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How were large transactions carried out in ancient Rome?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Sestertius from the reign of Octavian Augustus
Sestertius from the reign of Octavian Augustus | Photo: NumisBids, LLC

In 62 BCE Cicero was to buy a house from Licinius Crassus, located in a prestigious place – on the Palatine – until for 3.5 million sesterces1. For this, the famous orator was forced to take out a large loan; which was normal in the ancient world. But what is interesting, how did such a large transaction come about?

One silver Roman Sester weighed about 4.5 g, so Cicero had to give Crassus money weighing 15,750,000 grams, or 15.75 tons. Such a physical transaction would not make sense, both due to the possible effort to transport the coins and a possible mistake or loss of money.

Ancient Romans were aware of the problematic nature of carrying out such high-value transactions and introduced a more flexible payroll system – banks. As banking activities were not contempted, the function of bankers was performed by the highest social groups. At first, they were ordinary senators and their families. But with the release of the lex Claudia de senatoribus law of 218 BCE which forbade senators and their sons from engaging in commerce and money transactions, this privilege fell on equites who had a wide earning potential. Later it happened that equites surpassed the senators in wealth and thus achieved high positions in the state.

Transactions between citizens were simply recorded in the ledgers, and there were no problems with payments even between cities. Banks had their own branches, and debits and credits were recorded. Interestingly, the Roman bankers’ ledgers were treated as evidence in court, so they had to be kept in line with editio rationum for the dating and management of accounts.

Bad business could end up in bankruptcy for the bankers. Bankruptcy was referred to as foro cedere, foro abire, or a foro fugare, meaning “fleeing the forum.” Such a strange combination of words resulted from the fact that the presence on the forum was the duty of a person doing business. In this way, he proved his solvency. Leaving the square led to the obvious thesis that the banker was running an unclear business.

It is worth mentioning that originally the banks were located in the basements of temples, where funds were collected. Where exactly did you get the idea that these temples would be places to store money? This is due to the fact that the holy place was constantly visited by priests, and divine protection ensured that the money was well protected. Money was often placed in various temples to avoid losing funds in the event of a robbery or fire.

  1. Cicero, Ad Familiares, V.6.2
  • Piotr Niczyporuk, Bankierzy i operacje bankierskie w starożytnym Rzymie, Białystok 2013

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