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Roman banking

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Roman treasure
Roman treasure

The activities of Roman banks are not documented in such detail as, for example, Greek ones, because no important Latin positions have been preserved. From Roman law, however, we know that banking and cash deposit were highly developed. Roman bankers appeared in the 3rd century BCE Initially, they were called trapezitai from the Greek (from the word trapezoid, meaning “abacus”), but then the Latin name argentarii came into use.

A turning point in Rome’s opening up to the great Mediterranean trade and, consequently, the development of credit and banking, was the opening of the port of Ostia in 179 BCE In Rome, the highest social groups performed the function of bankers since the conduct of banking activities was not contempt. At first, they were ordinary senators and their families. However, with the release of the law lex Claudia de senatoribus of 218 BCE which forbade senators and their sons to engage in trade and money transactions, this privilege fell on equites who had a wide earning potential. Later it happened that equites exceeded the senators in wealth and thus achieved high positions in the state.

The equites were in the hands of particularly profitable government offices, from which recruited publicani – officials responsible for collecting taxes in the provinces. Publicani often pooled their capital into companies (solitates).
Roman Senators, concerned about the rapid enrichment of equities and strengthening their influence, tried to limit their financial arbitrariness in the provinces. To this end, they introduced new laws designed to hinder the endeavours of the more agile social class.

During archaeological excavations in the former Roman Empire, a large number of coins were found in various places, which indicates commercial relations between Roman centres or other countries.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Associations of Roman bankers

Bankers’ associations, or societates argentariae, were a banking peculiarity in the Roman world. The capital for their creation came from financial membership fees and was released to pay off debts. As banks were of particular public interest, Roman law required members of societates argentariae to be responsible for deposits with all their property. The joint, unlimited liability of the members of the associations was a general principle of Roman law, which served to minimize the effects of fraud and abuse by bankers and to protect the right of depositors to recover money at any request.

Their books recorded crediting and debiting of customer accounts. The Roman bankers’ books were treated as evidence in court, so they had to be kept in accordance with editio rationum for the dating and management of accounts. The Mensa (the type of counter that originally dealt with exchanging money), much like today’s banking licenses, was portable.

As in Rome, it was the state that owned the premises where banking activities were carried out, and the right to operate (granted by the state) was in the process of being handed over. Such a transfer could include all taverna furniture and equipment, as well as financial assets and liabilities. The bankers also formed a guild to defend common interests and obtained important privileges from the emperors.

Originally, the banks were located in temples, in the basements of which 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 this holy place was constantly visited by priests, and patrols passed under the building. In this way, wealthy Romans were sure that their money was well secured. Money was often placed in various temples to avoid losing funds in the event of a robbery or fire.

In temples, money was exchanged, placed or borrowed. Some also had mints where new coins were minted – incl. in the Temple of Juno Moneta.

Argentarii – Roman bankers

The gradual development of trade in the Mediterranean in the 3rd century BCE led to the formation of private bankers (argentarii also called a rgenteae mensae exercitores, argenti distractores or negotiatores stipis argentariae), who had business in taverns (taverna) in Forum, near the temple of Castor and Pollux2. In addition to argentarii, there were mensarii and nummularii, which will be discussed in the following subsections.

Bad business could end up in bankruptcy for the bankers. Bankruptcy was known 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.

Bankers accepted deposits, made loans, exchanged money (permutatio), and sometimes auctioned for a 1% commission. Permutatio was performed for a small fee (collybus). A specific operation was the contract presum argentarii, in which the banker guaranteed his client’s loan from a third party, becoming, in the event of the client’s insolvency, the debtor of the latter. With time, this operation was replaced by constitutum debiti alieni, i.e. an informal obligation to pay someone else’s debt. Such solutions allowed for the development of new credit operations.

Each banker was required to keep two kinds of books: adversarium and codex rationae mensae.

  • Adversarium was a pop-up log where the locker logged operations in chronological order.
  • Codex rationae mensae was a set of customer accounts broken down into debit (expensum ferre) and credit (acceptum ferre).

As previously mentioned, a citizen could apply for a loan. Roman law knew two types of loans:

  • Nexum was taken in a solemn manner “with bronze and weight” (per aedes et libram). The creditor may have sold the debtor in slavery (legis actio per manus iniectionem).
  • Mutuum was an informal loan that succeeded in supplanting the older nexum.

Interest (foenus or usuriae) was treated as remuneration for using someone else’s capital. They were an interest-bearing loan as opposed to mutuum, an interest-free friend loan. The loan contract itself did not usually result in interest, but a separate agreement was concluded, often in the form of a solemn oral promise (stipulatio). Sometimes the existence of interest was assumed by the operation of law, especially in proceedings based on the so-called in good faith (bona fides).

Money lending was very common in Rome. This was done by professional moneylenders (feneratores) and by equites. Debt enforcement was facilitated by a strict enforcement procedure, actio certae creditae pecuniae.

Mensaria

Mensarii (from the word mensa meaning “cantor” – the kind of counter at which money was exchanged) were widely respected state bankers who were appointed to the office on exceptional occasions – mostly in poverty (especially during the war). Their aim was to help those plebeians who had particularly severe financial problems, and indirectly calm rebellious moods in the lower strata of society. As previously mentioned, a Roman commoner who did not pay his debt (nexum) could become a slave.

This position appears for the first time in history in 352 BCE. Mensarii formed the “commission of five” (Quinqueviri mensarii) and the public bank for indebted citizens. In 216 BCE, under Lex Minucia De Triumviris Mensariis, a “commission of three” began to operate – with the same powers as its predecessor. It operated until 210 BCE.

Mensarii largely served the same functions as argentarii, and in ancient times people had difficulty distinguishing between the two types of bankers. Nevertheless, in Roman times, several mensarii surnames were popular: Gaius Duilius, Publius Decius Mus, Marcus Papirius, Quintus Publius and Titus Emilius.

Nummularii

Nummularii were officials whose main task was to look after and check the quality of the newly minted coins. They ran their own bank in which they put new money into circulation. They checked new coins especially when they were involved in a big deal. Much of the rest of the nummularii functions differed little from argentarii.

The crisis and fall of the Roman economy

The economic and social collapse of the Roman Empire was the result of the government’s inflationary policies that devalued the currency1 and the establishment of maximum prices for the most important commodities, which in turn led to a general scarcity of these commodities, the financial ruin of merchants, and the disappearance of trade between the various areas of the empire. It was the end of banking as well.

Most banks collapsed in the course of successive economic crises in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. The empire, in an attempt to contain social and economic decay, took additional coercive interventionist measures, which only hastened the disintegration process and enabled the barbarians (for years defeated and held in check by Roman legions) to destroy and conquer the remnants of the ancient, thriving Roman Empire. The fall of the ancient world began a long period of the Middle Ages, and it wasn’t until almost eight hundred years later that banking was rediscovered in Italian cities.

Roman balancing weights

Types of vaults

The Roman treasury was termed aerarium and had three forms:

  • Aerarium populi Romani – the state treasury located in the Temple of Saturn in the Forum Romanum. He was looked after by a quaestor urbanus, supervised by the senate. The source of his income was the tributum (from 406 BCE to 168 CE), funds from extraordinary taxes, taxes from the provinces, as well as a 4% fee paid for the sale of a slave.
  • Aerarium sanctius populi Romani – it was a special purpose register. The source of her income was the proceeds from the 5% fee for the liberation of the slave, as well as part of the spoils of war.
  • Aerarium militare – the fund was established by Augustus in 6 CE. Its purpose was to provide payments to retired soldiers. He was looked after by three prefects.
Footnotes
  1. Roman power gradually lowered the value of money by increasing the base metals in coins.
Sources
  • Jean Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World
  • Huerta de Soto Jesús, Pieniądz, kredyt bankowy i cykle koniunkturalne, Warszawa 2009
  • Victor Labate, Banking in the Roman World, "Ancient.eu", 17.11.2016

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