Silver Research Paper

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Silver has affected human culture and history since ancient times. Silver coinage increased trade, affected the type of trade goods, changed societal structures, and led to war. The 1500s saw new mining and refining techniques and the discovery of silver lodes in the New World, which affected cultures there. Since 1900, industrial uses have superseded its use as currency.

Silver is a rare metallic element widely distributed in the Earth’s crust and usually found mingled with lead, copper, and zinc ores. In pure form it is soft and easily scratched, so alloys are used for jewelry and tableware. Pure silver is the best conductor of electricity and heat among all metals. That gives it widespread uses in electronics, so much so that modern industrial demand for silver exceeds annual rates of production. Historically its principal uses were for coinage, ornament, and tableware.

Impact on Ancient Civilization

Coinage was by far the most important for human affairs at large. The earliest coins were made in the kingdom of Lydia (680–547 BCE, located in modern Turkey) from a mixture of gold and silver. Later, during the Persian Empire (550–330 BCE), Persian kings coined pure gold. A single Persian gold coin paid a mercenary soldier for an entire year. But such coins were far too valuable to be of much use in everyday buying and selling. In fact the Persian kings made such little use of them that gold coins accumulated in the royal treasury until Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 BCE) destroyed their empire and disbursed their treasure.

Silver is more common than gold, so coins of silver were cheaper; and in the course of the sixth century BCE Greek cities began to issue them in smaller sizes than the Persian gold coins. This made everyday buying and selling far easier than when barter had prevailed, requiring both buyer and seller to have goods of equal value readily available before a deal could be made. The result was to make market transactions far more pervasive, and thus bring rural populations into the marketplace regularly instead of subsisting on what they could raise locally.

Greek farmers soon discovered that by using their fields to raise wine and olive oil instead of grain, they could sell these products to merchants who shipped them abroad and returned with grain, timber, and other raw materials. This had profound consequences for Greek society and civilization. First, the terms of trade favored Greek oil and wine producers. They received more grain than they could raise at home for their exports, because special skills and a favorable climate were needed for grapevines and olive trees to flourish, while grain was raised everywhere and did best in richer soils than those of Greece. Second, grape and olive harvests came late in the fall and needed little or no attention in summer. This allowed landowning Greek farmers to take full part in war and other public enterprises. Indeed they became the ideal type of citizen and soldier, thus mobilizing a far larger proportion of the entire population for public action than was possible elsewhere.

The result was a richer, more leisured, and more formidable society than could otherwise have been sustained in the rocky and not very fertile land of Greece. Their success in repelling a formidable Persian invasion (480–479 BCE) under King Xerxes I was proof of what they could achieve. By chance, just as silver coins by then underpinned the Greek economy, newly discovered veins of silver at Laurium in Attica allowed the Athenians to enlarge their fleet of warships on the eve of Xerxes’ attack. These silver mines were worked by slaves and owned by the state. In 483 BCE, an Athenian politician named Themistocles persuaded the Athenian assembly to use their new wealth in silver to enlarge the navy. As a result, by the time the Persians appeared the Athenian fleet had grown from seventy to two hundred triremes. Without the silver of Laurium, that could not have happened. And without the new Athenian triremes, the Greeks could not have defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, depriving Xerxes’ army of adequate supplies from home and requiring him to withdraw most of his soldiers from Greece and leave only a relatively small army behind that met defeat on land the next year.

Rowing in triremes required nothing more than a strong back. That gave the unpropertied Athenian citizens, who could not afford to equip themselves with armor, an important new role in war. Athenian democracy emerged in succeeding decades as a result. Moreover, the fleet permitted military mobilization of all Athenian citizens, making their city a great power in Greece for about a century and supporting an age of literary and artistic achievement unequalled before or after. In view of silver’s role in sustaining Athenian greatness, it might best be called a silver age, but calling it a golden age is conventional and unlikely to change.

The meteoric career of Alexander the Great (reigned 336–323 BCE), king of Macedon and conqueror of the Persian Empire, spread Greek influence eastward to the borders of India. Among their other novelties, Alexander and his successors expanded the scope of market relations throughout western Asia and Egypt by founding cities and introducing small silver coins, without turning rent-paying peasants into citizens or soldiers. Wealth increased and long-distance trade both in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean swelled on the strength of enhanced buying and selling.

Greece languished, however, partly because deforestation and subsequent erosion damaged farmland, partly because so many emigrants left to seek their fortunes in the new cities of western Asia and Egypt, and mainly because Greece faced increasing competition when the production of wine and olive oil for export spread to southern Italy and then to Spain. This westward expansion of olive groves and grapevines sustained a large-scale circulation of goods of common consumption within the Mediterranean coastlands that reached its climax under the Roman Empire between 30 BCE and 165 CE.

As before, oil and wine producers enjoyed advantageous terms of trade while grain and raw material suppliers were disadvantaged; however, both prospered until a disease disaster between 165 and 180 CE killed about a third of the population. Another lethal epidemic raged from 251 to 266 CE; by then barbarian invasions from the north and civil disorders had spread destruction far and wide, frequently followed by famine.

The population of the Roman Empire partially recovered by the time of Constantine (reigned 312– 337 CE); although the western provinces remained impoverished, cities remained little more than empty shells, and subsistence farming made tax collection clumsy and inefficient. Classical Mediterranean urban society and its silver-based currency had disappeared from the west but survived on a diminished scale in the east, allowing the East Roman or Byzantine Empire to survive for more than a thousand years.

Impact from 1500 to 1800

When cities and trade revived in western Europe, silver currency alongside gold again facilitated exchanges. Silver production became significant in Europe when German miners learned how to dig and drain deeper shafts in search of silver and other metals. But exactly when and how their skills developed went unrecorded until 1556 when a German named Georg Bauer, better known as Georgius Agricola, published the book De re metallica that describes their methods in full detail. How silver was mined elsewhere also remained unrecorded, though we know silver production assumed a large scale in Japan by the sixteenth century.

Old World silver mining was soon dwarfed by what happened in the Americas when Spaniards discovered rich ores in Mexico and more especially a “silver mountain” at Potosi in the high Andes of Bolivia (1546). They conscripted many thousands of indigenous people in Mexico and in Bolivia to dig the newly discovered silver, and they also introduced an efficient new way of refining the ore by heating it with mercury.

The output from Potosi and Mexico was so prodigious that shipments of silver to Spain and China upset prevailing prices everywhere, inaugurating a worldwide inflation that peaked in the 1630s. Thereafter, Potosi’s richest lodes petered out and simultaneous shortages of mercury reduced silver output drastically. By then silver from the New World had quadrupled prices in Spain and raised them almost as much across Europe and Asia, all the way to China, where disruptive effects were magnified by the fact that the Ming dynasty shifted its currency from copper to silver coinage.

Rather abrupt climate change, nicknamed “the Little Ice Age,” peaked in the 1640s and contributed to the economic crunch that inflation and the subsequent diminution of supplies of silver created. Ninety years of inflation caused landowners and governments to raise rents and taxes everywhere; those who paid them were sure that wicked greed and corruption were rampant as never before. No one understood how more silver coins purchasing almost the same amount of goods allowed sellers to ask and receive more money for the same old thing. And wherever colder, wetter weather diminished crops, rising food prices inflicted real suffering on millions of people. Sudden reduction of silver output in the 1630s had a no less disruptive impact on commercial affairs.

Under these circumstances, religious and political upheavals became widespread. In Europe, Germany’s Thirty Years War (1618–1648) was particularly devastating, but civil war in England (1640–1660) and the Fronde in France (1648–1653) also reflected social strains exacerbated by the price fluctuations that American silver, and the sudden diminution of its flow, provoked. Further east, the Ottoman Empire saw a sultan deposed and succeeded by a ten-year-old boy in 1648, followed by near anarchy until 1656. And in China, the Ming dynasty collapsed in 1644 after years of disorder, to be succeeded by the Manchus’ Qing dynasty.

China had become a magnet for the world’s silver since it was almost the only commodity Europeans, Japanese, and other foreigners could offer to the Chinese in return for silk, porcelain, and other manufactures. It came directly across the Pacific from Mexico to the Philippines and thence to China, as well as via Europe and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese needed to import silver for their currency since production in China itself (mainly in Yunnan) was insufficient. Scholarly controversy still prevails about how critical interruptions in silver supply may have been in provoking the disorders that overthrew the Ming.

Impact since the 1800s

In succeeding centuries, human affairs were not affected so drastically by silver, since supply and demand for that metal became more evenly balanced. Silver lodes were exhausted, new ones discovered, and its worldwide use slowly increased. Discovery of the Comstock lode in the U.S. state of Nevada in 1859 was like a lesser and more local Potosi, achieving peak production in 1876. For the rest of the nineteenth century, westerners sought to make silver as good as gold for backing American paper dollars. An economic depression in 1893 made the question central to the presidential election of 1896. But the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, met defeat after denouncing bankers and their friends for crucifying the country “on a cross of gold” and ran a second time in 1900 only to fail again.

That is the last time silver played a prominent role in politics. In the twenty-first century, its industrial and electronic uses outweigh its use for coinage, for modern “silver” coins are silver only in color and made of cheaper metals. The high Andes still produce more silver ore than anywhere else, but Potosi and the Comstock lode are both totally exhausted. Jewelry, candlesticks, forks, spoons, and other familiar items made of silver continue to be melted down from time to time and recast in newer styles much as before.


  1. Hamilton, E. J. (1934). American treasure and the price revolution in Spain, 1501–1650. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. (1987). Book seven. In D. Grene (Trans.), The History (pp. 466–556). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Kindleberger, C. P. (1989). Spenders and hoarders: The world distribution of Spanish American silver, 1550–1750. Pasir Panjang, Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Research Unit, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
  4. Koenig, L. W. (1971). Bryan: A political biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Putnam.
  5. Richards, J. F. (Ed.). (1983). Precious metals in the late medieval and early modern world. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

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