In This Article Banking in the Roman World

  • Introduction
  • Scholarly Debates and Perspectives
  • Roman Professional Bankers: Origins, Evolution and Functions
  • Private Bankers: Documents, and Sources
  • Private Bankers as Deposit Holders
  • Private Bankers as Intermediaries at Auctions
  • Commercial Topography of Bankers
  • Financial Intermediation and the Credit Market in the Roman World
  • The Financial Activities of the Sulpicii

Classics Banking in the Roman World
by
Marta García Morcillo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0312

Introduction

In ancient Rome, banking practices achieved a significant level of complexity and private bankers became necessary figures of urban everyday life. The ancient evidence stresses the involvement of bankers in a wide range of private transactions, as well as their positive contribution to the monetary life of Italian and provincial cities. The understanding of these activities and their integration in the Roman society permits to sketch a more comprehensive picture of the Roman economy and emerges as a relevant factor of comparative studies in economic history. Private bankers (argentarii, nummularii, coactores) fulfilled a series of distinctive practices associated with their profession. Services included money-changing and the assaying of coins. They also acted as cashiers to clients and opened monetary deposits. As was the case in classical Greece, the holding of accounts was key in distinguishing the professional dealings of Roman bankers from those of other financiers, businessmen, and moneylenders. Irregular or open deposits permitted the banker to reuse and reinvest the money of the client. This is a defining trait of modern banking as well. In Italy and the West, bankers also participated in auctions as financial intermediaries between vendor and purchaser. They kept records of all operations and concluded written agreements with their clients and third parties. Ancient Roman banking thus concerned a great variety of operations and financial practices. These are crucial to assess the relevance and level or complexity of the monetary transactions in which they were involved. Traditional and ongoing scholarly debates revolve around the social status of bankers, the scale and networking of their businesses, and the level of sophistication of Greco-Roman banking in comparison to other economic practices and systems. They also address the question of the impact of banking on Rome’s monetary history and on the endemic problem of liquidity. The study of private banking draws also interesting comparative questions about the absence of public banks and public debt in Rome and the specific financial functions of the state treasure (aerarium) in times of monetary difficulties. Research on Roman banking has been fuelled by heterogeneous evidence, from inscriptions to legal texts and cross-genre literature. Particular scholarly attention has been drawn in the last decades to the extraordinary archives from 1st century CE Campania: the wax-tablets of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus and those belonging to the Sulpicii, financers from Puteoli. The study of papyri from Roman Egypt has also significantly contributed to shed light on the widespread integration and diversification of banking practices beyond Italy, where the majority of epigraphic material comes from, and has given fresh impetus to new approaches to ancient economies.

Scholarly Debates and Perspectives

More than any other practice, monetary deposits were the trademark and essence of private ancient banking. Raymond Bogaert (Bogaert 1968), was the first author to provide a definition of Greek banks or trapezai, which he expanded and slightly modified in his research on Roman Egypt in Bogaert 2000. The prolific and exhaustive contributions by Jean Andreau have dominated the studies of Roman banking since the publication of his historical study of the Iucundus archive, Andreau 1974, and a comprehensive monograph on private bankers in the Roman West up to the 3rd century CE, Andreau 1987. M. I. Finley’s traditional view of ancient banking as an activity eminently underdeveloped still resounds in modern debates about the economic relevance of this business. As Andreau (Andreau 1987, Andreau 1999) has critically noted, research still navigates largely between the dichotomy of archaism versus modernity. In his view, professional bankers created a great variety of financial mechanisms and practices that were deeply integrated in the daily life of the Romans. He further asserts that the amounts and the financial enterprises that deposit bankers and their networks moved remained within a relatively limited scale, compared with the volume of business of financers from other social orders. From a legal perspective, Petrucci 1991 discusses the concept mensam exercere, which he describes as any banking enterprise, being it conducted by professional bankers or not. Camodeca’s comprehensive edition and studies on the Sulpicii archive (Camodeca 1999), a group of financiers linked to the harbor of Puteoli, has led to differentiated views about the defining traits of private bankers, their functions, and economic impact. Traditional and new trends are discussed in depth in the edited collective volume homage to Bogaert, Verboven, et al. 2008. From a modernist perspective, Rathbone and Temin 2008 have argued that Roman banking represented a broader business that transcended social orders and that enclosed activities such as moneylending. The authors point out that from the 2nd century BCE banking provided a significant impetus into the credit market and the monetary economy. Recent works on Roman finances in the light of the influential new institutional economies have moved the focus toward different angles and forms of analysis, such as the application of information economics and particularly information asymmetries in the study of banking operations and relationships, such as in Lerouxel 2016.

  • Andreau, J. 1974. Les Affaires de Monsieur Jucundus. Rome: École Française de Rome.

    E-mail Citation »

    An in-depth, commented edition and historical study of the wax-tablets of the Pompeian banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.

  • Andreau, J. 1987. La vie financière dans le monde romain. Les metiers de manieurs d’argent (IVe siècle av. J.-C. - IIIe siècle ap. J.-C.). Rome: École Française de Rome.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the most exhaustive analysis of Roman professional bankers, their activities, and the socioeconomic context in which they operated. This far-reaching monograph is a deep-seated work that also shows the relatively limited economic scale of the businesses led by private bankers. Andreau defines banking as a commercial business receiving deposits from clients to whom the banker provides cashier services, including the lending of funds to third parties.

  • Andreau, J. 1999. Banking and business in the Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book updates some of Andreau’s most relevant research on Roman financial practices up to the 3rd century CE. It discusses the variety of operations and documents concerning the subject and establishes the ground differences between different categories of financers.

  • Bogaert, R. 1968. Banques et banquiers dans les cités grecques. Leiden, The Netherlands: Sijthoff.

    E-mail Citation »

    Bogaert’s French revision of his pioneer PhD thesis is a cross-temporal examination of banking business in Greek cities from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. The author concludes that Greek private banks were in origin deposit banks.

  • Bogaert, R. 2000. Les opérations des banques de l’Égypte romaine. Ancient Society 30:135–269.

    DOI: 10.2143/AS.30.0.565562E-mail Citation »

    The author discusses here different activities attached to deposit accounts that Roman-Egyptian bankers held for their clients. This task was the quintessence of the profession, while the documents do not single out credit as a crucial practice.

  • Camodeca, G. 1999. Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum. Edizione critica dell’archivio puteolano dei Sulpicii (Vetera 12). 2 vols. Rome: Quasar.

    E-mail Citation »

    Accurate edition of the tablets and historical study of the documents and the operations they attest. The author suggests the hypothesis that the Sulpicii, whose activities were linked with the credit market of the harbor of Puteoli, would have been private bankers, possibly argentarii.

  • Lerouxel, F. 2016. Le marché du crédit dans le monde romain. Rome: École française de Rome.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this monograph on the Roman credit market, the author analyzes the important function of institutions, formal and informal, in the success and development of financial activities.

  • Petrucci, A. 1991. Mensam exercere: Studi sull’impresa finanziaria romana: (II secolo a.C.-metà del III secolo d.C.). Naples, Italy: Giovane.

    E-mail Citation »

    According to Petrucci, mensae were banking enterprises engaged in partnerships and networked economic organizations.

  • Rathbone, D., and P. Temin. 2008. Financial intermediation in first-century AD Rome and eighteenth-century England. In Pistoi dia tèn technèn: Bankers, loans, and archives in the ancient world: Studies in honour of Raymond Bogaert. Edited by K. Verboven, K. Vandorpe, and V. Chankowski, 371–419. Studia Hellenistica 44. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors attribute to Roman banking a major financial and economic function, which involved not only banks, but also brokers, partnerships, and filial structures that would have played a relevant part in the funding of economic enterprises. In their view, Roman banking achieved a high level of complexity that can be compared with that reached by 18th-century English banks.

  • Verboven, K., K. Vandorpe, and V. Chankowski, eds. 2008. Pistoi dia tèn technèn: Bankers, loans, and archives in the ancient world: Studies in honour of Raymond Bogaert. Studia Hellenistica 44. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.

    E-mail Citation »

    This homage to Raymond Bogaert provides a far-reaching overview of the state of play of studies in Greco-Roman finances, discusses well-known sources and new evidence, and proposes new interpretations on the economic impact of ancient banking.

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