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Banking and Business in the Roman World

Author(s):Andreau, Jean
Reviewer(s):Tandy, David

Published by EH.NET (January 2001)


Jean Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xix + 176 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-38031-6; $22.95 (paperback) 0-521-38932-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Tandy, Department of Classics, University of Tennessee.

This book is not an economic history in the strictest sense. The nature of the evidence for Roman financial practices, both in its paucity and its frequent ambiguity, prevents analysis of the type economic historians of more recent times can make. What Jean Andreau, Directeur d’Etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, does very effectively is analyze, not without chronological awareness, the institutions within which Romans of several classes worked their financial arrangements over the course of about 600 years, from the arrival in Rome of the first professional bankers in the 310s BC until the end of the Principate in 284 AD. This book is the first study of banking and financial activities in general that covers this entire period. Part of the reason for the book’s success is its emphasis on institutions.

A couple of other points at the start: This volume was invited to be part of the Key Themes in Ancient History series edited by Paul Cartledge and Peter Garnsey; this means, among other things, that the book is designed “for students and teachers of Classics and Ancient History, but also for those engaged in related disciplines.” The book is thus accessible by design, and that accessibility is enhanced by the work of the translator Janet Lloyd, than whom there is no more respected translator of French texts on antiquity into English.

Because it is one of the book’s most admirable virtues, I will say this up front: Andreau is preternaturally generous in the presentation of interpretations with which he disagrees. Those who find his approach to evidence frustrating will be very few, for all viewpoints are generously represented.

In the first sentence of chapter 1, Andreau defines banking and business: “All operations involving money on its own, independent of trade, which consists of transactions involving merchandise” (p. 1). The book succeeds in this promise. From the start he is eager to make clear the important distinction between elite money persons and professionals, a distinction to which he will return repeatedly. He also briefly discusses his own relationship to the modernist-primitivist debate, revealing a pro-Weber, pro-Finley inclination, but emphasizing that he prefers a qualitative-quantitative distinction. Thus, his approach will be “centred on the evolution of financial operations, professions, and enterprises” (p. 7).

Chapter 2 takes up the financial activities of elites, who routinely loaned money at interest. These men were called feneratores, and are easily distinguishable from professional bankers, the argentarii. The elites were not subject to regulation; the professionals were. Feneratores loaned out their own money and others’, the risks being carried by the suppliers of the cash; argentarii, by contrast, loaned out their own money and others’, but carried the risk themselves, because they were essentially deposit banks. The chapter outlines elite financial activity and concludes that their activity encouraged monetization, that it encouraged commercialization and circulation of patrimonies, and that it provided credit for those in need of money.

Chapter 3 is a survey of banks and bankers. These professionals (argentarii) offered many services, including a great deal of auction credit work, but as the Roman jurists saw things, “what characterized a bank was the twofold service that it provided: receiving deposits and advancing credit” (p. 39).

Chapter 4 covers other types of financiers, among them the “entrepreneurs,” usurers, and those involved in the risky business of maritime loans. He concludes with a very interesting discussion of mobility from one category to another. Recalling the mutual exclusivity of the professionals and the elites, Andreau notes that frequently professionals would devolve their businesses to their freedmen and pass the wealth on to a son, who could then, through that wealth, join the ranks of the elites, but would not be a banker. In fact, Andreau can conclude that “an heir to an argentarius would, as a matter of course, not himself practice his father’s profession” (p. 61).

Chapter 5 reviews the evidence for financial dependents in the Roman world. Chapter 6 offers a glimpse of the Murecine tablets from Pompeii, which indicate the full range of the financial activities of the Sulpicii family of the city of Puteoli, recording all sorts of transactions dating from 26 to 61 AD. Chapter 7 discusses the once mysterious tesserae nummulariae, small bone or ivory rods that had names and abbreviated messages written on them. For centuries historians believed the tesserae had been worn by gladiators on a chain or cord around their necks. Refining the arguments of Rudolf Herzog, Andreau argues that the tesserae were markers affixed to sacks of coins that attested that the coins had been properly assayed and by whom. Many different types of moneyhandlers were capable of such assaying, and Andreau goes through all the possibilities.

For those readers who prefer to view economic activities and economic history mostly in terms of quantifiable and modern numbers, chapter 8, “The Interest Rate,” finally brings some meat to Andreau’s survey. Legislation was frequently enacted to limit interest-bearing loans. For example, the lex Cornelia Pompeia of 88 BC limited interest to either 12 percent (one ounce per pound times 12 months) or 8-1/3 percent (1/12 per annum). But in 51 BC, the Senate established the limit at 12 percent, indicating that the former legislation was no longer working. This limit, even later, in the Empire, was rarely exceeded, but when it happened, the recorded rates are not 15 to 18 percent, but 24, 38, and even 60 percent per annum.

Chapter 10, on the role of the State in finances, offers two useful if difficult observations: (i) Romans were aware of the system of financial relations that functioned autonomously, and also knew that if they broke down they needed to be fixed; (ii) Roman authorities in no period reveal even a vague awareness of the monetary needs of their economy, of their society.

Chapter 11 discusses how although the Roman State did not loan money, Emperors did. Hence there was no concept of public debt. Chapter 12 discusses the difficulties involved in dealing with quantities and quantitative developments, and offers a set of observations about changes in types of players and institutions. For example, documents indicate a total disappearance of bankers after the first century AD.

In the final chapter 12 Andreau concludes the volume with a most enlightening discussion of the modernist-primitivist debate that thus frames the book. There follows a succinct four-page bibliographical essay, a substantial bibliography, and an index of brief but sufficient compass.

With Banking and Business in the Roman World Andreau, who is working on a comprehensive history of banking from antiquity through the medieval period, has given us an excellent, wieldy introduction to the financial activities of the Roman Republic and the first three hundred years of the Empire. He emphasizes the structures within which the activities take place because of the nature of our evidence. Substantivists will especially appreciate Andreau’s approach, but I repeat that Andreau’s exceptional openness and generosity toward divergent points of view leaves something, or rather everything, for everyone. Economic historians of all periods and of all dispositions will reap benefit from this survey of the practices of the ancient Romans. There is no current competition in any language for this instant standard, and given the price of the paperback, every serious economic or social historian should buy it.

David Tandy’s most recent book is Warriors into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece (University of California Press, 1997).

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient