Modern Public Companies? They Didn't Start in Rome

Modern Public Companies? They Didn't Start in Rome


The study of history requires that scholars analyze primary sources. There is no place for misinterpretations that occur when researchers do not take into account the context in which events happen. One could otherwise jump to wrong conclusions, such as that the transfer of shares occurred during the late Roman Republic, around 50 BC. The claim is based on the alleged existence of trading in ‘shares’ of societates publicanorum, corporations that offered public services such as road construction and tax collection.
Geoffrey Poitras (Simon Fraser University) and Manuela Geranio (Department of Finance, Bocconi) demonstrated that this claim can not be supported in their paper Trading of shares in the Societates Publicanorum?, published in Explorations in Economic History. “Tax collection organizations in late Roman Republic were nothing like modern public limited companies”, Manuela Geranio says.
“The equites, that is the knights who could aspire to become members of the societates, were a minority of the population and could be held personally responsible for the company’s liabilities. The societates had no legal personality. All members should agree with the appointment of new sub-members and in any case these appointments did not constitute a sale of shares”. The modern stock exchange requires that shares are associated with risks and returns, that they are freely transferable, that there is a speculative goal: none of these assumptions was true in Roman times. Transfer of goods, currencies, and government bonds will precede the transfer of shares that will occur only the 17th century. “It is necessary to carry out careful analysis of the historical, legal and institutional context before offering appealing, but debatable interpretations”, Manuela Geranio says.

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