There’s a common assumption that environmental pollution is mostly a 20th and 21st century problem. Generally, that’s true, but that view is short-sighted. What can only be described as industry and its pollution goes back at least two thousand years.
The Roman empire was not the world’s largest, but it lasted some centuries as a strong entity
encompassing the entire Mediterranean. The Romans were not great philosophers or creators of religions, but they were fine engineers. Roman technology in metals was advanced and the Roman economy had use for copper, tin, iron, lead, gold and silver. Roman smelting resulted in enough
atmospheric pollution so that it shows up in cores of ice taken from the Greenland icecap. Before and after the Roman period, there was less atmospheric pollution.
One of the principal industrial areas of the Romans was in what is now Spain. The Rio Tinto region was extremely rich in metal ores, and the Romans mined it for centuries. Mining there goes back 5,000 years, but the Romans with their typical efficiency exploited the region for copper, iron and especially for silver. Mining has hugely altered the landscape. The Rio Tinto itself has a reddish tint for much of its course, devoid of most life because of the high acidity. Nature causes some of this, but
Roman mine tailings (leftovers after mining) still pollute the river.
An older and smaller region that still shows scars from industry in the ancient world is near Athens. Athens is often considered the origin of democracy and the fountainhead of Western culture.
However, Athens’ brief period of empire and most of its glory comes from a most undemocratic period of empire, fueled by silver from rich mines at Laurion, not far from the city. The silver paid for ships and soldiers, and for the architectural glorification of Athens. The mines had been known for many centuries, but it was Athens that hugely extended the exploitation, leaving a ruined landscape, the effects of which can be seen 2,400 years later. Athenian democracy was fueled by the mines, which
required some 20,000 slaves to operate, and who mostly lived a short and miserable existence.
A more recent industrial landscape is the enormous silver mining that took place around Potosi, a city in what is now Bolivia. The Incas and their predecessors had done some silver mining, but under the Spanish, Potosi became the richest silver mining complex in the world, and Potosi—at an altitude where it is difficult to breathe—for a time was one of the biggest cities anywhere, probably larger than any city in Spain.
The Spanish developed a method of producing silver from a process that used large amounts of mercury. Mercury is extremely toxic to the people who work with it, and some of the process produced mercury vapor that would have rapidly destroyed the lungs of nearby workers. It’s estimated that some 50,000 tons of mercury from the mining at Potosi still pollutes the landscape in Bolivia and some of the rivers and valleys in the Andes. There was also a great deal of silver mining in Mexico, with similar
The Spanish exploitation of the silver in Potosi and Mexico lasted until Spanish control collapsed in the early 1800s. The amount of silver produced was prodigious. Colonial silver financed Spain’s
transition into the superpower of the day in Europe. It financed the Spanish Armada of 1588, and the Spanish wars against Protestantism, and also the wars with the Ottoman Turks.
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