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History of banking

Earliest banks

The first banks were probably the religious temples of the ancient world, and were probably established sometime during the third millennium B.C. Banks probably predated the invention of money. Deposits initially consisted of grain and later other goods including cattle, agricultural implements, and eventually precious metals such as gold, in the form of easy-to-carry compressed plates. Temples and palaces were the safest places to store gold as they were constantly attended and well built. As sacred places, temples presented an extra deterrent to would-be thieves. There are extant records of loans from the 18th century BC in Babylon that were made by temple priests/monks to merchants. By the time of Hammurabi's Code, banking was well enough developed to justify the promulgation of laws governing banking operations.[1]

Ancient Greece holds further evidence of banking. Greek temples, as well as private and civic entities, conducted financial transactions such as loans, deposits, currency exchange, and validation of coinage. There is evidence too of credit, whereby in return for a payment from a client, a moneylender in one Greek port would write a credit note for the client who could "cash" the note in another city, saving the client the danger of carting coinage with him on his journey. Pythius, who operated as a merchant banker throughout Asia Minor at the beginning of the 5th century B.C., is the first individual banker of whom we have records. Many of the early bankers in Greek city-states were “metics” or foreign residents. Around 371 B.C., Pasion, a slave, became the wealthiest and most famous Greek banker, gaining his freedom and Athenian citizenship in the process.

The fourth century B.C. saw increased use of credit-based banking in the Mediterranean world. In Egypt, from early times, grain had been used as a form of money in addition to precious metals, and state granaries functioned as banks. When Egypt fell under the rule of a Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies (332-30 B.C.), the numerous scattered government granaries were transformed into a network of grain banks, centralized in Alexandria where the main accounts from all the state granary banks were recorded. This banking network functioned as a trade credit system in which payments were effected by transfer from one account to another without money passing.

In the late third century B.C., the barren Aegean island of Delos, known for its magnificent harbor and famous temple of Apollo, became a prominent banking center. As in Egypt, cash transactions were replaced by real credit receipts and payments were made based on simple instructions with accounts kept for each client. With the defeat of its main rivals, Carthage and Corinth, by the Romans, the importance of Delos increased. Consequently it was natural that the bank of Delos should become the model most closely imitated by the banks of Rome.

Ancient Rome perfected the administrative aspect of banking and saw greater regulation of financial institutions and financial practices. Charging interest on loans and paying interest on deposits became more highly developed and competitive. The development of Roman banks was limited, however, by the Roman preference for cash transactions. During the reign of the Roman emperor Gallienus (260-268 AD), there was a temporary breakdown of the Roman banking system after the banks rejected the flakes of copper produced by his mints. With the ascent of Christianity, banking became subject to additional restrictions, as the charging of interest was seen as immoral. After the fall of Rome, banking was abandoned in western Europe and did not revive until the time of the crusades.

Religious restrictions on interest

Most early religious systems in the ancient Near East, and the secular codes arising from them, did not forbid usury. These societies regarded inanimate matter as alive, like plants, animals and people, and capable of reproducing itself. Hence if you lent 'food money', or monetary tokens of any kind, it was legitimate to charge interest.[3] Food money in the shape of olives, dates, seeds or animals was lent out as early as c. 5000 BC, if not earlier. Among the Mesopotamians, Hittites, Phoenicians and Egyptians, interest was legal and often fixed by the state. But the Jews took a different view of the matter.[4]

The Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible criticize interest-taking, but interpretations of the Biblical prohibition vary. One common understanding is that Jews are forbidden to charge interest upon loans made to other Jews, but allowed to charge interest on transactions with non-Jews, or Gentiles. However, the Hebrew Bible itself gives numerous examples where this provision was evaded.


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