The first credit crisis : Roman Edition

In such an extensively monetised economy, it is hardly surprising that the Romans were also well acquainted with another familiar feature of modern finance: the credit crisis. Occasionally, the similarities with the modern age are nothing short of eerie. In AD 33, the Emperor Tiberius’ financial officials were persuaded that the recent boom in private lending had become excessive. It was decided that regulation must be tightened in order to extinguish this irrational exuberance. After a brief review of the statutes, it was discovered that none other than the father of the dynasty, Julius Caesar, had in his wisdom instituted a law many decades before specifying strict limits on how much of their patrimony wealthy aristocrats could farm out in loans.9 He had, in other words, introduced a rigorous capital adequacy requirement for lenders. The law was clear enough: but not for the first time in history, industrious lenders had proved remarkably skilled at circumventing it. Their ingenious evasions, the historian Tacitus reported, ‘though continually put down by new regulations, still, through strange artifices, reappeared’.10 Now the emperor decreed the game was up: the letter of the old dictator’s law would be enforced. The consequences were chaotic. As soon as the first ruling was made, it was realised with some embarrassment that most of the Senate was in breach of it. All the familiar features of a modern banking crisis followed. There was a mad scramble to call in loans in order to comply. Seeing the danger, the authorities attempted to soften the edict by relaxing its terms and announcing a generous transitional period. But the measure came too late. The property market collapsed as mortgaged land was fire-sold to fund repayments. Mass bankruptcy threatened to engulf the financial system. With Rome in the grip of a credit crunch, the emperor was forced to implement a massive bailout. The Imperial treasury refinanced the overextended lenders with a 100-million sesterces programme of three-year, interest-free loans against security of deliberately overvalued real estate. To the Senate’s relief, it all ended happily: ‘Credit was thus restored, and gradually private lending resumed.’

Excerpted from “Money: an unauthorized biography” by Felix Martin

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