Purposeful finance – in ancient Ephesus

I have always been interested in long lasting institutions.  I attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, established by the city’s townspeople in the aftermath of the Great Plague, and lived for a year in a room in its Old Court, built in the 1350s.  There was something very special about occupying a room that had seen young men* engaged in the same endeavour for over 600 years.  A few years later, living in west London, I relished the occasions driving when I found myself behind removal vans owed by the local branch (sadly since renamed because the branding confused the locals) of the Aberdeen Shore Porters Society, that proclaimed its foundation in 1498.

Esra Turk wrote a fascinating article in the FT on 20 August about an even longer lasting institution, a bank rather than a college or a logistics business, albeit one that was abolished 1600 years ago by a Roman emperor, a Christian intent on stamping out pagan beliefs. The Artemision was one of the earliest known banks, operating within the great temple of Artemis (as known to the Greeks, or Diana to the Romans) at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Its origins were as a place to deposit wealth under the protection of the deity and predate Croesus, the first ruler to issue gold coinage, and man synonymous with great wealth and an early depositor in the Artemision.

Turk recounts how the Artemision developed to become more than just a safe deposit facility for the mega rich to evolve “into a much more sophisticated regional and international financial institution, operating not only as a reserve and depository bank, but also undertaking fiduciary and mortgage business. The accumulation of earnings and reserves were of such magnitude that it became known as the Bank of Asia”.

What was the behind its success and its longevity?  As every pre-digital retailer will tell you, the first was location – Ephesus was the central junction of the ancient world.  But beyond that, Turk spells out three great strengths: purpose, leadership and a clear view of risk.

Regarding purpose, Turk observes, its “sophisticated banking functions were always carried out in the sacred service of a goddess with a strong ethical code. Similarly, banks today need a guiding purpose that looks beyond financial performance and provides a clear and sustainable ethical framework”.  It may be a stretch, but is there anything in the waxing and waning of some of high street financial institutions in the UK to link the points at which they have exhibited most resilience and placed themselves at great risk to the strength or weakness of their links to heritage of their Quaker and Non-conformist founders?

Regarding leadership, Turk tells us its “governance was characterised by high levels of personal and collective accountability, trust and connection to the society in which it operated”.   Leadership was initially jointly vested in the high priest and priestess of the temple and later in the sole charge of a high priestess.  Turk wryly describes this as “an experiment not much emulated in the subsequent 16 centuries, but perhaps worth revisiting”.  Not so much the 30% Club as the 100% Club.  Gender may have played its part, but I think Turk’s core message is that accountability and trust embodied in the priesthood and accountability to the deity was key to the longevity of the bank.

Regarding the clear of view of risk, Turks suggests that bank was a model of prudence and caution,  deploying its own capital as well as the funds of its depositors, and restricted itself to low risk lending because the money help under the goddess’s protection had to remain inviolable.  No sub-prime activity in the Artemision!

*Corpus Christi only started admitting women undergraduates in the 1980s