the gold of rome -- 8/11/20

Today's selection -- from The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela. The Roman Empire was built on a large standing army, and that army was only possible because of the mining of gold to pay the soldiers. That gold was in turn mined by conquered peasants and slaves, and in its early days, the source of gold for Rome was in Spain near the border of what is now Portugal, here described in present tense by following the imaginary travels of a Roman named Marcus:

"[The Roman traveler in the early days of empire] finally reaches his destination, in the far north, the region that in modern times is called Galicia, in the future province of Gallaecia, on the border between Spain and Portugal. This is where the gold mines are.

"In fact, Marcus has been sent here, in his capacity as imperial functionary, to inspect the gold production in these open-pit mines. They are among the largest in the empire and they're located in a true natural Eden. Marcus got up early this morning, before dawn. The goal of the long march he set out on, escorted by a column of soldiers and some other functionaries, is the top of a steep slope at the edge of a plateau. When they reached the top, the sun came up over the horizon, unveiling the extraordinary landscape of these mines.

"All around us broad waves of undulating hills, rounded and smoothed by time, seem to vanish into the distance. Their flanks are adorned by the trembling green foliage of chestnut trees. Here and there natural towers, ravines, and canyons emerge like icebergs, sculpted by the erosion of the high plateau.

"Suddenly, this beautiful virgin landscape is interrupted by an apocalyptic vision: at the foot of the slope, where the column of soldiers and functionaries has stopped, an immense lunar landscape opens up for miles around, totally treeless and devoid of life. It looks like the bed of a dried-up lake, but in reality it's more than that. It is a deep wound inflicted on the earth, a gash tearing the flesh of this harmonious landscape.

"None of this is the work of the gods. It is the work of man. In this Dantean vision, thousands of microscopic human figures are moving around like so many agitated ants. They have been at work since the first light of dawn. The jumbled sound of shouts and clanking equipment arrives all the way up here. This is our first glimpse of the great gold mines of the empire.

"The tall cliff that Marcus is standing on will be made to collapse into the underlying lunar valley, bringing to light the layer of gold that it's covering. The collapse will be provoked by a devastating technique that Pliny the Elder defined as ruina montium, literally, 'destruction of the mountain.' The name says it all.

"Everything is just about ready for a new collapse. A few minutes ago the signal was given to evacuate the mines. At a number of points around Marcus, on the top of the cliff, you can see a lot of pits from which the first miners have started coming out in groups of two or three. They're dirty and exhausted; their faces are tense, their eyes wide with fear. It's not yet the moment of demolition, obviously, but they don't know that.

"Who are these men and what's beyond that dark opening that descends vertically into the terrain just a short distance away from the edge of the cliff?

"In just a few minutes a steady stream of human beings comes out of the mines. One of the miners trips and falls and is trampled by those behind him. They seem crazed. They push and shove each other to speed up the exit along an endless series of wooden stairs that lead them out of that subterranean inferno. Some of them are naked, others are dressed in rags. Their bodies are emaciated, covered with mud, scratches, and cuts. Their cheeks are hollow, and their chins bearded. Their missing teeth accentuate the look of desperation on their faces.

View of Las Médulas

"Our first thought is that they must be slaves. But that's not right. Those who work here do so voluntarily; they are free men, inhabitants of the area, often in desperate straits. They are paid minimal salaries, barely enough to survive on.

"It's a situation that recalls very much what can be seen today in certain areas of the third world where gold has been discovered, such as Africa and South America. The work is extremely wearing, the conditions shocking, but we're not talking about slaves, at least not officially. And all of them harbor in their hearts the hope of finding that great big nugget that's going to change their lives. Something similar is going on in these Roman mines.

"Under Trajan, the mines of Las Médulas are at the height of their production and it has been calculated that no fewer than eight thousand people work here. Their work is subdivided into specific roles and tasks: some dig, some carry material out of the tunnels, some sift. The shifts, needless to say, are brutal.

"The last miners are coming out now. They're holding on to some wounded coworkers. One body is carried out unconscious with a gaping head wound from which copious amounts of blood are gushing out. You can see the light color of the brain. Maybe he's already dead. The rumor spreads that there's been a collapse at the bottom of one of the secondary tunnels. There have probably been some fatalities. Such accidents happen frequently in these mines. But the Roman authorities have learned not to lose time over them."



Alberto Angela


The Reach of Rome


Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.


Copyright 2013 Gregory Conti


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