In 480 BCE, the Persian army defeated the Greek forces at the Battle of Thermopylae and invaded parts of Greece. When all seemed lost, a young Athenian politician named Themistocles proposed an unusual plan: the Greeks should not face the Persian soldiers on a battlefield, but rather invest in a fleet. In the naval battle of Salamis, the newly-built ships managed to destroy the Persian fleet.
One year later, without a navy to support their armed forces, the Persians retreated to Asia. A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have hamstrung the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension western civilization, leading them to argue that Salamis is one of the most significant battles in human history.
The ships that helped to win the battle of Salamis were paid for with silver from the mines of Laurion. The Laurion silver mines are located just south of Athens and are world-renowned for the excellent mineral samples the area still produces today, not just in its storied past. The mineralization of lead, zinc, copper and silver is associated with an igneous intrusion into older sediments and volcanic rocks. Archaeologists have discovered almost 200 mines and shafts in the area dating to 480-250 BCE. It is estimated that 20,000 slaves worked here to provide the silver for the fleet wanted by Themistocles.
In 300 years of active mining, Laurion provided almost 3,000 tons of pure silver. No other city in Greece controlled such a rich mining district and it is believed that mining played an important role in the rise of Athens. Ancient Athens is often considered the birthplace of modern democracy and western civilization, but the real story is a bit more complicated.
After the defeat of Persia, the city-states of Sparta and Athens started a long and exhausting war for dominance. As the silver mines became exhausted, Athens quickly lost its prominent role and in 371 BCE, Sparta was defeated by Thebes, another city-state in central Greece. Meanwhile, a backwater territory north of Greece, called Macedonia, thrived and became the new local power. In 310 BCE, the ambitious Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian empire and northern Greece. Alexander quickly adopted Persian bureaucracy and politics to govern his new empire. When Alexander died just a few years later, his empire quickly collapsed.