Shares of Ancient Rome?
There is little consensus among scholars as to when corporate stock was first traded. Some see the key event as the Dutch East India Company’s founding in 1602, while others point to earlier developments. Economist Ulrike Malmendier of the University of California at Berkeley argues that a share market existed as far back as ancient Rome.
In the Roman Republic, which existed for centuries before the Empire was founded, there were societas publicanorum, organizations of contractors or leaseholders who performed temple-building and other services for the government. One such service was the feeding of geese on the Capitoline Hill as a reward to the birds after their honking warned of a Gallic invasion in 390 B.C.
Participants in such organizations had partes or shares, a concept mentioned various times by the statesman and orator Cicero. In one speech, Cicero mentions “shares that had a very high price at the time.” Such evidence, in Malmendier’s view, suggests the instruments were tradable, with fluctuating values based on an organization’s success.
The societas declined into obscurity in the time of the emperors, as most of their services were taken over by direct agents of the state.
Monday, February 2, 2009
My piece on "The Earliest Securities Markets" is up at Research magazine's revamped website. Excerpt: