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p130 Argentarii

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp130‑132 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ARGENTA′RII (τραπεζίται), bankers or money changers.

1. Greek.

The bankers at Athens were called Τραπεζίται from their tables (τράπεζαι) at which they sat, while carrying on their business. Public or state banks seem to have been a thing unknown in antiquity, though the state must have exercised some kind of superintendence, since without it it is scarcely possible to conceive how persons could have placed such unlimited confidence in the bankers, as they are known to have done at Athens. They had their stands or tables in the market place (Plat. Apol. p17, Hipp. Min. p368), and although the banking and money changing business was mostly carried on by the μέτοικοι, or resident aliens and freedmen, still these persons do not seem to have been looked upon with any disrespect, and the business itself was not disreputable. Their principal occupation was that of changing money at an agio (Isocrat. Trapez. 21; Dem. De fals. Leg. p376, c. Polycl. p1218; Pollux, III.84, VII.170); but they frequently took money, at a moderate premium, from persons who did not like to occupy themselves with the management of their own affairs. Thus the father of Demosthenes, e.g., kept a part of his capital in the hands of bankers (Dem. c. Aphob. I. p816). These persons then lent the money with profit to others, and thus, to a certain degree, obtained possession of a monopoly. The greater part of the capital with which they did business in this way, belonged to others (Dem. p. Phorm. p948), but sometimes they also employed capital of their own. Although their sole object was pecuniary gain (Dem. p. Phorm. p953), and not by any means to connect themselves with wealthy or illustrious families, yet they acquired great credit at Athens, and formed business connections in all the principal towns of Greece, whereby their business was effectually supported (Dem. p. Phorm. p958, c. Polycl. p1224). They even maintained so great a reputation that not only were they considered as secure merely by virtue of their calling, but such confidence was placed in them, that sometimes business was transacted with them without witnesses (Isocr. Trapez. 2), and that money and contracts of debt were deposited with them, and agreements were concluded or cancelled in their presence (Dem. c. Callip. p1243, c. Dionysod. p1287). The great importance of their business is clear from the wealth of Pasion, whose bank produced a net annual profit of 100 minae (Dem. p. Phorm. p946). There are, however, instances of bankers losing everything they possessed, and becoming utterly bankrupt (Dem. p. Phorm. p959, c. Steph. I. p1120). That these bankers took a high interesta when they lent out money, scarcely needs any proof, their loans on the deposits of goods are sufficient evidence (Dem. c. Nicostr. p1249). Their usual interest was 36 per cent., an interest that scarcely occurs anywhere except in cases of money lent on bottomry. The only instance of a bank recognized and conducted on behalf of the state occurs at Byzantium, where at one time it was let by the republic to capitalists to farm (Arist. Oecon. II. p283; cf. Böckh, Publ. Econom. of Athens, p126, &c. 2d edit.).

2. Roman

The Argentarii at Romeb were also called argenteae mensae exercitores, argenti distractores and negotiatores stipis argentariae (Orelli, Inscript. n. 4060). They must be distinguished from the mensarii or public bankers, though even the ancients confound the terms, as the mensarii sometimes did the same kind of business as the argentarii, and they must also be distinguished from the nummularii [Mensarii; Nummularii.] The argentarii were private persons, who carried on business on their own responsibility, and were not in the service of the republic but the shops or tabernae which they occupied and in which they transacted their business about the forum, were state property (Dig. 18 tit. 1 s32; Liv. XL.51.) As their chief business was that of changing money, the argentarii probably existed at Rome from very early times, as the intercourse of the Romans with other Italian nations could not well exist without them; the first mention, however, of their existing at Rome and having their shops or stalls around the forum, occurs about B.C. 350, in the wars against the Samnites (Liv. VII.21). The business of the argentarii, with which that of the mensarii coincided in many points, was very varied, and comprised almost every thing connected with money or mercantile transactions, but it may be divided into the following branches.

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. III.78). In later times when the Romans became acquainted with the Greek custom of using bills of exchange, the Roman argentariie.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. This mode of transacting business is likewise called permutatio (Cic. ad Att. XII.24, 27, XV.15; cf. V.15, XI.1, 24, ad Fam. II.17, III.5, ad Quint. Frat. I.3, p. Rabir. 14), 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 p131(see the comment. on Cic. pro Quinct. 4).

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 either told the argentarius personally or he drew a cheque (Plaut. Curcul. II.3.66, &c., III.66, IV.3.3, &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). The argentarius thus did almost the same sort of business as a modern banker. Many persons entrusted all their capital to them (Cic. p. Caec. 6), 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 arca or de domo (Plaut. Curcul. V.3, &c., 43, Captiv. II.3.89; Cic. ad Att. I.9, Top. 3; Schol. ad Horat. Sat. II.3.69; Senec. Epist. 26; Gaius, II.131). An argentarius never paid away any person's money without being either authorised by him in person or 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. II.4.30, &c., Curcul. V.2.20; Donat. ad Terent. Phorm. V.7.28, &c., ad Adelph. II.4.13; Cic. ad Att. IV.18, IX.12, XII.51, Philip. V.4, in Verr. V.19; Horat. Sat. II.3.76). It also occurs 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 per centage of interest (Plaut. Curc. IV.1.19, 2.22, Truc. I.1.51, &c., Epid. I.2.40; Tac. Ann. VI.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 (Plin. H. N. II.7), and there is every reason for believing that they were acquainted with what is called in bookkeeping double entry. 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 s47 § 1, 14 tit. 3 s20; Plaut. Aulul. III.5.53, &c.), and the party found to be in debt paid what he owed, and then had his name effaced (nomen expedire or expungere) from the banker's books (Plaut. Cist. I.3.41; Cic. ad Att. XVI.6). As the books of the argentarii were generally kept with great accuracy, and particularly with regard to dates, they were looked upon as documents of high authority, and were appealed to in the courts of justice as unexceptionable evidence (Cic. p. Caec. 6; Gellius, XIV.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 s1 § 1), or proferre codicem (2 tit. 13 s6 §§7, 8).

3. Their connection 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. III.1.61), and sometimes they undertook to sell the whole estate of a person, as an inheritance (Dig. 5 tit. 3 s18, 46 tit. 3 s88). At public auctions they were almost invariably present, registering the articles sold, their prices, and purchasers, and receiving the payment from the purchasers (Cic. p. Caec. 4, 6; Quinctil. XI.2; Suet. Ner. 5; Gaius, IV.126; Capitolin. Anton. 9). At auctions, however, the argentarii might transact business through their clerks or servants, who were called coactores from their collecting the money.

4. The testing of the genuineness of coins (probatio nummorum). The frequent cases of forgery, as well as the frequent occurrence of foreign coins, rendered it necessary to have persons to decide upon their value, and the argentarii, from the nature of their occupation, were best qualified to act as probatores; hence they were present in this capacity at all payments of any large amount. This, however, seems originally to have been a part of the duty of public officers, the mensarii or nummularii, until in the course of time the opinion of an argentarius also came to be looked upon as decisive; and this custom was sanctioned by a law of Marius Gratidianus (Plin. H. N. XXIII.9; cf.  Cic. ad Att. XII.5; Dig. 46 tit. 3 s59).

5. The solidorum venditio, that is, the obligation of purchasing from the mint the newly coined money, and circulating it among the people. This branch of their functions occurs only under the empire (Symmach. Epist. IX.49; Procop. Anecd. 25; cf. Salmasius, De Usur. c17 p504).

Although the argentarii were not in the service of the state, they existed only in a limited number, and formed a collegium, which was divided into societates or corporations, which alone had the right to admit new members of their guild (Orelli, Inscript. n913, 995). It appears that no one but free men could become members of such a corporation, and whenever slaves are mentioned as argentarii, they must be conceived as acting only as servants, and in the name of their masters, who remained the responsible parties even if slaves had transacted business with their own peculium (Dig. 2 tit. 13 s4 § 3, 14 tit. 3 s19). With regard to the legal relation among the members of the corporations, there existed various regulations; one member (socius), for example, was responsible for the other (Auct. ad Herenn. II.13; Dig. 2.14 ss9, 25, 27). They also enjoyed several privileges in the time of the empire, and Justinian, a particular patron of the argentarii, greatly increased these privileges (Justin. Nov. 136); but dishonest argentarii were always severely punished (Suet. Galb. 10; Auson. Epigr. 15), and in the time of the emperors, they were under the superintendence of the praefectus urbi (Dig. 1 tit. 12 s1 § 9).

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. p. Caec. 4; Aurel. Vict. 72; Suet. Vesp. 1; Acron. ad Horat. Sat. I.6.86), p132while others speak of them with contempt (Plaut. Curc. IV.2.20, Casin. Prol. 25, &c.; Trucul. I.1.47); 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 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. IX.40, XXVI. 11, 27; Plaut. Truc. I.1.51; Terent. Phorm. V.8.28, Adelph. II.4.13); hence to become bankrupt, was expressed by foro cedere, or abire, or foro mergi (Plaut. Epid. I.2.16; Dig. 16 tit. 3 s7 § 2) The shops or booths were public property, and built by the censors, who sold the use of them to the argentarii (Liv. XXXIX.44, XL.51, XLI.27, XLIV.16; cf. 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).


Thayer's Notes:

a See the detailed article Fenus.

b The Argentarii at Rome: If you're just looking for the monument in the Velabro known as the Arch of the Argentarii, it's here.


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