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ARGENTA´RII (τραπεζῖται), dealers in money, included money-changers, usurers or money-lenders, and bankers properly so called, or intermediaries between business men.

1. Greek.

The primitive “tables of the money changers,” set up throughout Greece in the market-place and other public resorts (Plat. Apol. p. 17 C; Hipp. Min. p. 368 B), like the mensa argentaria of the Romans and the “bench” of the mediaeval Italians, acquired an enlarged meaning with the development of commerce; and the name τραπεζίτης was applied indifferently to men who carried on several distinct branches of business which might, or might not, be combined in the same hands. The κερματιστὴς (the noun is post-classical, but κερματίζω and κατακερματίζω are both found) gave small change for the larger coins, as obols for drachmas: the κολλυβιστὴς changed foreign money at an agio (καταλλαγὴ), or provided gold to be remitted abroad (Isocr. Trapez. § 40; Dem. de Fals. Leg. p. 376.114=124, with Shilleto's note; c. Polycl. p. 1216.30; Pollux, 3.84, 7.170), The δανεισταὶ advanced money at high interest to the necessitous, or lent it on the security of ships and their cargoes--a hazardous speculation when marine insurance was unknown; hence at Athens their headquarters were in the Peiraeus, and it was even said, doubtless with some exaggeration, that no ship could leave the port without this accommodation to traders (Dem. c. Phorm. p. 922.51). This class of business, and even the more legitimate banking, was mostly carried on by μέτοικοι or resident aliens and freedmen, who, like the Jews in the Middle Ages, bore themselves submissively towards the citizens, and had to console themselves with large profits for much social inferiority and disrepute and occasional ill-treatment. Thus Cephisiades, a man of this type, is called μέτοικος καὶ οὐδὲν δυνάμενος (Dem. c. Callipp. p. 1243.25). There were, however, bankers who enjoyed a wide connexion and had the management of large sums of money, and whose position as men of business had won them general confidence. The most conspicuous example of this class is the well-known Pasion, who, through his litigious son Apollodorus, occupies a large space in the Demosthenic orations. (For a sketch of his career, see Mahaffy, Social Life in Greece, ed. 3, pp. 414-418; Sandys, Introductions to Dem. pro Phorm. and c. Steph.) As in modern times, such bankers received money [p. 1.180]on deposit at a low interest (or what passed for such) and lent it out at a higher. A banking account without interest, for the mere convenience of receiving dividends and paying cheques, was a conception as unknown to the Greeks as a joint stock or a State bank. The interest allowed to depositors may perhaps be inferred from a passage in Demosthenes: the father of the orator had, besides the capital invested in his two businesses as a cabinet-maker and sword-cutler, a talent out on loan, seemingly with the τραπεζῖται, at the rate of a drachma per mina per month, or 12 per cent. a year (ἐπὶ δραχμῇ δεδανεισμένον, c. Aphob. i. p. 816.9); he had also some money in Pasion's and two other banks (ib. § 11). Half as much again, or 18 per cent. (ἐπ̓ ἐννέα ὀβολοῖς), was a common rate of interest at Athens, as we see in the case of divorced couples: if the husband neglected or delayed to refund the dowry he had received with his wife, her guardians (κύριοι) could proceed against him for the principal and interest calculated at that rate. Sixteen per cent. (ἐπ̓ ὀκτὼ ὀβολοῖς) is mentioned as charged for a mortgage upon a house (Dem. c. Nicostr. p. 1250.13, with Sandys' note). But where the security was bad, the bankers clearly made much higher profits, and even the leading men among them were not ashamed to act the usurer's part, and to trade upon the necessities of the spendthrift and of men beginning business without capital. Thus in an important fragment of Lysias (i. ed. Teubner, B. ed. Oxon.), Aeschines, the disciple of Socrates, is described as, after having tried tavern-keeping and apparently failed in it, setting up a perfumery business with money borrowed at 36 per cent. In the case of bottomry loans or advances on ships' voyages, as the principal was lost if the ship foundered, 25 or 30 per cent. in proportion to the risks was regarded as legitimate business (Dem. c. Lacr. p. 926.10. This συγγραφὴ, as an “inserted document,” is liable to some suspicion, but it is accepted not merely by Boeckh, P. E. p. 137, but by recent scholars, such as Büchsenschütz, Besitz und Erwerb, p. 498). For fuller details on the subject of the interest of money, see FENUS

Among the securities on which money could be raised we find plate and valuables (Dem. c. Nicostr. p. 1249.9), land and houses (c. Phorm. p. 946.6). We have here, perhaps, the explanation of the fact that citizenship was somewhat freely conferred on leading bankers, even if, like Pasion and his manager and successor Phormio, they were of servile origin. The right of holding real property (῎εγγειος οὐσία) was confined to citizens, to the exclusion of ξένοι and μέτοικοι: and had all the lenders belonged to the latter class, no Athenian would have been able to take up money on mortgage, as no one would have lent if debarred from taking possession of the security in default of payment.

The notion of many Greeks (which a few years ago might have been pronounced exploded, but has lately been revived in unexpected quarters) that all taking of interest partook of the nature of usury, was shared even by Aristotle (εὐλογώτατα μισεῖται ὀβολοστατική, Pol. 1.10, 4). While not altogether escaping the reproach which attached to their calling as such, the higher class of bankers in many instances acquired much personal respect, and a high reputation for ability combined with honesty (Dem. pro Phorm. p. 957.44); their credit enabled them to raise money at a moment's notice in distant cities (id. c. Polycl. p. 1224.56). Such confidence was placed in them, that sometimes business was transacted with them without witnesses (Isocr. Trapez. § § 2, 53); money and contracts of debt were deposited with them, and agreements were concluded or cancelled in their presence (Dem. c. Callipp. p. 1242.24; c. Dionysod. p. 1287.15). They had thus become, as Hermann remarks, a sort of unofficial notaries public. On the other hand, there are instances of bankers losing everything they possessed, and becoming utterly bankrupt (ἐκστῆναι τῶν ὄντων, Dem. pro Phorm. p. 959.50; c. Steph. i. p. 1120.64; ἀνασκευάζεσθαι, c. Apatur. p. 895.9; c. Timoth. p. 1204.68). The high rates of interest that ruled are of themselves enough to prove that the security was often bad; and there is other evidence of the unsatisfactory condition of banks and banking. The law of debt was severe, but badly administered; and in the ill-regulated and impulsive Athenian dicasteries, the fraudulent debtor had at his command every species of subterfuge and dishonest contrivance against the creditor. In the Apaturius, we see the shifts of borrowers to escape or transfer liability; in the Trapeziticus, no less a person than Pasion himself is openly accused of repudiation, backed by forgery (cf. Jebb, Att. Or. 2.222-226). We have, it is true, only one side of each case, and are unable to judge of their merits; but the fact remains that such charges were made in open court, and fought out with a good deal of hard swearing. Prof. Mahaffy observes: “Perhaps the safest and clearest evidence as to their insecurity is the fact stated on the bankers' side, that when Pasion's son had his choice of a business worth 60 minae, or a bank worth 100, in respective yearly income, he justly, says the orator, preferred the ownership of the business establishment, on account of the insecurity of an income made from other people's money. This speaks volumes on the point, and is itself sufficient evidence of the bad condition of banking” (Mahaffy, p. 413; Dem. pro Phorm. p. 948.11).

Before the rise of this system, the place of banks was to some extent supplied by the temples, which played no unimportant part in early Greek commerce. They were used as safe places for the deposit of treasure; and having large funds of their own, derived from the rent of their estates and from votive offerings, they employed productively both these and the sums confided to their care. Thus Cleisthenes and the Alcmaeonidae borrowed from the Delphic sanctuary, with the consent of the Amphictyons, the funds with which the Pisistratids were overthrown (Isocr. Antid. § 232; Dem. c. Mid. p. 561.144): and at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war the Corinthians proposed to equip a fleet with loans effected at Delphi and Olympia (Thuc. 1.121). It has been thought that the temples confined themselves to State loans, and did not lend money to individuals: Büchsenschütz, however, has shown from the Delian Marmor Sandvicense (cf. AMPHICTYONS) and other inscriptions, that private persons enjoyed [p. 1.181]this accommodation. To the undoubted general rule, that no banks were either worked or guaranteed by the State, an exception was imagined to exist at Byzantium on the strength of a passage in Aristotle (Aristot. Econ. 2.4.4): all that is really stated is that an impoverished government, among other expedients, sold a monopoly of money-changing to a particular bank. (Boeckh, P. E. bk. i., ch. xxii.; K. F. Hermann, Privatalterth. § 48; Büchsenschütz, Besitz und Erwerb, pp. 500-510; Becker-Göll, Charikles, sc. iv.; Mahaffy, Social Life in Greece, ed. 3, ch. xiii.)


2. Roman.

The existence of bankers (argentarii) at Rome can be proved as early as 309 B.C. (See Liv. 9.40, 16.) There does not seem any sufficient evidence to show that these were silversmiths; and it would be contrary to the simplicity of the times that the establishments of the silversmiths should have been so numerous as to form a prominent feature in the town. Silver was not coined at Rome till 268 B.C.; but the term argentarii can be very well explained if we regard them as the exchangers of foreign, especially South Italian and Etruscan, silver coin into Roman bronze currency. (See Weissenborn on Livy, l.c.) Of course, in imperial times, argentarius meant a silversmith. (Lamprid. Alex. Sev. 24; Cod. Theod. 12.1, 37; 13.4, 2: cf. Marquardt, Privatl. 675, note 10; Wilmann's Index, 645.)

As a distinct class the bankers were called argenteae mensae exercitores (Dig. 2. 13, 4, pr.), negotiatores stipis argentariae (Orelli, 4060); and, indeed, negotiatores simply was the title of the dealers in money as they appear in the Roman provinces (Marquardt, Staatsverw. i.2 539 sq.). But we find allusion often made to NVMMVLARII and MENSARII or MENSVLARII, terms which seem synonymous; for Festus explains mensarius by nummularius (cf. Suet. Aug. 4). That these are in some respects different from, though as regards pure banking business very similar to, the argentarii, is certain from Dig. 2. 13, 9, 2: “Nummularios quoque non esse iniquum cogi rationes edere Pomponius scribit; quia et hi nummularii sicut argentarii rationes conficiunt, quia et accipiunt pecuniam et erogant per partes quarum probatio scriptura codicibusque eorum maxime continetur; et frequentissime ad fidem eorum decurritur.” How did they differ?

Some writers say the argentarii were private bankers, the mensarii and nummularii public. Heimbach (Die Lehre von dem Creditum, p. 619) holds just the reverse view. The argentarii were public state-licensed bankers, the nummularii an inferior sort of money-changers, says Heumann (Handlexikon zu den Quellen des röm. Rechts, 1884, s. vv.). All these authors, when fully understood, state what seems to be the true view, which appears to be as follows:--The argentarii, we saw above, were money-changers (though later their functions in this department passed to the nummularii), and as such had necessarily always considerable sums of ready money on hand. Now such holders and dealers in money are the natural bankers. But they were private individuals. Whenever in early times we hear of public or state bankers, they are appointed for a special emergency (quinqueviri or tresviri mensarii, Liv. 7.21, 5; 23.21, 6), chiefly to lend money to private individuals during a financial crisis (Liv. 22.60, 4; 23.21, 6: cf. Lange, Röm. Alt. 2.173), though when appointed they fulfilled other state-banking business (Liv. 24.18, 12; 26.36, 8). Appointments of this kind occur twice during the Republic, in 351 B.C. and 216 B.C. When the Aerarium lent aid in a similar crisis in 33 A.D., Tiberius seems to have done it through the ordinary bankers (Tac. Ann. vi. 17), though Mommsen (Staatsrecht, ii.2 692) thinks that here too a special commission was appointed.

Somewhat different are the nummularii. At the outset this title appears to have been confined to state-officers, but officers of the mint and not bankers. It was they who assayed the coins (Dig. 46. 3, 39; cf. Otto Hirschfeld, Verwaltungsgeschichte, 1.95, note 5, and C. I. L. 6.298), and who distributed the newly-coined money among the people. These latter were also called collectarii (Symmachus, Epist. 5.49, who applies both terms to them), and in Greek ἀργυραμοιβοί (Procop. Anecd. 25). But here again is a class who deals in and possesses considerable quantities of ready money, and so are natural bankers; and, as time went on, they came to be allowed to transact, besides their official functions, pure banking business, i. e. receiving deposits, opening current accounts, making loans, &c. (Dig. 16. 3, 7, 2, nummularii; 42. 5, 24, 2, mensularii): and thus, in point of law, so far as banking was concerned, were assimilated to the argentarii (Dig. 2. 13, 9, 2, quoted above). So all three terms came to be used indiscriminately for bankers; and a good example is the fact that all three are applied to the grandfather of Augustus. (Suet. Aug. 2 and 4.)

But though the bankers were private business men, they were regarded as exercising a public function. (Dig. 2. 13, 10, 1, “quia officium eorum atque ministerium publicam habet causam et haec principalis eorum opera est ut actus sui rationes diligenter conficiant;” 42. 5, 24, 2, “fidem publicam secuti” ); and this is further shown by the special provisions the law made as regards argentarii in reference to COMPENSATIO (Gaius, 4.66, 68; and Poste ad loc.), and the Actio RECEPTITIA (Sandars on Just. Inst. 4.6. 8, 9; Salkowski, § 128). Just as stock-brokers in London are licensed by the Lord Mayor, and in Dublin by the Lord Lieutenant, so in imperial times at Rome the bankers were under the supervision of the praefectus urbi (Dig. 1. 12, 1, 9), and in the provinces under that of the governor (Suet. Galb. 9); and Pagenstecher (De litterarum obligatione, &c., p. 28) has supposed that they were licensed by the state. We can thus see how and in what sense the opinion has arisen that one or other class were public bankers. Both, as far as they were bankers, were just as much private and just as much public as (say) our stockbrokers.

The argentarii then were strictly bankers; and their various functions may be classified as follows:--1. Permutatio, or the exchange of foreign coin for Roman coin, in which case a small agio (collybus) was paid to them. (Cic. in Verr. 3.78, 180.) In later times, when the Romans became acquainted with the Greek custom of using bills of exchange, the Roman [p. 1.182]argentarii, e.g., received sums of money which had to be paid at Athens, and then drew a bill payable at Athens by some banker in that city (permutare Athenas, Cic. Att. 15.1. 5, 4). This mode of transacting business is likewise called permutatio (Cic. Att. 12.2. 4, 1, 27, 2, 15.15, 4; comp. 5.15, 2, 11.1, 2, 24, 3; ad Fam. 2.17, 7, 3.5, 4; ad Quint. Frat. 1.3, 7; pro Rabir. Post. 14, 40), and rendered it necessary for the argentarii to be acquainted with the current value of the same coin in different places and at different times. (See the comment. on Cic. pro Quinct. 4, 17.) 2. The keeping of sums of money for other persons. Such money might be deposited by the owner merely to save himself the trouble of keeping it and making payments, and in this case it was called depositum; the argentarius then paid no interest, and the money was called vacua pecunia. When a payment was to be made, the owner drew a cheque. (Plaut. Curcul. 2.3, 66, &c.; 3.66, &c.) Or the money was deposited on condition of the argentarius paying interest: in this case the money was called creditum, and the argentarius might of course employ the money himself in any lucrative manner (Suet. Aug. 39). In case of failure the law enacted that the claims of depositarii should be satisfied before those of creditors who had money at interest in the bank (Dig. 16. 3, 7, 2). The argentarius thus did almost the same sort of business as a modern banker. Many persons entrusted all their capital to them (Cic. pro Caec. 6, 16); and instances in which the argentarii made payments in the name of those whose money they had in hand, are mentioned very frequently. A payment made through a banker was called per mensam, de mensa, or per mensae scripturam, while a payment made by the debtor in person was a payment ex area or de domo. (Plaut. Curcul. 5.3, 7, &c., Capt. 2.3, 89; Cic. Att. 1.9, Top. 3; Schol. ad Hor. Sat. 2.3, 69; Senec. Epist. 26, 8; Gaius, 3.131; Donat. ad Ter. Phorm. 2.413.) An argentarius never paid away any person's money without receiving a cheque which was called perscriptio, and the payment was then made either in cash, or, if the person who was to receive it kept an account with the same banker, he had it added in the banker's book to his own deposit. This was likewise called perscribere or simply scribere. (Plaut. Asin. 2.4, 34, &c., Curc. 5.2, 20 ; Donat. ad Ter. Phorm. 5.7, 28, &c., ad Adelph. 2.4, 13; Cic. Att. 4.1. 8, § 2, 9.12, 3, 12.51, 3, Phil. 5.4, in Verr. 5.19; Hor. Sat. 2.3, 76.) We also find that argentarii made payments for persons who had not deposited any money with them: this was equivalent to lending money, which in fact they often did for a certain percentage of interest. (Plaut. Curc. 4.1, 19; 2, 22, &c., Epid. 1.2, 40; Tac. Ann. 6.17.) Of all this business, of the receipts as well as of the expenditure, the argentarii kept accurate accounts in books called codices, tabulae or rationes (Dig. 2. 13, 1, 1), and there is every reason for believing that they were acquainted with what is called in book-keeping double entry [LITTERARUM OBLIGATIO]. When an argentarius settled his accounts with persons with whom he did business, it was done either in writing or orally, both parties meeting for the purpose (Dig. 2, tit. 14, s. 47.1; 14, tit. 3, s. 20; Plaut. Aulul. 3.5, 53, &c.), and the party found to be in debt paid what he owed, and then had his name effaced (nomen expedire, exsolvere or expungere) from the banker's books. (Plaut. Cist. 1.3, 41; Cic. Att. 16.6) As the books of the argentarii were generally kept with great accuracy, and particularly in regard to dates (Dig. 2. 13, 6, 6), they were looked upon as documents of high authority, and were appealed to in the courts of justice as unexceptionable evidence. (Cic. pro Caec. 6, 16; Gellius, 14.2.) Hence the argentarii were often concerned in civil cases, as money transactions were rarely concluded without their influence or co-operation. Their codices or tabulae could not be withheld from a person who in court referred to them for the purpose of maintaining his cause, and to produce them was called edere (Dig. 2, tit. 13, s. 1.1), or proferre codicem (2, tit. 13, s. 6, § § 7, 8). 3. Their connexion with commerce and public auctions. This branch of their business seems to have been one of the most ancient. In private sales and purchases, they sometimes acted as agents for either party (interpretes, Plaut. Curc. 3.1, 64), and sometimes they undertook to sell the whole estate of a person, as an inheritance. (Dig. 5, tit. 3, s. 18; 46, tit. 3, s. 88.) At public auctions they were almost invariably present, registering the articles sold, their prices and purchasers, and receiving the payment from the purchasers. (Cic. pro Caec. 6, 16; Quint. Inst. 11.2, 24; Suet. Nero 5; Gaius, 4.126; Capitolin. M. Anton. Phil. 9.) At auctions, however, the argentarii might transact business through their clerks or servants, who were called coactores from their collecting the money. Horace's father (Hor. Sat. 1.6, 86) and Vespasian's grandfather (Suet. Vesp. 1) were coactores. This business, connected with auctions, seems to have belonged exclusively to argentarii.

Banking establishments were often owned by several partners (socii), and we find some special peculiarities about such partnerships: e. g. each partner was liable by custom for the debts of the firm (ad Herenn. 2.13); again, each partner had an action against a debtor to the firm (Dig. 2. 14, 27). For other peculiarities see Dig. 2. 4, 9 and 25; and Humbert in Saglio's Dict. p. 408. Slaves were allowed to act as bankers on their own account with their peculium, and the master was liable for the amount of the peculium sunk in the business (Dig. 2. 13, 4, 3); but generally the slave was only the manager of the bank (institor) for his master (Dig. 14. 3, 19, 3). During imperial times the argentarii, like so many other branches of the community, organised themselves into a collegium, and we find in the 3rd century two Roman inscriptions originating from them (Orelli, 913, 995); and Justinian, Nov. 136 pr., mentions the ἀργυροπρᾶται as a corporation at Constantinople.

As regards the respectability of the argentarii, the passages of the ancients seem to contradict one another, for some writers speak of their occupation as respectable and honourable (Cic. pro Caec. 4, 10; Aurel. Vict. 72; Suet. Vesp. 1; Acron. ad Hor. Sat. 1.6, 86), while others speak of them with contempt (Plaut. Curc. 4.2, 20, Casin. Prol. 25, &c.); but this contradiction may be easily reconciled by distinguishing between a lower and a higher class of argentarii. A wealthy argentarius who carried on business on a large scale was undoubtedly [p. 1.183]as much a person of respectability as a banker in modern times; but others who did business only on a small scale, or degraded their calling by acting as usurers, cannot have been held in any esteem. It has already been observed that the argentarii had their shops round the forum (Liv. 9.40, 26.11, 27; Plaut. Truc. 1.1, 51; Terent. Phorm. 5.8, 28, Adelph. 2.4, 13); hence to become bankrupt was expressed by foro cedere, or abire, or foro mergi. (Plaut. Epid. 1.2, 16; Dig. 16, tit. 3, s. 7.2.) The shops or booths were public property, and built by the censors, who sold the use of them to the argentarii (Liv. 39.44, 40.51, 41.27, 44.16). Comp. J. G. Sieber, Dissertat. de Argentariis, Lipsiae, 1737; H. Hubert, Disput. juridicae III. de Argentaria veterum, Traject. 1739; W. T. Kraut, de Argentariis et Nummulariis, Göttingen, 1826; G. E. Heimbach, Die Lehre von dem Creditum, Leipzig, 1849; F. Walter, Geschichte des römischen Rechts, Bonn, 1860.202; Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, Leipzig, 1876, vol. ii. pp. 63-66; Saglio and G. Humbert ap. D. and S.


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  • Cross-references from this page (36):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 12.2.1
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 12.2.2
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 15.1.4
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 16.6
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 1.9
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 4.1.8
    • Cicero, Against Verres, 2.3.180
    • Cicero, For Aulus Caecina, 6
    • Cicero, For Publius Quinctius, 4
    • Cicero, For Aulus Caecina, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 40
    • Suetonius, Nero, 5
    • Tacitus, Annales, 6.17
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 2
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 39
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 44, 16
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 24, 12
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 7, 21
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 7, 5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 8
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 40, 51
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 16
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 60
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 21
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 24, 18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 41, 27
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 23, 6
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 11
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 27
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 36
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.121
    • Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 11, 2
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 14.2
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