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By Rita Lowman
For centuries, banks have influenced the economies and politics of the world. Traditionally, banks originated as places where businesses could secure loans to purchase inventory, and thereafter collect the funds with interest once the goods were sold. The origin of the word bank is derived from the Italian word, “banco” or desk. During the Renaissance, Florentine bankers conducted their transactions above desks covered in a green tablecloth.
It has been speculated the earliest banks were actually religious temples in the ancient world, where deposits of grain and other goods were made. Considered sacred places, these temples were well protected from potential thieves. There are also historic records which point to loan activity extended by priests to merchants in ancient Babylon. Hammurabi’s Code, the oldest, best preserved law code in existence was created circa 1760 B.C. and includes laws which were used to govern bank operations.
Not surprisingly, the Ancient Greeks further developed the concept of banking. Transactions such as loans, deposits, currency exchanges, and more were conducted in temples as well as private and civic components. Evidence also points to the concept of credit. In return for payment from a client, a creditor in one Greek port would write a note of credit that the client could later cash in another port city. This convenient method saved the client from the danger of carrying coinage with him on his journey. Historic records indicate that a Pythius of the early 5th century B.C. operated as a merchant banker throughout Asia Minor.
The rise of the Roman Empire brought about greater administrative and financial regulations for banking. The charging of interest on loans was further developed by scrupulous financiers, making the system highly competitive. However, the bank system eventually broke down in large part to the Roman preference for cash transactions. Following the fall of Rome, Western Europe essentially abandoned banking. It did not experience a revival until the need for financing the Crusades stimulated its re-emergence.
Interestingly, the world’s oldest bank has been in existence since its founding in 1427. The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SPA (MPS) was created in the city state of Siena, Italy. The bank today is comprised of nearly 1,800 branches, 28,000 employees and more than four million customers in Italy and abroad.
Fast forward to Western banking history, which is generally traced to the coffee houses in London. Founded in 1565, the Royal Exchange acted as a center of commerce for the city. A hierarchy of banking started at the top with bankers who conducted business with heads of state, followed by city exchanges, and at the bottom, pawn shops. In 1609, the Amsterdamsche Wisselbank (Amsterdam Exchange Bank) was established, making Amsterdam the financial center of the Western world.
Concepts of capitalism extolled by Adam Smith, considered the father of modern economics, and the advent of the Industrial Revolution gave way to a massive growth in the banking industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the United States, the first banks required special permission from the state government to operate. The state’s supervision proved inadequate as individual banks began issuing their own notes. By 1860, more than 10,000 various bank notes were circulating throughout the country. Counterfeiting was rampant and hundreds of banks failed. Government reforms created a new system of banking which included an involved method for producing authentic bank notes.
With the onset of the worldwide depression in the early 1930s, banks took a hard hit, which led to Congress’ creation of federal deposit insurance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt oversaw the implementation of laws aimed at limiting risks to banks and restoring Americans’ confidence in the banking system.
Since then, banking has undergone a revolution with technology transforming the way Americans bank. First telephone banking, and then ATMs, debit and credit cards, have lead the way to new innovations. Today, online banking and electronic money are evolving. Banks strive to serve the greater public in a competitive market that ensures a safe and sound banking system. From religious temples and Italian desks to coffee houses and the Industrial Revolution, banking has forever changed the way we live.
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