Roman Ideas on Value

Roman Ideas on Value

In accord with the practical, non-speculative genius of the Romans was their thought concerning value. Passing from a regime of customary price, they had, as early as 450 B.C., when the Laws of the Twelve Tables were formulated, left the determination of price to the fluctuations of the market. The buyer was given no recourse against the seller except in case of misrepresentation, and Paulus quotes Pedius to the effect that "the prices of things are to be deter­mined neither with reference to affection nor to their utility to single individuals, but prices have a common validity." It was the doctrine of the jurists that each might seek to overreach the other in the matter of price. But as for any analysis of the forces which determined what constitutes "overreaching," or any exact definition of it, there was none.

As time went on and exchange grew, the concept of a just or true price, verum pretium, arose. Thus one of the Emperor Diocletian's rescripts allowed the seller a right of recovery in case of a sale for under half the true price (verum pretium). In an edict De pretiis rerum venalium (a.d. 301) the same emperof attempted to fix a just price on the basis of customary cost of production. Though these rules could not be enforced, they certainly show some tendency toward introducing ethical con­siderations,3 and toward a limitation of the freedom of contract during Rome's later years.

It is to be observed that the importance of wants and utility did not escape recognition, though not as a chief factor. Thus Cicero says, "The only limit to the valuation of such things (bronze statues) is the desire which any one has for them, for it is difficult to set bounds to the price unless you first set bounds to the wish"; and Seneca remarks that some things are of greater value than the price which we pay for them. Such a recognition could scarcely have failed to obtain where there was a knowledge of Greek philosophy. It seems too much, however, to say that, after the development of commerce and credit, utility became the basis for exchange value, the judgment of utility depending on the wants of the average normal man.