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What have the Romans ever done for us?
So, apart from the roads — which go without saying — the aqueduct, sanitation, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths and public order — what have the Romans ever done for us?
Well, as we pointed out on Wednesday, there is a growing view among some ancient scholars that the Monty Python boys could and should have included credit in that list. And in in a big way, since the Roman economy likely featured a lot more paper money assets than most ancient historians care to admit. (Something a lot of modern-day economists and strategists who like throwing Roman coinage supply charts into their research don’t often explain.)
W.V Harris of Columbia University is probably best known for having made and substantiated the argument. And in my opinion, it’s certainly a very compelling one. Indeed, if you love the whole “what is money?” debate, have read David Graeber’s Debt and are still fascinated by the exogenous/endogenous nature of it all, I really recommend a download of his paper A Revisionist View of Roman Money from 2006, or a read of his 2008 book The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans.
So, having explained why it’s not necessarily fair to blame Roman coinage debasement for third century hyperinflation and the ultimate fall of Rome — which, ironically, was much more likely the result of technological stagnation and political upheaval (and surely anyone who has ever played the computer game Civilization could have told you that) — it’s worth delving a little deeper into how the Roman monetary system really worked, and what it might genuinely teach us about our modern day economy.
So let’s begin with evidence for a credit economy in the first place and the idea that the standard definition of money “pecunia” is much far reaching than many suppose, starting with Republican times.
Harris notes in his 2006 paper that this is fairly easy to establish (our emphasis):
How did Cicero transfer the 31⁄2 million sesterces he paid for his famous house on the Palatine (Fam. 5.6.2 — this was by no means the largest property price we know of in the classical city of Rome), at a time when Rome had practically no gold coinage? It seems singularly unlikely that his slaves counted out and loaded 31⁄2 tons of silver coins and transported this cargo through the streets of Rome (not that Roman ideas of inconvenience were necessarily the same as ours). When a certain C. Albanius bought an estate from a certain C. Pilius for 111⁄2 million sesterces (Cic., Att. 13.31.4), did he physically send him this sum in silver coins? Without much doubt, these were at least for the most part paper, or rather documentary, transactions (the crucial documents will have been waxed tablets). The commonest procedure for large property purchases in this period was probably the one casually alluded to by Cicero elsewhere: a Roman knight becomes enamoured of a certain property at Syracuse, and ‘nomina facit, negotium conficit’, ‘he provides the credits [or “bonds”], <and so> completes the purchase’ (De off. 3.59).14 This practice is reflected in Cicero’s letters.15 And when in Pro Caecina Aebutius’ bid for a rural property being sold at auction is successful, he concludes the affair by ‘promising money to the argentarius’ (Caec. 16), and about that at least there was nothing in the least irregular: no one denied that the property had really been sold — the only question about the sale was whether Aebutius was acting for someone else. And you might buy in instalments: when Cicero bought out the share of the horti Cluviani that had gone to another legatee (Att. 13.46.3), he did so in three payments spread out over nearly a year (Att. 16.2.1), in effect taking a loan from the seller. None of which is to deny that coins might sometimes play considerable roles in major property transactions (see below).
As for bullion:
It is frequently imagined that, under the Republic at least, large payments were made in gold bullion, and there was indeed bullion in circulation; but there is no evidence in Cicero’s extensive writings or elsewhere that gold was a regular means of payment before the minting of gold under Caesar’s dictatorship. Expert scholars have sought for evidence that individuals bought things with gold or silver bullion under the Republic, and have found none. Crawford catalogued 335 republican coin hoards for the years 150 to 27 b.c.: exactly two of these 335 can be considered to have had a serious bullion component. And as Andreau points out, the archaeology of the Vesuvian cities, which has produced every imaginable kind of find, has never produced a single ingot of gold or silver. Of course we do have some explicit evidence of gold bullion in private hands under the Republic (Cic., Cluent. 179), but it was apparently a store of wealth, to be exchanged against more spendable assets in times of emergency. ‘Gold’ was what a very rich man such as Rabirius gave to a friend such as Cicero who was scurrying into exile (Rab.Post. 47), his credit shot — letters of credit might not be honoured if presented by a man in Cicero’s position, and coins once again were bulky — but this has nothing to do with ordinary business life. In imperial times, once again, we sometimes find gold bullion in private hands (e.g. Ulpian in Dig. 12.1.11.pr.), but it is implicitly not counted as pecunia, and seldom used in business or property transactions, as far as we know. There was an important exception, which does not invalidate the general conclusion: bullion sometimes had to be used to buy things from across the frontier, the eastern frontier at least: hence it was sometimes on sale at Coptos and Alexandria.
So, what you had for the most part was a wealth system made up of land, property, slaves, loan assets and bullion, for store of value and emergency use only — that is, to be used when your credit was shot or unknown to your counterparty.
But real proof that the traditional understanding of Roman money is mistaken appears according to Harris in 49 BC — when once again civil war disturbed the stability of monetary and credit network. As he notes — and this is highly relevant to today — there was something of a safe asset run:
Nervous creditors began to seek payment even of the principal ‘in silver’, i.e. silver coin, and one part of Caesar’s reaction was to ‘forbid anyone to hold more than 15,000 drachmas in silver or gold’ (Dio 41.38.1), which would have meant a Maoist revolution — most emphatically not Caesar’s purpose — if gold and silver coins had really been the only form of money. Quite obviously, his purpose was that the rich should lend, which would leave them with negotiable nomina.
As to those who question how Rome could have operated a credit economy without a viable clearing system, Harris says:
When economists define credit-money, they sometimes, admittedly, make matters more complicated than I have made them in this account, but that is because they quite naturally have recent and current conditions in mind, and not the world that existed before the invention of clearing banks. ‘A credit money system presupposes the existence of the institutions of private property, contracts, enforcement, and clearing’, says one. But historically speaking, as we shall see, the last of these four elements is a wonderful convenience but not in fact a necessity.
In the Roman scheme of things what you paid with was commonly pecunia, though other words such as nummi were also standard. It is therefore quite important that pecunia could have a very wide meaning. Naturally one ought not to press individual texts too hard. Gaius, for instance, remarks that ‘the term pecunia in this law [Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de sponsu, if that was its real name] means everything; and so if we stipulate for wine or wheat or a farm or a slave, this law must be observed’.
In another passage Ulpian claims that ‘the term pecunia includes not only coinage but every kind of money whatsoever, that is, every substance (omnia corpora); for no one doubts that substances are also included in the definition of money’ (Dig. 50.16.178). Clearly it is not Ulpian’s intention here to deny that documents could represent money but simply to assert that such things as wine and wheat could indeed count.
The important point for us in any case is that pecunia could include loans. And in fact Cicero in a published speech simply takes it for granted that nomina were a form of pecunia, that is to say that credit, at least in a certain form, was money (II Verr. 5.17), though in this case rather illiquid money (Verres’ victim had an interest in asserting that he could not pay because his assets were mainly in nomina). For Tacitus, it is reasonably clear that pecunia included credit.56 Hermogenianus ought really to have said that pecunia could include objects and legal claims, on certain conditions; but he was certainly not expressing an extreme or eccentric opinion — Justinian’s lawyers chose just these two definitions of money, Ulpian’s and Hermogenianus’, and no others.
Then comes the question of safe assets and investable loans. Harris notes that whilst temples and cities where known to provide loans, on the whole the Roman credit market was based on credit and debt transactions between private individuals:
But these [city and temple loans] are probably minor phenomena, whereas debt was in fact the life-blood of the Roman economy, at all levels. The normality of nomina (i.e. outstanding loans) among the assets of the rentier class has already been commented on: nomina were a completely standard part of the lives of people of property, as well as being an everyday fact of life for great numbers of others. Nothing could be further from the truth than a scholar’s contention that it was only under extraordinary circumstances that the creation of credit-money took place. In a modern economy the standard cautious investment for the well-to-do is, or at least used to be, government bonds; in the virtual absence of bonds, governmental or otherwise, the Roman well-to-do relied heavily on nomina. Describing the credit crisis of a.d. 33, Tacitus (Ann. 6.16.3) remarks that all senators were more extensively involved in money-lending than the law allowed (‘neque enim quisquam tali culpa vacuus’). We know that by the late Republic virtually every aristocrat whose affairs are attested in the sources lent money, and it was normal for the less illustrious senators to do so too. Augustus was evidently regarded as something of a stickler for having tried to keep the equites up to old-fashioned aristocratic standards by punishing those among them who borrowed money at lower rates of interest in order to lend it at higher ones (Suet. 39).
And as Harris says, there’s no reason why this pattern of lending should have changed much under the Empire. A point emphasized by the fact that Roman statutes reference practices and procedures for dealing with loan recoveries.
And it was in this context that early banks came into being, catering as much to the elite as to the lower classes, according to Harris.
In fact, during the credit crisis of 33 AD, banks were used by the Emperor — very much like today — as a transmission tool for newly created credit:
…the credit crisis of a.d. 33 concerned initially and above all senators, and when Tiberius decided to rescue the credit market, he did so by providing 100 million sesterces of loans, not directly, however, but through mensae (Tac., Ann. 6.17.3), which are not, as many interpreters have claimed, ‘specially established’ or ‘temporary’ banks (nothing of that in the sources), but just ‘banks’.
What’s more large portions of the debt and credit market were transferable in their own right — thus in some capacity money-like:
In Section i we saw a fair amount of evidence for non-coinage payments of sums large and not-so-large. Nomina were transferable, and by the second century b.c., if not earlier, were routinely used as a means of payment for other assets. This fact is recognized in a simple statement by the jurist Pomponius. The Latin term for the procedure by which the payer transferred a nomen that was owed to him to the seller was delegatio. There was in fact a market in nomina.
As for the importance of coinage over credit, we think the following is a good point to leave our wander through the Roman credit system on:
What is most interesting about the aggregate stock of silver coinage in the late Republic is that it apparently starts to decrease after about 79 b.c., having previously risen steadily for generations, though there is no reason to think that there was any major decline in economic activity. Whatever exact motives led the authorities to mint coins, we may presume that this decrease would not have taken place if it had caused serious inconvenience to the well-to-do. The reason why it did not have this effect, I suggest, was that a large, and probably increasing, proportion of their sizeable financial transactions was being carried out wholly or mainly by means of documents.
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