Historical Echoes: Cash or Credit? Payments and Finance in Ancient Rome
Marco Del Negro and Mary Tao
Imagine yourself a Roman citizen in the 1st Century B.C. You’ve gone shopping with your partner, who’s trying to convince you to buy a particular item. The thing’s pretty expensive, and you demur because you’re short of cash. You may think that back then such an excuse would get you off scot-free. What else can you possibly do: Write a check? Well, yes, writes the poet Ovid in his “Ars Amatoria, Book I.” And since your partner knows it, you have no way out (the example below shows some gender bias on Ovid’s part. Fortunately, a few things have changed over the past 2,000 years):
But when she has her purchase in her eye,
She hugs thee close, and kisses thee to buy;
“Tis what I want, and ‘tis a pen’orth too;
In many years I will not trouble you.”
If you complain you have no ready coin,
No matter, ‘tis but writing of a line;
A little bill, not to be paid at sight:
(Now curse the time when thou wert taught to write.)
In a previous Historical Echoes post, we describe some of the characters in early Roman high and low finance. Here, we look at their modus operandi.
Large sums of money changed hands in Roman times. People bought real estate, financed trade, and invested in the provinces occupied by the Roman legions. How did that happen? Cicero writes, in Epistulae ad Familiares 5.6 and Epistulae ad Atticum 13.31, respectively: “I have bought that very house for 3.5 million sesterces” and “Gaius Albanius is the nearest neighbor: he bought 1,000 iugera [625 acres] of M. Pilius, as far as I can remember, for 11.5 million sesterces.” How? asks historian H. W. Harris (in “The Nature of Roman Money”)–“mechanically speaking, did Cicero pay three and half million sesterces he laid out for his famous house in the Palatine . . . . That would have meant packing and carrying some three and half tons of coins through the streets of Rome. When C. Albanius bought an estate from C. Pilius for eleven and half million sesterces, did he physically send the sum in silver coins?” Harris’ answer is: “Without much doubt, these were at least for the most part documentary [i.e., paper] transactions. The commonest procedure for large property purchases in this period was the one casually alluded to by Cicero [De Officiis 3.59] . . . ‘nomina facit, negotium conficit’ . . . provides the credit [or ‘bonds’–nomina], completes the purchase.”
What exactly are these nomina?–from which, by the way, comes the term “nominal,” so commonly used in economics. In his Ph.D. dissertation “Bankers, Moneylenders, and Interest Rates in the Roman Republic,” C. T. Barlow writes (pp. 156-7): “An entry in an account book was called a nomen. Originally the word meant just that–a name with some numbers attached. By Cicero’s day . . . [n]omen could also mean “debt,” referring to the entries in the creditor’s and the debtor’s account books.” And this “debt was in fact the lifeblood of the Roman economy, at all levels . . . nomina were a completely standard part of the lives of people of property, as well as being an everyday fact of life for a great number of others” (Harris, p. 184). Pliny the Younger writes, for example, (in Epistulae 3.19): “Perhaps you will ask whether I can raise these three millions without difficulty. Well, nearly all my capital is invested in land, but I have some money out at interest and I can borrow without any trouble.”
For concreteness, say that some fellow, Sempronius, owes you one million sesterces. You–or in case you’re a wealthy senator, or eques, your financial advisor (procurator–Titus Pomponius Atticus was Cicero’s)–would record the debt in the ledger. What if you suddenly needed the money to buy some property? Do you have to wait for Sempronius to bring you a bag with 1 million sesterces? No! As long as Sempronius is a worthy creditor (a bonum nomen [see Barlow, p. 156]; in the modern parlance of credit rating agencies, a triple-A creditor), you’d do what Cicero says: transfer the nomina, strike the deal. For example, Cicero writes to his financial advisor Atticus (Ad Atticum 12.31): “If I were to sell my claim on Faberius, I don’t doubt my being able to settle for the grounds of Silius even by a ready money payment.” As Harris (p. 192) observes: “Nomina were transferable, and by the second century B.C., if not earlier, were routinely used as a means of payment for other assets . . . . The Latin term for the procedure by which the payer transferred a nomen that was owed to him to the seller was delegatio.”
So, we’ve seen that Romans could settle payments by transferring nomina. But was there a market for nomina, just like there’s one today in, say, mortgage-backed securities? According to both Barlow and Harris, the answer is yes. They claim that the Romans took the transferability one step further and essentially turned “mere entries in account books” into “negotiable notes” (see Barlow, p. 159, and Harris, p. 192). Not everyone agrees. The economic historian P. Temin (“Financial Intermediation in the Early Roman Empire”) also reports evidence of assignability of loans, opening the possibility of “wider negotiability, but,” he adds, “we do not have any evidence that it happened” (p. 721). Yet some indirect evidence is there. For instance, the idea of negotiable notes appears to be well understood by Roman jurists, such as Ulpian (The Digest of Justinian XXX.I.44): “A party who bequeaths a note bequeaths the claim and not merely the material on which the writing appears. This is proved by a sale, for when a note is sold, the debt by which it is evidenced is also considered to be sold.”
What if you had to transfer money to somebody in a different part of the globe? As the Roman dominions expanded into Greece, Spain, North Africa, and Asia, Roman finance actually faced this logistical problem. If you’re in Rome and want to, say, finance Caius’ mines in Thapsus, North Africa, how do you get him the money? He needs the silver to buy material, slaves, and other things, but you’re naturally very reluctant to see your money sail away for Africa, as the chances of it getting there aren’t that high (see pirates, shipwrecks, etc.). “Permutatio, the transfer of funds from place to place through paper transactions, was Rome’s great contribution to ancient banking” (Barlow, p. 168). It worked as follows: The publicani were private companies in charge of tax collection in the provinces (as well as many other tasks; see “Publicani,” by U. Malmendier). They had a branch in Rome and one in Thapsus. So, you’d give them the silver in Rome (or transfer them some nomina) and they’d divert some of their tax collection in North Africa to Caius. This is also how the Republic would finance its public spending overseas. Since taxes were collected throughout the provinces, by trading claims on taxes Romans could transfer funds across the globe–or at least to the part of the globe they had conquered.
Interestingly, some historians measure the sophistication of Roman finance “by the extent banks were present” (Temin, p. 719). While it is true that we have no evidence of a 1st Century B.C. Wells Fargo, this may not necessarily imply lack of sophistication. Prior to the Great Recession in the United States, a large chunk of financial intermediation didn’t involve banks–it went through the “shadow banking system.” Roman high finance “functioned primarily on the basis of brokerage” (K. Verboven, “Faeneratores, Negotiatores and Financial Intermediation in the Roman World,” p. 12), and hence was a bit like a proto-shadow banking system, as we suggest in our prior post. Like the shadow-banking system in the United States, it was fragile. Going back to our earlier example, we note that if whomever you want to buy property from starts wondering about the creditworthiness of Sempronius, she will not accept his nomina in payment and will want cash. That’ll force you to call in the loan to Sempronius, who in order to pay you will call in his loan to Titus, and so on. But financial crises in ancient Rome are the subject of a future post.
We are grateful to Cameron Hawkins of the University of Chicago for help navigating the literature.