Sarah Bond: Late Antique Bankers, Justinian, and the Mosaics of San Vitale

The links between Washington D.C. and Wall Street have always been strong. The current atmosphere of disdain and popular protest has meant that the close relations between the federal government and the financial sector have been pushed under the proverbial rug, but they still remain. A recent HuffPo article explored some of these key bankers-slash-federal employees, noting that the current CEO of Promonotory Financial Group used to be Comptroller of the Currency under Bill Clinton, the current Attorney General worked at Covington & Burling, and even Fannie Mae's CEO used to be the General Counsel for Bank of America. This interplay between bankers and government officials is an old one--and perhaps holds a few lessons on the necessity for regulation and oversight within the financial sector today.

The figure between the emperor
Justinian and Maximianus
 could be the patron-banker
Julius Argentarius. 
San Vitale in Ravenna is often taken as an illustrative example of the grandeur, prestige, and tradition with which the emperor Justinian viewed his court; however, the splendor of the church is also demonstrative of the wealth of elite bankers within certain late antique cities in the sixth century. We are told by Agnellus' Liber Pontificalis Ecclesiae Ravennatis that a banker named Julius Argentarius (PLRE, s.v. Iulianus 7) in fact contributed 26,000 gold solidi to help build and decorate the church, which was consecrated in 547 CE by the archbishop Maximianus. He also built St. Apollinaris in Classe and contributed to St. Michaelis 'in Africisco'. Although many scholars tried to envision Julius as simply an imperial agent, a seminal article by Sam Barnish helped to shed light on the import of bankers in Late Antiquity and show that while argentarii ('moneychangers') were often linked with the state, they could also accrue a vast amount of personal wealth--albeit often with the help of friends in high places.

In the late third and early fourth century CE, the term argentarius had shifted so as to denote a silversmith. Yet it appears that these silversmiths also practiced moneylending and banking--often in addition to silversmithing (Andreau, 33). Thus argentarii grew in prominence in the later empire and became a key source of financing and credit. There were also bankers called trapezitai for the tables that they set up to do their money lending that continued to be active in the later empire. John Chrysostom notes that in the late fourth century, these men were still an integral part of Antiochene life (In princ. Act. 4.2), and had eyes trained enough to spot a counterfeit piece. In the Greek East, the silversmith-bankers were called argyropratai, men who, in the words of Evans, were "the aristocrats of the social scene" (52).

Gold solidus of Justinian minted at
Constantinople (527-565)
Now at the British Museum 
These bankers were allowed a special "in" to the imperial civil service. A banker named Anastasius under Justinian likely ran both a private lending firm and was connected to the imperial bank at Constantinople, and a banker of Syrian origin named Peter Barsymes was given a position in the state office of the praetorian prefect under Justinian. He got into the good graces of the empress Theodora (who likely also used him as a spy) and he eventually achieved to office of the praetorian prefect. Procopius (who seems to have had quite the vendetta against Peter) claims the banker sold offices though Justinian had earlier regulated against this. His mismanaging of the soldier pay and the grain supply ultimately led to protests against him and his eventual firing. However, Theodora did not give up on her man. Instead of foisting him from the public sector, Peter secured a position as head of the sacred largesse, which looked over imperial finances. The resulting policy? A light-weight nomisma was issued under his watch. His ability to balance the books, however, got him reappointed as praetorian prefect in 555. He may have acquired silk as a profitable state industry--but he turned a profit from silk privately as well. Hand washes hand. One assumes he remained unpopular in the public sphere, since his house was burned down by a mob in 562. No matter! He soon rebuilt the house to even more splendid levels.

We know relatively little about the relations between Julius Argentarius and Justinian directly; however,   it appears that bankers on the whole did play a key role in the sixth century political scene. Certainly it was (and still is) key to have experienced veteran financial analysts and planners in state positions that require handling of the fiscus and minting coinage, but the example of Peter Barsymes in particular would seem to indicate the need for oversight when investing those used to private enterprise into positions meant to be for the public good. I know I for one will be mindful to thank Julius Argentarius for his patronage of the brilliant mosaics at San Vitale next time I gawk in awe, but will not forget that his prosperity was likely also due to the state policies and attitudes towards bankers in the sixth century.

Further Reading:

Agnellus of Ravenna, The Book of the Pontiffs of the Church of Ravenna: Agnellus of Ravenna (Medieval Texts in Translation) (Catholic University, 2004).

Jean Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).

S.J.B. Barnish, "The Wealth of Julius Argentarius: Late Antique Banking and the Mediterranean Economy," Byzantion 55 (1985), 5-38.

J.A.S. Evans, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power (Routledge, 1996).

1 comment:

  1. I *love* those mosaics. My brother in law sketched them several years ago. Some pictures are here:
    But they don't do them justice.


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