A brief history of Insurance: Part 3 Roman Life Insurance

Part Three: Roman Burial Clubs – the precursor to modern life insurance:

Welcome back to this fascinating series exploring the history of insurance…
To briefly recap, in the previous article we discovered that many phrases we are still aware of today within marine insurance such as General Average and indeed the very concept of Maritime Loans were created by the ancient Greek civilisation nearly two and a half millennia ago.

As with so much of the Greek culture these concepts of early insurance were integrated and absorbed into Roman culture which followed. It was under the influence of the arguably more economically aware Romans that these concepts began to become more progressively monetised and more in keeping with our understanding of modern insurance.

However one area of insurance that was to last throughout the ages clearly originated solely as a Roman concept – this was in fact Life Insurance.

The popularisation of Roman ‘Burial Clubs’ was indeed the very first format for life insurance and holds many of the core principals that we now include within a modern Life Insurance policy.

The Burial Clubs arose out of a commonly held Roman belief that unless a man was buried correctly his spirit would remain troubled. The troubled spirit would be unable to pass into the next world and instead would remain locked to this existence becoming a particularly miserable ghost – something that most of us would like to avoid if at all possible.

So the superstitions and religious views of the times made it pretty damned important the Romans to make sure that when they did head off to Elysium, that they had a decent send off. Whilst this is all well and good for those in power and with wealth, for your average Legionnaire trying to carve out an honest living, this could of course could be a bit of a worry.

And so the ‘Burial Club’ was born.

These groups, originally consisted primarily of soldiers but eventually grew to incorporate all levels of Roman society. The simple premise was that the group required members to regularly donate to a common fund, which was then used in the event of a members death to fund the funeral. As the popularity of these clubs grew so did their complexities, ultimately resulting in not only payment for pre agreed funeral arrangements but also an inclusion of an additional stipend to provide for the surviving members of the immediate family of the deceased.

It is interesting to note that during this period of Rome’s history groups which encouraged the proletariat to come together either economically or politically were generally outlawed by the government. The thinking was that the meetings themselves could become dangerous incubators for rebellious individuals, who may in turn rise up and threaten the current status quo.

However, not only were Burial Clubs accepted, they were actively encouraged by the government and military. Such was the strength of conviction that it was absolutely essential for each member of the community, regardless of their standing in society, be buried in the correct manner.

So while none of the major life insurers are basing their sales pitch around ‘you better pay your premium otherwise you’ll end up a miserable ghost for eternity’, the fundamental ideals of the Roman Burial club, which are well over two thousand years old, are likely to seem reasonably familiar to any of us with a a life insurance policy today.

Through modern life insurance, we still steadfastly hold to the principle that by aggregating the financial power of many, we can provide support for those in need which would simply not be available otherwise. It was this simple principal that led to the development of the ancient Roman Burial Clubs and indeed the fact that this underlying ethos remains unchanged is the heart of modern Life insurance also.
In the next instalment of this series we shall return to the seas as we discuss the invention of separate insurance contracts in Genoa in the 14th Century.

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