AN eminent historian observes, that "it is a cruel mor-tification, in searching for what is instructive in the history of past times, to find that the exploits of conquerors who have desolated the earth, and the freaks of tyrants who have rendered nations unhappy, are recorded with minute and often disgusting accuracy, while the discovery of useful arts, and the progress of the most beneficial branches of commerce are passed over in silence, and suffered to sink into oblivion."l This remark is strictly applicable to the origin and progress of banking. We have but little information as to what kind of banks existed in the earlier ages, or on what system they conducted their business. As most of the nations of antiquity subsisted chiefly on agriculture, they probably had little occasion for banks; for it is only in commercial countries that these institutions have attained to any high degree of prosperity. And as even the commercial nations of antiquity were unacquainted with joint-stock companies, or commercial corporations, and had not discovered the use of paper-money or bills of exchange, the business of a banker, even among them, must have been somewhat different from that of a banker of the present day. The merchants of those early times employed as money, gold and silver bullion; and received it and paid it away by weight. It is probable that the merchants would require that the precious metals they received should be of a certain degree of fineness. We read of Abraham1 weighing unto Ephron 400 shekels of silver, current money with the merchant - a phrase which implies that the money current with the merchant was different from that in ordinary use.
1 Robertson's Historical Disquisition on India, page 46.
After bullion was superseded by coin, and each nation had a coin of its own, the merchants would necessarily in the course of their business receive coins belonging to different nations, and hence would be applied to by strangers who wished to exchange their own money for the money of the country in which they sojourned. This would take place more particularly in those oriental countries whose inhabitants were accustomed in certain seasons to meet together for the celebration of public festivals. We read in the New Testament2 of money-changers who had tables in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is probable they attended for the purpose of giving Jewish money in exchange for those various coins which persons coming from the neighbouring countries might have brought with them. Whether the business of money-changing was carried on as a separate employment, or united with the general business of a merchant, we are not informed; but it is stated, that the exchangers allowed interest for money lodged in their hands. "Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou oughtest to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury."1 From the circumstance of their allowing interest on money, we may infer that they also lent money on interest; otherwise they would have had no use for the money they borrowed. This scanty information forms the whole of our knowledge respecting the mode of banking practised by the ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Jewish nations.
1 Genesis xxiii. 16. 2 Matthew xxi. 12.
With respect to the bankers of Greece we have more ample details.
In Greece the first banks were the temples.
"The wealth and growing estimation of Delphi had also another source, of which information remains only so far as to assure us of the fact with far less explanation of circumstances than for its importance might be desired. In the general insecurity of property in the early ages, and especially in Greece, it was highly desirable to convert all that could be spared from immediate use into that which might more easily be removed from approaching danger. With this view, by a compact understood among men, the precious metals appear to have obtained their early estimation. Gold, then, and silver, having acquired their certain value as signs of wealth, a deposit secure against the dangers continually threatening, not individuals only, but every town and state in Greece, would be a great object of the wealthy. Such security offered nowhere in equal amount as in those temples, which belong not to any single state, but were respected by the common religion of the nation. The priesthood, not likely to refuse the charge, would have a large interest in acquiring the reputation of fidelity to it. Thus Delphi appears to have become the great bank of Greece, perhaps before Homer, in whose time its riches seem to have been already proverbial. Such then was found the value of this institution, that when the Dorian conquerors drove so large a part of the Greek nation into exile, the fugitives who acquired new settlements in Asia, established there their own national bank in the manner of that of their former country, recommending it to the protection of the same divinity. The Temple of Apollo, at Bran-chidse, became the great depository of the wealth of Ionia."1
1 Matthew xxv. 27.
Afterwards the temple of Olympia, like that at Delphi, became an advantageous repository for treasure. But although the temples discharged one of the offices of banks, by being places of security, yet as they did not grant interest on the money deposited, they did not supersede banks of deposit established by private individuals. At Athens, especially, banking was a flourishing trade.
"The greater part of the Athenians employ their money in trade, but they are not permitted to lend it for any place but Athens. They receive an interest for the use of it which is not fixed by the laws, but stipulated in a contract, deposited either in the hands of a banker or some friend to both parties. If, for instance, a voyage is to be made to the Cymmerian Bosphorus, the instrument specifies the time of the departure of the vessel, the kind of commodities with which she is to be freighted, the sale which is to be made of them in the Bosphorus, and the merchandise which she is to bring back to Athens; and as the duration of the voyage is uncertain, some agree that their money shall not be payable till the return of the vessel, while others, more timid, and contented with a less profit, require that it shall be repaid at the Bosphorus immediately after the sale of the goods carried out; in which case they either themselves repair to the place where they are to receive it, or send thither some person in whom they can confide, and whom they empower to act for them.