The Slow-Motion Financial Suicide of the Roman Empire

More than 2,000 years before America’s bailouts and entitlement programs, the ancient Romans experimented with similar schemes. The Roman government rescued failing institutions, canceled personal debts, and spent huge sums on welfare programs. The result wasn’t pretty.

Roman politicians picked winners and losers, generally favoring the politically well connected — a practice that’s central to the welfare state of modern times, too. As numerous writers have noted, these expensive rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul efforts were major factors in bankrupting Roman society. They inevitably led to even more destructive interventions. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the old saying goes — and it took a while to tear it down as well. Eventually, when the republic faded into an imperial autocracy, the emperors attempted to control the entire economy.

Debt forgiveness in ancient Rome was a contentious issue that was enacted multiple times. One of the earliest Roman populist reformers, the tribune Licinius Stolo, passed a bill that was essentially a moratorium on debt around 367 BC, a time of economic uncertainty. The legislation enabled debtors to subtract the interest paid from the principal owed if the remainder was paid off within a three-year window. By 352 BC, the financial situation in Rome was still bleak, and the state treasury paid many defaulted private debts owed to the unfortunate lenders. It was assumed that the debtors would eventually repay the state, but if you think they did, then you probably think Greece is a good credit risk today.

In 357 BC, the maximum permissible interest rate on loans was roughly 8 percent. Ten years later, this was considered insufficient, so Roman administrators lowered the cap to 4 percent. By 342, the successive reductions apparently failed to mollify…