Gold was one of the most valuable natural resources in the ancient world. Admired for its rich luster, gold was easily hammered and molded into various shapes. The metal was used to make jewelry and coins, and some of the most important treasures of the ancient world were made from gold, such as masks found in tombs at Mycenae. Although gold nuggets were extracted from mines throughout the Mediterranean region, most gold in the ancient world was found in the mud deposits of river beds.

Ancient Greece had few sources of gold. Its most important deposits were in Macedonia and Thrace, areas located to the north of the mainland of Greece, and on the island of Siphnos. In Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), gold deposits were found in Phrygia and Lydia, inspiring Greek legends about the fabulous wealth of their famous kings, Midas and Croesus. The Greeks may have actually acquired gold from as far away as Colchis and Scythia, lands northeast of the Black Sea. Alexander the Great expanded Greek access to gold when he conquered parts of Persia, India, and Egypt. Alexander’s armies captured enormous treasures of gold—at Persepolis in Persia alone, about 120,000 talents* (1 talent equaled about 800 ounces). Much of it was made into gold coins that became the standard of commerce throughout the Mediterranean until Roman times.

The early Etruscans, Rome’s neighbors to the north, mined gold in the mountains of Italy, perhaps using Greek techniques, but the early Romans themselves had little access to the metal. Their supply of gold grew as the Roman Empire expanded. Mines in Spain, southern France, the Roman province* of Dacia, and parts of the island of Britain supplied enough gold to satisfy the increasing demand of Roman society for beautiful objects. By about A.D. 300, the gold supplies dried up, and ownership of gold was afterward limited only to the very wealthy. (See also Coinage; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Gems and Jewelry; Mining.)

* talent ancient unit of weight

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

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