Trapesite banking is the term for private banking that arose during the mid-fourth century in ancient Greece. The trapesite bankers themselves were called trapezitai, and the banking concerns were called trapezai. The Greek word trapeza means “table,” a reference to the moneychangers’ tables of the ancient world. The modern English word bank can be traced to the moneychangers’ bench of the Middle Ages.
Our information about trapesite banking comes largely from speeches delivered in lawsuits arising out of the banking business. No less of a person than Demosthenes, the most famous orator of classical Greece has passed down speeches that shed light on the trapesite banking in his time. The most famous trapesite banker was Pasion of Athens, who came to Athens as an alien resident, and won his citizenship for the value of his services to the city of Athens. In one reference to Pasion’s banking, Demosthenes says: “Of the deposits of the banks, eleven talents were interest-bearing” (Westermann, 1931).
Foreign exchange transactions accounted for a large share of the business of trapesite banks. Trapesite banks had correspondents in major cities of the ancient world and merchants could deposit money with a trapesite banker in one city and collect the money from a correspondent in another city. Merchants made use of this service to avoid the risks of traveling with large sums of money. These banks also acted as pawnbrokers. Demosthenes relates a story of a man who took drinking goblets—made of precious metal, no doubt—and a golden crown to a trapesite banker and received an advance. Demosthenes also mentions an instance in which Pasion received bronze vessels in exchange for an advance of 1,000 drachmas.
In one of his court speeches Demosthenes describes the deposit business of the trapesite bankers:
All the banks are accustomed when any private person has deposited money with them and wishes the bank to pay it to some man, to write first the name of the depositor, and the sum deposited, then in a marginal note: “It is to be paid to so and so.” If they know the man by sight to whom they are to pay the money they write only “The money is to be paid to this man.” If they do not know him by sight they also write an additional note stating what person will introduce the man who is to receive the money.(Westermann, 1931)
A system to write checks on deposits was unknown at the time. In the classical period of ancient Greece there is not even evidence of deposit transfers from one depositor’s account to another depositor’s account.
In the early phase of ancient Greece banking services were the province of the religious temples, the safest place to store precious metals and coinage when law and order was precarious. Trapesite banks represent the appearance of private initiative in banking, which soon began to leave the cocoon of the temples.
Millett, Paul. 1991. Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens.
Rostovtzeff, M. 1941. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World.
Westermann, William Linn. 1931. Warehousing and Trapesite Banking in Antiquity. Journal of Economic and Business History.