Bond Exchange Part 3
The Forum, ever bustling; it was still early on the day, so the afternoon trials and arguments were nowhere in sight. The morning belonged to the merchants, pulling their stalls far into the streets and aggressively peddling their goods.
There was always something new, something being built, changed or repaired. Considius noticed that the ones doing most work were moneylenders; it seemed every time that Aeneid brought a fight to the Forum she always seemed to find a way to crash through usurer’s shops.
The barber wondered about what that did to rates.
Saturn’s pillar was always the busiest spot of the busiest plaza, marking away the hours as the lifeblood of the Republic flowed around it. All the new edicts, enshrined underneath the Twelve Tables, conferred legitimacy to the miscellany of business notes, offers and announcement for bond sales.
These last ones attracted the attention of Marcus; the barber wanted to see what sorts of enterprises were starting and actively supported - as well as the prices they were going for.
“You know these are scams, right?” A voice lower to his left interjected. The barber looked down, finding a small hooded Vestal. Her lictor was on the other side of the pillar, resting on the shade.
“What does the priestess mean?”
“They bet on your failure.” She explained. “Think about it; they only buy your debt - that you are expected to repay no matter what. You accomplish what you set yourself to do? Good for you, now pay me. You don’t? I’m gonna take everything from you - even your liberty, if need be. Pay me.”
“There is always some risk in new initiatives.” Considius pointed out. “At least by trading in bonds you can cushion that risk.”
“Can you?” The priestess doubted. “One party is goaded into bigger risks, the other just loses access to some of their capital. It does not take a merchant or lawyer to see who will always end up playing which roles; the poor are the ones dangling by the rope and the affluent remain risk averse.”
“And yet, it helps many people. The more people trade in bonds, the better everyone seems to be doing; even allies that joined the common market seem to fare better than other partners.”
“Precisely. And you know why? Because economy, just like democracy, works better the more people take part on it. But this?” The Vestal wiggled her finger towards one of the bond offers, someone selling vineyards beyond the Rubicon. “Look at this one, for example; how many people do this exclude? How much of the tapestry of our society it represents?”
The lictor cought, meeting Marcus with a mean face; the bodyguard’s eyes told another story, as if offering to step in and save him from the interloping priestess. The barber smiled; he thought Vestalis where by definition conservative patricians - listening to this one, no wonder they tried to keep them apart from civil society.
“You seem to have opinions on the matter.”
She put her arms behind her back and took a deep breath before leaning down.
“Our tight regulated constitution and public thing does not work by betting on the failure of others; it is something where everyone is invested in its success - and allowed to vote accordingly. The finances of a wealthy democracy must work the same way. Instead of bonds, we should trade in a way that favors shares of profitable success over predatory schemes.”
That sounded interesting, but Considius wondered how feasible it would be.
“Would not that too be subject to the whims of the privileged?”
“Any system based on social or monetary capital will have a place for the privileged.” The Vestal shrugged, defeated. “Whoever, this will democratize access to the funds required to make things happen, to bring wonder into the world and improve everyone’s position. For there to be true innovation and civic profit, the privileged shareholders would have to defer to those with the vision, know-how and dedication to make it real - a trait abundant in plebeian circles.”
“You might be unfair to some of the higher class.” Considius could not believe he was saying this. “After all, they put their money on great civic projects.”
The barber’s hands waved to encompass the approaching aqueducts, the many temples and sanctuaries, the new cobblestone roads leading into the Forum.
“Civic sense and what not, it still puts the power to shape the future on their hands - as well as the capacity to arrest it, which, in my experience, is what they tend to do if not pressured by a civic-aware citizen body.” The priestess refuted, pointing to the Twelve Tables, the first attempt to hold the higher classes accountable. “When aristocrats and monarchs have money, they war; when oligarchs have money, they make even more money. While one is great at forcibly distributing wealth and the other is brutally efficient at creating it, they are both atrocious at creating a society that aspires to the Roman ideals of liberty and civic mindfulness. To serve the Rome That Never Was, our Trojan Triumphant would said.”
“Seems we all have too much to lose and should try to get through life without getting involved in those systems.” Marcus’ mood soured.
“No!” The Vestalis shouted, grabbing his left arm and shaking it. The barber looked into her face as the hood slipped; the curvy cheeks and fiery brown eyes seemed weirdly familiar, even if he could not place them. “Engage! Choosing to not do so is a right of the privileged. Please, do not do that! Engage!”
This was too much for the lictor to ignore. Fixing his helmet, he approached the Vestal, quietly hushing her with reminders of meetings they would be getting late to and other urgent business - an opportunity for Marcus to disengage and gain some distance. Apprehensive, the priestess kept turning back, looking between the two men.
“It might look bad, but please. These systems have been co-opted from us but that does not mean they are not useful or a powerful tool for good. Sharing the results of endeavours allows people that would never get to make their dreams possible or escape squalor, all by working together. Silver is given value by the accumulation of work, and work is all about displacement of forces; if enough people get together you can claim a share of the wealth - for all wealth comes from your effort.”
Now that had been something.
The barber scratched his balding head. Vestal trappings and over-analysis aside, the principles were solid; many autonomous communities still lived by those principles - it was when intermediaries got involved that things fell apart.
Maybe this would be just the thing for Gaius.
A last look at the pillar was all that was needed to get an idea rolling.
Over the next weeks the Considii brothers were particularly busy, going up and down the Aventine Hill, Gaius escaping at night to visit the neighboring Latin communities. Hammers could be heard from a delipidated lot near the barbershop; strange people came in and out with an assorted mess of barrels, sacks and pottery.
The debtors caught wind of all that upheaval and tried to ambush Gaius at the abandoned place - with a comfortable amount of rented muscle, of course. To their distress they found a lot of people around the site, exchanging metal pieces, picking and dropping all sorts of goods.
“Is this a shop?” One of the debtors wondered, trying to take a peek over the gathered urban plebs. “It makes no sense, what are they selling?’
Marcus entered from the side arcade, an iron-crested wooden pole with strings dangling as he carried it.
“Sort of; it is an exchange.”
“Exchange of what?” Another debtor interjected.
“Ideas, goods, mostly shares of one initiative or another.” Gaius poked from behind one column, pointing at another poles, each decorated with knots and strings informing the value and interest in certain commodities. “Today the shares for requalification of Etruria’s farmland are going nuts.You should get in this early, better buy it while it is still cheap.”
“Buying what, exactly?” Even the bodyguards were aghast.
“A share of the profits of the recovered lands, as well as any later cultivation.” A toothless middle age woman, probably one of the Etrurian farmers, replied. “We are currently gathering limestone, seeds and tools, but we will not turn away silver.”
“This is ridiculous, why can’t you just take a loan?” One of the moneylenders questioned. “As a matter of fact I am…”
“Because we want them to succeed.” Marcus interrupted. “We need them to succeed.”
“That is very nice, but how do you gonna back this?”
“With our other projects, of which we have much stock being exchanged.” Gaius remarked as he was confronted with incredulous smiles. “Perhaps you would like to see some of our stock?”
The two siblings pulled away one of the wooden covers, revealing bags and bags of grain.
“This is grain from Corsica, whose profits will be used to return freedom, dignity and smaller productions for social and provincial farmers. We are also in the talk to develop sustainable lumber operations in the interior of the island.”
Most debtors were genuinely curious, checking the rates and prices and muttering to each other.
“It is very good, but what prevents me from loaning to the publicani and buying the grain myself?”
‘Because of what you are supporting.” Gaius pointed a finger as Marcus hammered a plaque naming the establishment the Collegium Aventinus. “If you want to support slavery and exploitation, go ahead. But if you want to grow alongside a fellow sister republic, you are welcome to join us. Profiting by limiting the autonomy of others is the very definition of evil; profiting by limiting the autonomy of others so they must do the same is beyond that.”
“How can something be even worse than evil itself?” A clueless bodyguard chuckled.
“By being systemic.”