The Crisis of ad 33

Although the crisis of ad 33 has received much scholarly attention in recent years,1 I suspect that two points connected with it would bear revisiting: ambiguities in the texts from which we derive our knowledge of it; and the economic laws at work in it. I shall begin by briefly recapping how the crisis originated, the nature of it, and how it developed.


Three texts mention the crisis: Tacitus, Annals, VI. 16-17; Suetonius, Tiberius, XLVIII. 2; and Cassius Dio, Roman History, LVIII. 21, 4-5. Of the three, the only one to give an account of it is Tacitus; Suetonius and Cassius Dio mention it only in passing. This is enough, however, to make for conflicting evidence; moreover, some points in the version by Tacitus lend themselves to different interpretations.

Tacitus says that, in ad 33, delatores started levelling accusations against people who were breaking the law laid down by Caesar de modo credendi possidendique intra Italiam. This had established, in the matter of arbitrage, a legal correlation between landowning and moneylending for interest.2 The law had long since fallen into disuse; and it is actually to Tacitus that we owe our

Dedicated to the memory of Louis-Andre Gerard-Varet. First published under the title ‘Remarques sur la crise de 33', in E. Lo Cascio (ed.), Credito e moneta nel mondo romano: Atti degli Incontri capresi di storia dell’economia antica (Capri 12-14 ottobre 2000) (Bari, Edipuglia, 2003), 131-46.

  • 1 Rodewald (1976); Lo Cascio (1978a, b); Wolters (1987); Duncan-Jones (1994: 23-5); Andreau (2001: 192-4).
  • 2 In qui pecunias faenore auctitabant, the meaning of auctitabant is frequentative and not augmentative (see Keil, Grammatici latini, VI. 431): those who were in the habit of increasing their income by lending money for interest. A litte further on, they are described as faeneratores. In particular, they were the financiers from the aristocracy as discussed by Jean Andreau (2001: ch. 2). On this, I must disagree with Wolters (1987: 29), who takes auctitabant as evidence for interest rates that were high (though not going beyond legal limits).

knowledge of its existence, the name it bore, and the consequences of the issue, from which we learn without the slightest doubt what it amounted to, or at least the spirit of what it amounted to.

There were so many accused (and they were presumably so powerful) that the praetor to whom the cases were assigned decided to refer the whole matter to the Senate. The senators, who Tacitus says were all in breach of the law, requested, and obtained from Tiberius, a stay of eighteen months, to put their family fortunes on a legal footing. It should be added that, according to Cassius Dio, it was Tiberius who reactivated Caesar’s law. Suetonius has nothing to say about this first stage of the business.

Despite the stay, a senatus consultum (initiated by the Senate, says Tacitus; by Tiberius, says Suetonius) decreed a measure bearing, in the first place, upon the proportion of loans (according to Tacitus) or (according to Suetonius) the proportion of a total fortune (and not loans) that should be invested in land; and, in the second place, upon the proportion of debts to be repaid without delay. These proportions amounted in all cases to two-thirds. I shall come back at greater length to the relationship in this passage between our two sources.

There is also the question of whether the senatus consultum was issued after the crisis had begun and in an attempt to make it better might have made it worse (Tacitus, 17, 3: eaque quae remedio contrarium mutari) or whether it was what caused the crisis in the first place (Suetonius).[1] If things were as Tacitus says, we must assume that the senators were very anxious about the dangers threatening them and had already started to toe the line by making financial arrangements, which had already brought about a crisis of what Tacitus calls inopia nummorum.

Whatever the case may be, the nature of the crisis, as recounted by Tacitus, was what might have been expected: a calling-in of loans, a crisis in payments, the selling-off of debtors’ property, a drop in the price of land, and ruin for debtors.

Tiberius’ solution was to make available 100 million sesterces for three-year loans without interest, secured by a bond in the form of land to the value of twice the sum lent (this measure being vouched for by all three sources). Cassius Dio adds that Tiberius also had the most relentless of the delatores put to death there and then; and, according to Tacitus, no further attempts to enforce the senatus consultum were made. I do not intend to deal with what followed the stay of eighteen months; it is likely that the reactivation of Caesar’s law had been forgotten. This was the end of a short sharp economic crisis.

  • [1] As Lo Cascio (1978a: 245) has pointed out, following others whom he mentions, includingNipperdey in 1852, the words Ad hoc at the beginning of the passage may mean either ‘besidesthis’ or ‘to address this situation’.
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