The impact of gold upon civilization and human behavior has been powerful and far-reaching. Treachery and violence, deceit and cunning, war and conquest have been attributed to the lure of the "divine metal".
There are those who contend that Alexander the Great would never have reached exotic India had he not been drawn initially into Asia by the fabled gold treasure of Persia. The mighty Roman Empire might have taken a different shape and course were it not for Rome's conquest of Spain and its acquisition of the Spanish gold mines. Julius Caesar might not have achieved the exalted position that was ultimately his, had news of the gold of the Celts not led him to invade and overwhelm Gaul.
Gold played a significant role in the framing of policies of ancient Rome. Emperors freely used gold to secure the loyalty of their officials and to influence dignitaries of other lands. They impressed and often intimidated their people with the magnificence of their wealth, easily established by displays of spectacular golden ornaments.
The gold mines which had focused their attention on their Spanish provinces later also attracted the Western Goths. They also added a measure of material inducement to the religious objectives of the Islamic conquerors who would rule over Spain for many centuries.
Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, might not have ascended the throne had he not had the good fortune to take possession of the greatest treasure of the age, the looted gold of the Avars who had previously plundered most of southern Russia and the Balkans. The economic and cultural consequences of this and other victories over nomads from Eastern Europe and Asia were substantial and profound.
It is now difficult to conceive of a nation actually going to war over gold. But an indication of how such drastic action might have come about in the past can be seen in the way such commodity treasures as oil can threaten political equilibrium today and lead governments to consider measures that might otherwise be unthinkable.
One of the most significant balance of power changes in the middle Ages, resulting from the crusaders' conquest of Constantinople, demonstrates the significance gold has had as a political catalyst. In 1202, powerful legions of knights, wearing the sign of the Cross, assembled on the Mediterranean coast of Europe for the purpose of capturing the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens. They did not reach Jerusalem. Instead, in 1204, they conquered Constantinople, the Christian capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. They changed -their route and intention because of an agreement reached with the Doge of Venice. In exchange for a substantial payment, the Doge was to supply and transport the crusaders. But instead of the 35,000 men expected in Venice, en route to glory, only 10,000 arrived some had preferred to embark in Marseilles for the Middle East. But the Doge still insisted that he be paid in full, according to the original agreement. A compromise was finally reached whereby the crusaders would "work off" their debt by recapturing for Venice the Christian town of Zara, on the Dalmatian coast. Thus, in November 1202, knights who had congregated to defend their faith found themselves battling fellow Christians and looting their possessions.
Christian Constantinople, not Jerusalem, was the first objective for these warriors of the Cross, partly to redeem their debts to Venice, partly because of generous promises of gold made by a banished claimant to the Byzantine crown if the crusaders succeeded in gaining the throne for him. By that time, not a few of the knights were also tempted by stile prospect of looting Constantinople. The city was known far and wide for its wealth, which included enormous golden treasure at a time when gold was in increasingly short supply in the western European regions from which the crusaders had come.
The original goal of the crusaders who besieged and entered Constantinople was by then forgotten. The material temptations of the "golden city", Christian though it was, were now their prime objective. Even sympathetic accounts of chroniclers who fought with the forces of the western knights make it clear how barbarically the crusaders behaved in Constantinople. Aside from cruelly mistreating the populace, they confiscated huge amounts of treasure and shipped or took it home.
The historian Steven Runciman says of the invading knights, "They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up every-thing that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape, or to break open the wine cellars."
However, some were later to say the sack of Constantinople had been perfectly proper. So insisted King Philip IV of France when, in 1305, he confiscated the greatest private treasure of his age, the estates and gold of the Knights Templar’s. His actions, and those of the crusaders who had looted Constantinople, were described as defending orthodoxy against heretical tendencies and immorality.
The order of the Knights Templars had been founded early in the twelfth century to defend the Holy Sepulcher. Its aims and distinguished membership soon brought it great power and wealth, often greater than that of individual kingdoms. Sometimes those resources were not employed in an exclusively "Christian" fashion. The Knights Templars included warriors and monks but they were also noted for those among them who were bankers and "travel agents" for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Among their debtors was King Philip. Though the sum he owed was paltry to the Knights Tcmplars, it was very substantial for him. His efforts to make good his financial short a comings and to acquire funds for military campaigns transformed him into a forger, an extortionist and a blackmailer. Not for the first or last time had a lust for treasure led a monarch to abandon all moral and religious restraint. Templars were arrested and put on trial on obscure charges. They were tortured, made to confess to sacrilegious practices and t executed. The order was dissolved and its wealth was t confiscated.
Throughout history, war has invariably led to more war. Thus Napoleon's earliest aggressive actions in Europe were designed to provide resources to finance an intended expedition of conquest in Egypt. More specifically, he hoped the cost of maintaining his army would be carried by the state treasuries in Switzerland and the private wealth of its most prosperous cities. When the city of Berne capitulated, an enormous treasure of gold and silver was confiscated, as were three bears from the Berne bear pit, the city's emblem.
But, though often the cause of conflagration, gold has sometimes provided reasons for not going to war. Many are the times when trading nations have chosen paths of peace to prevent their mercantile interests from being sacrificed. For example, some Swiss burghers under threat from Napoleonic forces chose not to resist. They were more interested in the trade passing through their hands than they were in devoting their energies to fighting the French, who might have penalized them by stopping all their commercial transactions.
But so many of the advances in civilization which gold has helped promote, including masterpieces of art and craftsmanship, have had to be paid for with misery and pain. The Greek historian Diodorus reports that the Egyptian pharaohs condemned criminals, prisoners of war and other outcasts to inhuman toil in the mines. Driven by overseers' whips, their feet fettered, they were compelled to work incredibly long hours to try, hopelessly, to satisfy the hunger for gold.
The glory of the Iberian Renaissance and baroque culture would have been much diminished had it not been for the gold which- Spain acquired from its sixteenth-century discoveries in Central and South America. But the misery inflicted by the conquistadors in acquiring that gold was beyond measure. They mistreated, tortured and annihilated countless Indians to attain their golden objective. When there was nothing left to plunder above the ground, the new lords of what was to be Latin America began tapping the source of the treasure. Pitiless severity was the rule of the mines where Indians extracted the gold for their masters. The gold of the colonizers was as stained with blood as that of the conquistadors.
The Welsers, German financiers, bought themselves into South American gold mining. In 1527, they reached an agreement with the King of Spain which authorized them to take over part of what would become Venezuela and to found colonies and build forts there. But the project came to nothing. Settlers ignored their carefully calculated assignments and instructions. They had barely landed when they turned their expedition into a rampage of pointless destruction. Eyewitness reports possibly exaggerated say they managed to devastate four hundred square miles of land and to slaughter between four and five million of the local inhabitants in a frenzied, hysterical search for treasure.
The greater the value placed on gold, the less the value placed on individuals. The gold discoveries in California, Australia and Alaska in the nineteenth century tempted many thousands of prospectors to try their luck. It is impossible to record what fate finally awaited all of those treasure seekers.
The period of the gold rush in the American West was a lawless and bandit-ridden era. Cemeteries expanded almost as quickly as settlements. In some, few of those buried had died natural deaths. The fact that only few prospectors, who had invested great time and energy in their efforts, struck pay dirt meant that general respect for life and property was widely reduced. Men who saw others get rich quickly through sheer luck saw no reason why they themselves should not get as rich as quickly, even if it meant turning to crime. Nor was it only the corrupting effect gold fever had on otherwise moral individuals. The gold rush and the need to store and transport substantial quantities of gold attracted criminals and would-be criminals from all over the United States and many other parts of the world. A crime wave was launched during the early days of the California gold rush and reached its peak across the American West during the 1870's and 1880's. Violent crime was as frequent as western movies suggest. The Wells Fargo company alone suffered more than two hundred stagecoach robberies in 1877. Train robbery was even more profitable. Sophisticated techniques, as well as simple explosives, were employed to get at gold, silver and cash locked behind the doors of train safes.
In Australia, so-called bushrangers’ robbers who joined together in gangs made their appearance during the gold rush. It has been claimed that a reason for the high rate of crime at the time was the fact that Australia had been a penal colony, a place to which thousands of British convicts had been "transported" for more than a century. But it is more likely that the reason was the corrupting influence of gold fever. With even the police taking to pick and shovel as gold hysteria spread, the authorities were unable to act effectively to halt the crime wave.
During the gold rush in Alaska, the authorities were in an even more untenable position when it came to establishing and maintaining the rule of law. Virtually none of the people engaged in seeking gold there were of local origin and the trappings of administration were exceedingly thin. Again, a goodly number of criminally inclined individuals were among those who ventured north to seek fortune. Advice freely.