When most of us read about the Roman Empire at its height, we imagine coins, and maybe barter items, as essential to every transaction. But just because there isn't an historical record of banks--at least as far as we think of them--doesn't mean there wasn't a somewhat sophisticated finance system. At The Big Picture , Marco Del Negro and Mary Tao take us back to the time of Cicero: 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.” Read Historical Echoes: Cash or Credit? Payments and Finance in Ancient Rome here .
Filed under: finance, credit, trade, The Big Picture, economic history, credit in Roman times, M&Aary Tao, cash or credit, coins, Roman Empire, Cicero, Marco Del Negro