07 May 2012

Roman Women Invented Microcredit

Or something very much like that.

Of course, Roman woman could not become bankers or money-lenders: they were officially banned from such professions.  (Callistratus, Dig. 2.13.12).  That restriction was merely icing on the cake of their general legal disabilities: 'on account of their lightness of the mind,’ as the second century jurist Gaius put it, Roman woman could not deal with financial activities independently at all.  Just like children, their male guardians - most commonly either their father or husband - would act on their behalf.  Although women could own property, they required their guardian’s consent if they wished to dispose of it.  

So, in theory, they couldn't buy or sell anything of any significance on their own.  They could neither undertake financial obligations nor release others from such obligations.

But now we know they did.

Some women in ancient Rome seem to have developed the concept of microcredit, that is, a loan of small amounts of money that allows people without independent resources to borrow money for business purposes.  A new study conducted by Carmen Lázaro, professor of Roman Law at the Universitat Jaume I, Valencia (Spain), shows that women managed to get around the legal rules that excluded them from activities related to banking and money-lending.  They created credit contracts for small amounts of money made by and for women and guaranteed repayment by accepting pledges of personal property as collateral.*

And, if the female creditors weren't paid back on time, you may be sure they demanded their pound of flesh; sometimes literally:

Two wax tablets found together with some silver vessels near the Palaestra Baths at Pompeii relate to a business deal between two women dating to 61 CE. A freedwoman, Poppaea Note, had borrowed money -- 1,450 sestertii (small brass coins) -- from the well-off woman Dicidia Margaris. As security she temporarily transferred ownership of two of her own male slaves to her creditor: 
Poppaea Note, freedwoman of Priscus, has sworn that the slaves Simplex and Petrinus, or by whatever names they are known, are hers and that she owns them and that these slaves are not pledged to anyone, nor does she share them with anyone else…
If Poppaea doesn't repay the loan by the next year, Dicidia Margaris has the right to sell Simplex and Petrinus at the slave auction held "at the Forum in Pompeii in broad daylight" and collect the debt that way.  As simple as that! 

The existence of this microcredit system has been winkled out from various written sources.  Inscriptions found in the Granio House at Pompeii, for example, reflect such financial transactions made between women.  A tough old bird named Faustilla was a money-lender and a kind of pawnbroker.  Three graffiti record sums that some female clients borrowed from her -- typically between 15 and 20 denarii (silver coins, each worth 4 sestertii) -- and the whopping interest rate they paid in return: from 3% per month and up to 45% annually.  Worse than credit cards!  Faustilla and other female money-lenders took personal items, such as jewellery or cloths or coats, as collateral.

Since money and jewellery were freely exchangeable, as Prof. Lázaro points out, these loans avoided the need to be approved by the guardians and therefore were not subject to legal formalities.  The capital of the money-lender would only generate obligations to the borrower so that the lender, too, could also avoid the legal intervention of her own guardian.  

As Carmen Lázaro says, it is "a business model that has the characteristics of what we know today as microcredit and allowed women to enjoy some freedom of action and avoid the prohibition in the rule of law."

The Sulpicii Archives

In 1959, about 170 waxed wooden tablets were discovered at Murecine, near Pompeii.  Most of the tablets date from the period 35-55 CE and are records from a consortium of bankers/moneylenders, the Sulpicii, and their clients.  There is no doubt that the loans that they made were of a commercial nature so it is all the more interesting that fourteen of the tablets mention women, both as debtors and as creditors, carrying out business in much the same way as men. 

The question is: how much control had these women over their transactions? 

Three tablets concern loans made to a woman called Euplia, a Greek from  the island of Melos, between March 42 and July 43 CE.  Euplia gives guarantees of repayment for loans made by another woman, Titinia Anthracis.  One tablet reads:
The accounts of Titinia Anthracis. Paid out to Euplia daughter of Theodorus from Melos, 1,600 sesterces on the authority of her [guardian], Epichares son of Aphrodisius from Athens.  She asked for and received counted out from the cash-box at home. Received: From the cashbox 1,600 sesterces.
This is not the only case where both debtor and creditor are women.  On another tablet, a man, N. Castricius Agathopus, guarantees the repayment of the debt on behalf of a woman, Faecia Prima (the debtor).  The male guarantor may or may not have also been Faecia's guardian.  Those roles are legally distinct.  The authority of a guardian was necessary for a woman to take on any obligation such as a debt but it was not part of his role to be a guarantor.  His function was not to protect the creditors but to protect the light-minded woman's property.  So, presumably, Faecia had to provide a guarantor for a loan that was otherwise unsecured, not because she was a woman but because her credit was not good enough for whatever sum she was borrowing.

The Merry Widow 

Thanks to Emperor Augustus, however, Faecia might have escaped the need for a male guardian entirely.  As one of this emperor's efforts to increase the Roman birthrate, he promulgated the jus trium liberorum (Latin for "the right of three children").  This meant that a freeborn woman who had three children and an ex-slavewoman with four children were freed from the guardianship to which women were otherwise always subject. The women’s jus liberorum was applied even when the children were no longer alive.  Thus, it is possible that Faecia Prima had this privilege and did not need a guardian's authority to contract a debt.  If the privileged woman was no longer under the power of her father or her husband, she could now act independently. 

This freedom of women in the field of business despite the prohibitions was in part due to the high possibility of widowhood and the need to continue business” as Prof. Lázaro emphasizes

Given that widowhood at a relatively early age was a reality for the majority of Roman women, a surprising number of women  would have been able to buy or sell property such as real estate and slaves quite on their own.  In Roman Egypt (where we have the best demographic records) fully 60% of women no longer had a husband by the time they reached their late forties.  So it could turn out that a woman with jus liberorum inherited, owned, and independently operated her husband’s estate upon his death. 

So, family businesses could be left to women by their husbands in their absence or after their death.  Whereupon, some women ended up as heads of shipping, textile manufacturing, and footwear companies, or traded luxury goods and food products, or managed rental accommodations.  And more.  These opportunities allowed women to amass significant financial resources that they could use to advance the political and social position of their family. Some backed their sons in political careers and arranged advantageous marriages for their daughters; others increased the family's landholdings or expanded or decorated the family residence; still others funded their own manumission from slavery.  By the end of the first century CE, the legal restrictions on women had been so relaxed as to be, in practical terms, non existent. 

Even so, Roman society was always grounded in masculine values as is apparent in the choice of virtues deemed proper to women — chastity, fertility, beauty, and so on — qualities that defined these women's lives in a man's world.  A funerary inscription of the 2nd century BCE evokes those values:
Friend, I have not much to say, stop and read it.
This tomb, which is not fair, is for a fair woman.
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband in her heart.
She bore two sons, one of whom she left on earth, the other beneath it.
She was pleasant to talk with. She walked with grace. She kept the house. She worked in wool.
That is all. You may go.
And that, I think, never changed.

* For understanding microcredit as it works nowadays, see the excellent program of KIVA, About Microfinance and Loans That Change Lives.

I am grateful to the blogs Rogueclassicist and Past Horizons for headlining the new study by Carmen Lázaro.  

Sources used for this post, in addition to Prof. Lázaro's research report, "Women of ancient Rome prompted a similar system of microcredits to overcome legal exclusion", include J. Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World, Cambridge University Press, 1999; E.A. Meyer, Legitimacy and Law in the Roman World, Cambridge Univ. Press. 2004; and especially J.F. Gardner, Women in Business Life: Some Evidence from Puteoli, in P. Setälä, L. Savunen, Female Networks and the Public Sphere in Roman Society. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 22, Rome (1999) 11-27.


Top left: Marble bust of Claudia Olympias (first quarter 2nd century CE). Her name is a mixture of Roman and Greek names, a result perhaps of her citizen family's migration to Rome from the eastern Mediterranean or of her father's status as a freedman. This memorial, carved by a talented sculptor, was no doubt costly. Photo credit: VRoma Project's Image Archive.

Middle left: Marble monument of Petronia Hedone and her son (first quarter 2nd century CE). Her name suggests that she is a freedwoman of the Petronius family. Judging from the quality and decoration of the stone which she ordered, Hedone was wealthy. There is no mention of a husband (he may have pre-deceased her) or of a patron. Photo credit: VRoma Project's Image Archive.

Bottom left: Relief funéraire de L. Vibius, Vecilia Hila et leur fils (13BCE-15 CE).  Photo credit:ULB-Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres-Histoire de l'Art et Archéologie-Cécile Evers. Via Icononum.


  1. Anonymous25/6/12 02:07

    This is a classy post as ever, Judith, and I enjoyed it. I hope you won't think I'm missing the point if I have a numismatist's reaction, though, and say: 1600 sestertii? That's about 350 kg of metal! Quite a cash-box! Surely, surely, it must have been paid in something else, but then why would one count it in the `smaller' denomination? I wonder therefore, whether that one at least might not be more micro even than the source suggests...

  2. @tenthmedieval: The amount of the loan and its being taken from 'the cashbox' is cited from Jane Gardner's Women in Business Life 17-18 (link in Sources above) which discusses the Sulpicii Archive. Now that you mention it, it is an awful lot of brass. Could there be an error? The amount is footnoted, n. 17, and Gardner writes: "Here, as also 5 lines further on (which is on the next following leaf of the tablet),the sum of money is written over to the right and breaks the run of the rest of the text."
    But there is no suggestion that this casts doubt on the amount or the denomination.
    Your further thoughts would be welcome.

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  4. Anonymous10/2/14 12:55

    roman sestertii around 22grams 1600 about 35 kilos interesting you call sestertii small bronze when it was the largest of the bronzes


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