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Athens became the trading metropolis of the Mediterranean world. By 450 B.C. it had monopolized the trade of the Black and Aegean seas and traded with Egypt, Cyprus, and Italy. In the fourth century B.C., private banking began to play an important role. Bankers, the trapezitai, changed money, received deposits, made loans to individuals and states, made foreign remittances, collected revenues, issued letters of credit and money orders, honored checks, and kept complete books. (52) Some of their loans were on cargoes, others on pawns, and others on real estate. Unsecured loans also became common. Of all kinds of capital, said Demosthenes, the most productive in business is confidence, and if you do not know that you do not know anything. Phormio, an ex-slave turned banker, became the richest man in Athens. (53) By the third century B.C. Greek finance was highly developed and the use of credit was general. By 200 B.C. the real estate loan, once dreaded, came to be regarded as a convenient means of procuring money at a moderate rate, especially by the small farmer. (54) During the Hellenistic and Roman periods there were many records of endowment funds set up in Greek cities by wealthy men. These endowments were usually to perpetuate some festival or religious observance and often stipulated a rate of return on a principal sum, sometimes loaned out on landed security. Finally, there were the loan sharks, those small-scale purveyors of unsecured loans to the distressed poor. They are frequently mentioned in Greek literature. As we shall see, some of the highest of the rates attributed to them come close to setting a record for this history. The end of the classical period of Greek history and the beginning of the Hellenistic period is usually dated from the conquests of Alexander, circa 325 B.C. These wars had revolutionary economic effects, two of which should be mentioned here. Alexander seized and distributed a vast hoard of Persian gold and silver. Much of it was subsequently coined, and it is said that the money stock of the Mediterranean world was multiplied several-fold in a few years. Prices rose and interest rates declined. Also, the opening of the East and of Africa and the unifying of the known world created a much wider trading area. This vastly increased the demand for, and supply of, goods and expanded trade. (56) After the conquests of Alexander, Athens was no longer in a position to dominate Mediterranean commerce. She had lost her Empire. Athenian prosperity declined after 300 B.C. (55) In 229 B.C., Athens was released from Macedonian domination, and money came out of hiding. Trade at the Piraeus, the Port of Athens, revived and mining was resumed. In 197 B.C. Roman domination began and with it peace and another trade revival. (57) During the ensuing centuries, however, Rome, not Greece, dominated the history of the Mediterranean world. Rome for a while strove to help Athens, and Athenian trade was prosperous in the
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early years of the first century B.C. Many Italian negotiators were busy in Athens. Nevertheless, Athens never regained her position as the great commercial and financial center. As a consequence of Roman policy, trade shifted to Rhodes, Antioch, Seleucia, and especially to Alexandria. GREEK INTEREST RATES Although there were many forms of credit in classical Greece, a precise classification of interest rates according to the term or form of loan or according to the type of debtor or creditor is often impossible. More often than not historians quote an Athenian interest rate as the prevailing rate on normal safe loans or as the customary interest rate. Ranges of rates are often quoted by centuries. These vagaries are probably not due to errors of omission but rather are a consequence of the financial customs of the times. Information on Greek interest rates is more abundant than information on interest rates in earlier times or in the Roman period. The data are sufficient to suggest a general range of rates that was considered normal at each period of time. Suprasecular trends of interest rates may be discerned and some relationships between rates for different types of loans. Greek interest rates quoted here are all for loans of silver. Although the rates were often designated as so much a month, they are stated here as annual rates for a twelve-month year. Six types of Greek loans are distinguished: 1. Normal loans. This unfortunately general title is most frequently used by historians. It must include some loans of the other types listed below. The term appears for the most part to represent loans to men of substance, usually for personal use, sometimes for productive purposes, often unsecured. Many of these loans were probably not too different from modern personal bank loans to the average small business man. Most were probably short term. 2. Loans secured on real estate. These loans are sometimes subdivided according to city and country real estate; most probably ran for one year; some for five years or longer. 3. Loans to cities. 4. Endowments invested at, and paying, a specified rate of return. These may be based on real estate loans and other types of investments. 5. Loans to industry and commerce. Since there was no large industry and little safe trading, these were probably speculative short-term loans. Rates on sea loans are excluded. 6. Personal, usurious, and miscellaneous loans. These range all the way from rates on hard bargains and pawnshop rates to the very much more extreme loan-shark rates. They were certainly short-term rates by contract, but probably they were also often compounded over long periods. All of these rates are for Athens unless otherwise specified.
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