XXII.21 On lending by contract, and on usury among the Romans

Besides len­ding for com­merce, there is ano­ther kind of len­ding done by civil contract which results in inte­rest or usury.

With the peo­ple of Rome increa­sing their autho­rity by the day, the magis­tra­tes sought to flat­ter them, and to get the laws most agreea­ble to them enac­ted. They drew back on capi­tal, lowe­red inte­rest, for­bade taking inte­rest, remo­ved cor­po­ral cons­traints ; and finally, the abo­li­tion of debts was put on the table every time a tri­bune wan­ted to make him­self popu­lar.

These conti­nual chan­ges, either by laws or by ple­bis­ci­tes, natu­ra­li­zed usury in Rome, for the cre­di­tors, seeing in the peo­ple their deb­tor, their legis­la­ture, and their judge, no lon­ger had confi­dence in contracts. The peo­ple, like a deb­tor with redu­ced cre­dit, could tempt len­ders without huge pro­fits, all the more since, although laws only came from time to time, the com­plaints of the peo­ple were conti­nual and always inti­mi­da­ted the cre­di­tors ; the result was that all honest means of len­ding and bor­ro­wing were abo­li­shed in Rome, and that hor­ren­dous usury, repea­tedly struck down1 and repea­tedly reborn, became esta­bli­shed.

Cicero tells us that in his time len­ding in Rome was at thirty-four per­cent and at forty-eight per­cent in the pro­vin­ces.2 Again, this was the unfor­tu­nate conse­quence of the laws’ having been insuf­fi­ciently res­trai­ned. Extreme laws for good pur­po­ses foment extreme harm ; it was neces­sary to pay for the loan of the money and for the dan­ger of the penal­ties of the law.

Tacitus, Annals, book VI.

Letters to Atticus, book V, letter xxi.