For centuries, the legal rate of interest in the Roman Empire was “one-hundredth”: 1 percent of the principal of the loan was added to it each month. Although Christian leaders and writers in the Greek and Latin west did not approve of this practice, Syriac-speaking Christian communities in the eastern Roman Empire incorporated the rate of “one-hundredth” into canon law, and some grounded it in a novel interpretation of the Syriac Bible. In this paper, I describe the incorporation of Roman lending norms into the framework of the Syriac church and discuss an early document that both reflects and modifies these norms: a “circular letter” of Symeon Stylites (d. 459), in which he commands that interest rates be lowered by 50 percent as a temporary act of piety. That letter is preserved in a manuscript of Symeon’s Syriac Life, found today in the British Library (Add. 14,484, fols. 130b–133b). I situate the letter within that Syriac tradition, and I offer the possibility that Justinian’s law of 528, which also lowered interest rates by 50 percent (CJ 4.32.26), might have been the result of contacts with this Syriac tradition, and specifically with Symeon’s regulation. I also examine the reception of the Roman rate of “one-hundredth” in early Christian normative sources (“lawbooks” and “canons”) from the Church of the East, in the Sasanian Empire. These Christians received the Roman norm of “one-hundredth” differently and did not incorporate Symeon’s pious reduction of the interest rate, or Justinian’s imperial legislation to the same effect.
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Research Article| November 01 2022
“The Way It Is in the Church”: Late Roman Interest Rates and Syriac Christian Piety
Studies in Late Antiquity (2022) 6 (4): 651–680.
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Amit Gvaryahu; “The Way It Is in the Church”: Late Roman Interest Rates and Syriac Christian Piety. Studies in Late Antiquity 1 November 2022; 6 (4): 651–680. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sla.2022.6.4.651
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