While many ‘modern people’ might consider ourselves figuratively slaves to debt, it was literally the case in early Rome. Citizens unable to pay debts were liable to become bonded to the lender or face tougher punishment.
The XII Tables as a source of Roman Law
A source of law in early Rome was the XII tables. It was a codification of the legal rights of citizens in 451 BC and formed the basis of the Republic’s constitution.
The recording of legal statutes in stone was an important victory for the plebeians who had agitated over the control of the law by patricians and priests:
For there was not as yet among the Romans equality either of laws or of rights, nor had all their rules of justice been put in writing … few decisions were kept in sacred books, and had the force of laws, but only the patricians were aware of these because they spent their time in the city (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 10.1.2-4)
The XII tables cover a variety of legal areas including family law, assaults, inheritance and ownership, debt and slavery. For a full list of the legal statutes, see this site.
The Law on Debt – 30 Days Notice, Bonded Labour and Slavery
In table 3.1, we find the laws on debt. They state that a party who has been judged liable for a debt has 30 days to come up with the money:
One who has confessed a debt, or against whom judgment has been pronounced, shall have thirty days to pay it in.
If after 30 days, the person is unable to pay he was afforded the opportunity to work off his debt as bonded labour (if both parties agreed) or if a compromise cannot be reached after 3 consecutive market days, he either suffered capital punishment or is sold into slavery.
If the debtor owed multiple parties, they are to divide the value between themselves.
A Note on Interest – No more than 1% a Month
An interesting point raised by Tacitus concerns the amount of interest paid by these debtors. Even today, the term predatory lender is a somewhat familiar concept.
Tacitus linked the problem of debt with civil unrest:
Lending money at interest was a long-standing problem for the city and a very frequent cause of civil strife and unrest (Tacitus, Ann. 6.16)
And provided notes on the legislation that sought to restrict the amount of interest paid:
For the XII Tables were the first to establish that no one should practice usury at the rate of more than 1/12 (1% a month), while before this it was carried on according to the desire of the rich (Tacitus, Ann. 6.16)
An end to debt slavery (313 BC)
In 313 BC, an outrage occured among the citizens of Rome that forced the Senate’s hand on the practice of debt slavery.
A father owing money gave his own son over to money lenders:
Gaius Publilius gave himself up … as a debt-bondsman for his father’s debt (Livy, History of Rome 8.28.2)
The money lender ‘inflamed with lust and outrage’ took to lacerating the boy with a whip:
Lacerated with whip-marks, the youth rushed into the street, crying out against the money lender’s lust and inhumanity (Livy, History of Rome 8.28.5)
The Senate passed a law (Lex Poetelia Papiria) stating that only a person convicted of a crime could be detained in shackles. This meant that only a person’s possessions could be held by the money lender and not the person themselves.