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Greedy Roman financiers

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman coins
Roman coins

Evil and greedy financiers, using the “gray man” for his own enrichment, are not just a “product” of our time. Already in republican Rome there were people operating in the financial and banking sphere, basing on usury.

We know the world of Roman bankers through the letters from Cicero. The famous Roman orator and lawyer mentioned that every wealthy Roman had his own bank account. Cicero even describes the operations on such account. For example, when he wanted to send money to his son, studying in Athens, he went to hisbanker, to whom he paid the required amount. Then the son withdraw the money at the Athenian bank.

The usury was mainly a matter popular among equites, a middle social class that also carried out its activities outside the state. We know the case of a certain Gaius Rabirius Postumus who had a really colorful life as for a banker. In 59 BCE he lent a large sum of money to the ruler of Egypt – Ptolemy XII Auletes – who promised Caesar a dizzying 6,000 talents for recognizing him as king of Egypt, an ally and friend of the Roman people. In 55 BCE Ptolemy appointed Rabirius as the Minister of Finance, what allowed him to ruthlessly collect royal debts from Egyptians. This way Rabirius was able to regain his debts and collect 10,000 talents for a bribe for Syria’s governor Aulus Gabinius for getting the help in regaining the throne by Ptolemy. After a year of Rabirius’ rip-off, facing the threat of rebellion, Ptolemy removed a Roman banker from his position and imprisoned him. Rabirius fled to Rome, where he was accused in the senate by Gaius Memusius of rip-offs, bribery and service for a foreign ruler. Despite the defence of Cicero from 54 BCE he was sentenced to exile. He returned to Rome during the dictatorship of Caesar.

Apart from  equites, also senators dealt with usury. They did it against the law; therefore they used intermediares for their activities. An example was Lucius Lucteus, who gave usury loans to the commune of Byllis and whose interests were recommended by Cicero to the governor of Illyria. The popular case is connected with Caesar’s killer, Marcus Junius Brutus, who lent on a large percentage (48%) the large sum of money to city Salamis in Cyprus. Brutus was represented by Scaptius, who, with the help of Brutus’s father-in-law – Appius Claudius – received the prefecture of Cyprus. Faced with the inability to pay off the debt, Scaptius, along with the cavalry unit, besieged Salamis and tried to force the money. In this way, five Cypriot councilors died of hunger.

This story proves how immoral methods were used by Roman stoics. The debtor of the Romans was also the king of Cappadocia – Ariobarzanes. Financial agents of Pompey and Brutus competed with each other to get the ruler’s debts. Cicero mentions in letters: “He has no treasure or income”. Moreover, he said: “[…] there is nothing more miserable than this kingdom and nothing poorer than this king”. It is said that king Ariobarzanes paid Pompey 33 talents every month, and Brutus paid once 100 talents.

  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1965

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