduced the concept of democracy, initiated by Cleisthenes in 507 BC. (The battle of Marathon was 490 BC). Should we follow the practices of a society which had slavery as a matter of course? Should we perhaps not run marathon races as a gesture of solidarity with past victims of bad behaviour by Ancient Greeks?
I think it is better to forgive, but not to forget. Our own actions will be the topic of debate by future historians. We will provide enough of our own misdeeds for them to reflect upon at length, without doubt.