Jean ANDREAU, Banking and Business in the Roman World. Trans. by Janet Lloyd, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xix + 176, 1 table + 1 map, ISBN 0-521-38031-6 (Hb) 0-521-38932-1 (Pb).
Review by Mark Humphries
National University of Ireland
For some years now, Cambridge University Press has been producing a series called ?Key Themes in Ancient History?. What does it tell us is key? Not politics for sure; rather social, economic, and cultural history, with topics like religion, slavery, friendship. In no small measure this reflects the proclivities of the general editors of the series: both are Cambridge ancient historians, representing a school where traditional political history is more or less bunk, but where social history is very much in.
Jean Andreau?s Banking and Business in the Roman World is fairly representative of the series as a whole: the focus is on private bankers (argentarii), so public (?state?) finances are excluded. The approach moreover is self-consciously comparative, situating itself within Moses Finley?s category of studying ?literate, post-primitive ? historical societies? (p. vii). A major figure in this field of study for nearly thirty years, Andreau is a proselyte, both for the subject and his own views. We should be grateful that he is an honest proselyte at that, taking time to set out the views of his opponents before telling us his own. There is much here that will be useful, most of all for the monoglot anglophone, who will find for the first time in English material hitherto only available in French or Italian. Unsurprisingly, discussions of the financial dossier (on wax tablets) of the Pompeian banker L. Caecilius Iucundus, with whom Andreau made his name (Les Affaires de Monsieur Jucundus, École Française de Rome: Rome, 1974), recur. But Andreau also presents useful new dossiers, such as the Murecine tablets (Chapter 6) that reveal so much about the financial affairs of the Sulpicii, a group of businessmen active at Puteoli in the first century A.D. Much of the evidence for his study is fairly unprepossessing, none more so than the tesserae nummulariae, tiny inscribed rods of bone or ivory used in the assaying of quantities of coins (Chapter 7). That Andreau is able to make such unpromising evidence speak to us is impressive testimony to his skill and expertise in this area.
The Iucundus archive was found in 1875; the Murecine tablets only came to light in 1959 and were not published comprehensively until the 1980s. Andreau?s book is an excellent example of how the appearance of such new evidence (less spectacular but no less significant than the Egyptian papyri, Vindolanda tablets, or Spanish inscriptions on bronze) opens up new possibilities for historical research. Some readers might balk at the very sight of Andreau?s title: that would be a shame, since the book tells us much about subjects such as the role of slaves in the households of businessmen, as well as about basic questions of financial survival in a pre-industrial society. Tough going though it is at times (the glossary is more than usually necessary), Andreau?s book usefully provides a clear and convenient introduction to this type of material and the information that it can yield.