Bankers, money-lenders, and money-changers do not carry a particularly high reputation in present-day discourse when it comes to virtues such as ‘honesty’ and ‘trust’ – which is strange, to a degree, as the entire sector fundamentally relies on belief in these two qualities.
In an earlier blog piece I commented on the so-called monetariorum bellum, a ‘revolt among the mint-workers’ that apparently took place during the reign of emperor Aurelian in the 270s A. D. in response to increasing debasement of Rome’s coins.
This was by no means the first time the bankers in the Roman empire had ever staged a revolt against the system, however.
There is a fascinating papyrus from Oxyrhynchus which relates an event that happened about one decade earlier, in A. D. 260 (P. Oxy. xii 1411):
From Aurelius Ptolemaeus also called Nemesianus, strategus of the Oxyrhynchite nome. Since the officials have assembled and accused the bankers of the banks of exchange of having closed them on account of their unwillingness to accept the divine coin of the Emperors, it has become necessary that an injunction should be issued to all the owners of the banks to open them, and to accept and exchange all coin except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit, and not to them only, but to all who engage in business transactions of any kind whatever, knowing that if they disobey this injunction they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past by his highness the praefect. Signed by me. The 1st year, Hathur 28.
As it seems out of character for bankers (and, in fact, anyone) to go out of business just for the sake of it, one must ask how come that the bankers and money-changers of the Oxyrhynchus district chose to take this extraordinary step – again (‘they will experience the penalties already ordained for them in the past‘)?
Two reasons have been discussed first and foremost:
- an increasing level of debasement affecting the Roman coinage system, rendering the imperial coins in question, if not worthless, at least rather less valuable than they once were, and/or
- an increasing level of risk to deal with counterfeit money, as the types who claimed to be, and also those who actually were, Roman emperors at the time was changing at a breathtaking pace, meaning that it was impossible to tell whether it was still possible to rely on the actual currency of imperial coins submitted for exchange (a point made, e. g., by S. L. Vennik here [p. 83-4]).
As bankers are notoriously risk-averse when their own profit is at stake (as opposed to that of others), chances are that the answer involves both aspects to some extent rather than only one of them.
The impact of the bankers’ strike, so to speak, was substantial, and it affected the local economy to such an extent that a complaint was made to the authorities – whence the injunction came about.
There are many aspects that one might wish to explore further. The one that strikes me most, however, is the extent to which the bankers of Oxyrhynchus were forced to resume their operations.
On the basis of what the papyrus says, they were required to accept everything from everyone ‘except the absolutely spurious and counterfeit‘ (πλὴν μάλ̣ι̣σ̣[τα] | παρατύπου καὶ κιβδήλου, as the original Greek has it).
This expression certainly gives some credence to the view, mentioned above, that the constant regime changes were partly to blame for fading trust in the validity of the coins in circulation (certainly on the side of the bankers themselves): with usurpers coming and going, who even has the right to issue coins and thus to generate money for themselves?
It is easy, of course, to understand why the provincial government had to act in this case, considering the central role of the bankers for the local economy to function.
For that to work, however, and for that to work at a time where the money professionals would rather shut down their operations than to take further risks, the local leadership chose to interfere with essential security and quality standards at any cost, effectively legitimising counterfeit money (unless it was of absolutely appalling quality).
A devastating decision, no doubt, to those whose entire business model ultimately – at least in theory – relies on honesty and their customers’ trust in it.