Shortly after the great tsunami hit, I was reading Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall . . . ” and I came upon a wonderful description of a similar event in antiquity. Whilst on the plane back from Berlin today I had a similar experience whilst reading Tacitus’ “The Annals of Imperial Rome” A wonderful description of a credit crunch, complete with property slump and government bail-out. From the reign of Tiberius:
Accusers were now intesely active. Their present targets were men who enriched themselves by usury, infringing laws by which the dictator Julius Ceasar had controlled loans and land-ownership in Italy. Since patriotism comes second to private profits, this law had long been ignored. Money-lending is an ancient problem in Rome, and a frequent cause of disharmony and disorder. Even in an earlier, less currupt society steps had been taken against it. At first, interest had been determined arbitrarily by the rich, but then the Twelve Tables had fixed the maximum at 10 per cent. Next, a tribune’s law had halved the rate. Finally loans on compound interest were forbidden completely. Fraudulence, attacked by repeated legislation, was ingeniously revived after each successive counter-measure.
Now, however, the praetor Sempronius Gracchus, responsible for the investigation, was compelled by the numbers of potential defendants to refer the matter to the senate. That body - being implicated to a man - nervously entreated the emporer’s indulgence. It was granted. Eighteen months were allowed in which all private finances had to be brought into line with the law. The result was a shortage of money. For all debts were called in simultaneously, and the numerous convictions and sales of confiscated property had concentrated currency in the Treasury and its imperially controlled branches. To meet this situation the senate had instructed that creditors should invest two-thirds of their capital in Italy, and debtors immediately pay the same proportion of their debts.
However, creditors demanded payment in full, and debtors were morally bound to respond. The first results were importunate appeals to money-lenders. Next, the praetors’s court resounded with activity. The decree requiring land purchase and sales, envisaged as relief, had the opposite effect since when the capitalists received payment they hoarded it, to buy land at their convenience. These extensive transactions reduced prices. but large-scale debtors found it difficult to sell; so many of them were ejected from their properties, and lost not only their estates but their rank and reputation.
Then Tiberius came to the rescue. He distributed a hundred million sesterces among specially established banks, for interest-free three year state loans, against security of double the value in landed property. Credit was thus restored; and gradually private lenders, too, reappeared. However, land transactions failed to adhere to the provisions of the senatorial decree. As usual, the beginning was strict, the sequel slack.