Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Female Financial Firsts 4: Roman Rights

A famous French scholar had this to say about women and finance in Ancient Rome. "One of the most curious characteristics of that age was that the women appear as much engaged in business and as interested in speculations as the men. Money is their first care. They work their estates,  invest their funds, lend and borrow.”  The author goes on to explain that the famous Roman orator Cicero, no less, both borrowed from and loaned to women.[i]

The Romans, as the polymath UC Berkeley Professor Ulrike Malmendier points out, were the first to develop what we today call the corporation. The Latin term was “Societas Publicanorum”. If the concept of a publicly-traded company “marks the height of the evolution of business organizations,” as Professor Malmendier states, then Roman business had made remarkable strides just a few hundred years after the origin of the Oracle at Delphi. Moreover, according to Professor Malmendier, Romans also created the innovation of “paretes” – publicly traded shares in corporations.[ii]

Frustratingly, while she underscored the unique contribution to financial history of these Roman financial innovations, nowhere does Professor Malmendier describe a woman’s involvement. But since in citing her examples she quotes Cicero, and since Cicero himself cites female involvement in the business world it is difficult to believe that no woman participated in the “speculations as the men” in the paretes  of the Societas Publicanorum.

Much of my reasoning here is based on a simple fact. During much of this period although Greek culture (which did not explicitly permit gender equality) was pre-eminent, by 100 B.C. Rome was the financial capital of the European world. And it was Roman might and rights enabled free trade to flourish.

On the ‘rights’ side of that successful equation were generous rights to women. Some of these rights vanished with Rome’s empire. For example, women could own property and although not able to vote, they were not subject to taxes on their wealth. Naturally, fathers, husbands, brothers and sons sought to exploit this legal loophole. So much so that “by 169 B.C. so much property had passed into the hands of women that the law forbade a man to will as much as half his property to women.”[iii]

This law was later abolished. When Rome fell in 476 AD many of the Greco-Roman contributions in arts, the sciences, and, of course, finance were lost. Fortunately, and at almost the same time, a new Female Financial First was being created in Rome’s backyard – a satellite civilization on the Mediterranean littoral 2000 years ago that absorbed Greco-Roman influences: Cleopatra’s Egypt.


[i] Gaston Boissier, Cicero and His Friends: A Study of Roman Society in the Time of Caesar, (Londoin, A.D. Innes & Co, 1897) Questia online edition  Accessed May 14, 2013
[ii]  See Ulrike Malmendier, “Roman Shares,” pp.31-42, in Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations That Created Modern Capital Markets, William N. Goetzmann and K. Geert Rouwenhorst, Eds., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[iii] Sydney Homer and Richard Sylla, A History of Interest Rates, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), p.46

Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. Sorry folks but all rights reserved. No reproduction in any form without my express, written permission. 

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