BMCR 2000.06.27

Banking and Business in the Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History

, Banking and Business in the Roman World. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xix + 176. $22.95 (pb).

Jean Andreau already has an impressive bibliography of publications on economics and business in the Roman world. In Banking and Business in the Roman World he provides an extremely helpful survey of a complex field with both a refreshing clarity and a depth of insight that is belied by the small package in which it is presented. The focus of the book is on Roman private finance in the period from the late fourth century BCE to the first half of the third century CE, with a special interest in the activity of professional bankers. The book admirably fulfills the goals of the Key Themes series, which is designed to serve the needs of students and non-specialists.

The definition of terms in the opening chapter sets the tone for the taxonomic rigor and terminological clarity that Andreau maintains throughout the book. Chapter 2 emphasizes that the elite financiers from the senatorial and equestrian orders engaged in lending and other financial activities within a self-sufficient network extending across the Empire. Andreau points out that their income from their patrimony allowed them to fulfill their duty of running the Empire without entanglement in a profession. Chapter 3 discusses the professional bankers (the argentarii), who operated on a small scale at a local level, kept accounts, made money by lending out the money of others, could not by their very nature be or have clients among the senatorial and equestrian orders, and were subject to occupational regulations that did not apply to the money-lending elite.

Chapter 4 elaborates and sharpens the typological distinction between the elite financiers and the professional bankers while introducing the “entrepreneurs”, an intermediate category whose primary concern was upward social mobility through commercial profit. Chapter 5 treats dependent figures, especially slaves who had received a peculium to be invested, who typify the archaic pattern of equilibrium between social class and economic activity. In Chapter 6 Andreau tentatively interprets the Murecine (Sulpicii) tablets as evidence of professional money lending for investment in commerce passing through Puteoli rather than as evidence for banking. Andreau candidly admits that these tablets could provide evidence that would require him to qualify his arguments about the limited financial means of professional bankers and the relative lack of professional contact between them and the elite. But even if such modifications in his views on professional bankers are necessary, he correctly notes that the close bond between the elite and the professional bankers that might be suggested by the tablets would only strengthen his more important case for the interdependence of social class and economic activity in Roman society.

Chapter 7 argues that the small bone and ivory rods known as tesserae nummulariae were used to transfer funds between the legally recognized companies of tax collectors ( societates publicanorum). Chapter 8 emphasizes that the encroachment of Roman authorities on private financial activities through the regulation of interest rates was not part of a coherent economic policy as much as a response to specific crises resulting from political and military events. Chapter 9 elaborates more fully on the absence of a comprehensive policy by demonstrating that in times of crisis Roman authorities usually intervened with only temporary regulations, while only professional bankers (never the elite financiers) were subject to permanent regulations. Chapter 10 argues that the Roman state’s actions as a financial institution occasionally included lending money but that only in exceptional circumstances did the state borrow money and in such cases did so only from its own citizens. Chapter 11 seeks to trace Roman financial developments diachronically, concluding that Roman conquests both produced the monetary wealth that generated the rise of professional bankers and at the same time set in motion an expansion of aristocratic provincial and commercial networks. The result was that the same forces that had provoked the appearance of professional bankers in the Republican period ultimately led to their gradual disappearance in the Principate. Chapter 12 rounds out the entire book’s emphasis on the interrelationship between social class and Roman financial practice through a study of profit-seeking, reciprocity, social solidarity, and related issues.

The book concludes with a helpful bibliographic essay, a bibliography, and an index. In addition to the list of abbreviations and other standard material found in the front matter, the opening pages include a glossary of terms, a map, and a table of monetary equivalencies. With only a very few passing exceptions that are not among the technical vocabulary used in the book (e.g., pp. 11, 12, 66, 76, 111, 121, 150), the glossary provides a ready reference to almost every Latin and Greek term in the text so that students who have no knowledge of the languages will still be able to use the book with ease.

At least three emphases stand out in this book.

First, while Andreau takes a functionalist approach to many features in the Roman economy, he maintains a taxonomic clarity in discussing these features that would please the most ardent structuralist (e.g., pp. 2-4, 11, 16-19, 45-47, 51, 56-57, 60, 109, 139-40). In terms of delimiting his topic, this helps him to avoid the pitfall of wading into the deep waters of economic phenomena beyond his stated boundaries. But the potential objection that one might raise, and one to which Andreau has indeed felt the need to respond, is that the boundaries between typological categories may not have always and everywhere been as distinct as Andreau believes (pp. 56-57). For example, despite the persuasive manner in which Andreau has supported and qualified his arguments, some may still be slightly uncomfortable with his insistence on the mutually exclusive nature of the categories of elite financier and professional banker (pp. 11, 16-19, 22-24, 60, 63). In this case and in other cases, however, Andreau could be correct when he asserts that the fuzzy typologies employed by other scholars are often the result of inaccuracy in their interpretations of the evidence (pp. 56-57). Andreau’s insistence on terminological precision should be considered a model for both its pedagogical and methodological value.

Second, Andreau emphasizes the need to compare the Roman economy with later historical developments that resulted in and from the Industrial Revolution (pp. 6-8, 13, 50-51, 68-70, 122-23, 151). Andreau does point out the presence of “modern” elements in the Roman economy, especially in the activity of professional bankers, but he often tends to emphasize its “primitive” or “archaic” nature, by which he means that it was dominated by social and political structures controlled by the traditional elite rather than the autonomous operation of structures within the economy itself (pp. 22-26, 57, 68-70, 78-79, 99, 108-111, 140-41, 146-47, 153). Andreau presents these conclusions with a balance and a sensitivity that should commend his effort even to those who place themselves on the extremes in emphasizing either the “modern” or the “archaic” nature of the Roman economy. But while the comparisons employed to elaborate these conclusions are often helpful pedagogically, they are occasionally a bit distracting.

The comparative methodology that Andreau applies is perhaps not as illuminating as a more refined use of ethnographic analogy with observable modern cultures that places more emphasis on filling in the lacunae left by ancient sources and less on the evaluation of the Roman economy’s position on an implied scale of social progress. Andreau cannot be faulted for the specific type of comparative approach that he uses, however, because this approach is necessitated by the ongoing dialogue that he maintains with the comparative interests and paradigms operative in previous scholarship in the study of ancient economics, which has understandably had to wrestle with questions raised by Marxist interpreters. Andreau’s refusal to minimize the need to address the comparative issues raised by the “primitivist/modernist” controversy therefore must be seen in terms of the important role he plays as a major voice in the field. Because of this role, it is not too much to hope that specialists in the study of the ancient economy will take his hints about devoting more attention to the development of other paradigms that move beyond this controversy (pp. 41, 153).

Third, as already pointed out, Andreau emphasizes that Roman economic and financial activities were embedded within and dominated by social and political structures that were not of a strictly economic nature (pp. 22-26, 57, 70, 78-79, 140-41, 146-47). Papyrologists and specialists in provincial regions may wish that more attention had been devoted to questions related to this issue as they are raised by the sources with which they are typically concerned. Throughout the book Andreau clearly emphasizes Roman sources and focuses on developments directly affecting the Romans themselves much more than “the Roman world” as a whole. But Andreau does attempt to briefly address the issues raised by sources from Egypt and other areas that came under the dominion of the Romans in the course of their conquests (pp. 32, 34, 42-43, 58, 97-98, 134-35, 152).

Andreau certainly deserves praise for undertaking the difficult task of synthesizing the fruits of research in a field in which there is so much room for strong disagreement. Andreau’s willingness to alert readers to alternative interpretations and the fairness with which he engages opposing viewpoints results in a balance that should mollify criticisms even by those who take an ideological perspective very different from his own. The judicious surveys of research in the book provide an excellent introduction to the major issues of contention in the field by a master who thoroughly understands the implications of individual pieces of evidence. Only so much can be done in a book of this size and at this level, but the final result in this case must be considered a success.