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The First Trusts - What have the Romans ever done for us?

Statue of Augustus
Augustus, after whom the month is named

Gaius Octavius was born in 63 BC to a wealthy family. His Great Uncle was Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Octavius was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir. Aged just 18, Octavius took Caesar’s name and ruled Rome with Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus.

Fourteen years later he had vanquished his two friends and rivals, accepted the title “First citizen of the State”, and had adopted the name of Augustus (after whom our summer month is named).

The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana, heralding over 200 years of peace through conquest. Augustus oversaw a massive expansion of the Roman Empire, one that would endure until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. On his deathbed he is famously quoted as saying “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”.

Not only did he rebuild much of Rome’s infrastructure, he also founded a city police and a separate fire and detective department through which to ensure life and property became more secure. The lawlessness of the Rome of his birth gave way to order and discipline.

Such halcyon days attracted people from across the growing Empire. Yet, if a Roman citizen were to marry someone that did not have Roman citizenship, their children could not be Roman citizens. According to Roman law, wealth could only be passed on to Roman citizens.

Thus, many wealthy Romans were faced with the quandary, how to provide for his children upon his death? The act of fideicommissum was the answer they were looking for. Fidei is the Latin word for ‘trust’ and commissum means ‘to commit’, literally ‘committed to one’s trust’.

Fideicommissum is the mechanism whereby a Roman citizen could appoint an heir, and their estate would be committed to another Roman citizen, in trust, for the purpose of passing the wealth on to the founder’s children.

Whilst this feature of Roman law was in place at least 200 BC (it features in the play Andria by Terence), it was only during Augustus’s reign that fideicommissum became both commonplace and legally binding. Perhaps this was because Rome only became respectable under his reign, when duty took real meaning.

Indeed, breaching such an agreement could lead to infamis, a state whereby individuals were excluded from the right of making valuable promises anymore, and therefore incapable of participating in commercial life. This threat was force enough, and ensured the trust was upheld.

Thus, the first trusts were created by Roman citizens around the birth of Jesus, looking to ensure the welfare of their non-Roman children. Around 1,000 years later, the law of inheritance would shift from providing for your children to providing for the greater good.

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