In fact, most people throughout history have had zero outside financial protection in case of an untimely death. So why did life insurance appear? Let’s start by defining what it is.
What is life insurance?
Life insurance is essentially an agreement where people pay a company a premium on a policy that will provide a financial benefit in the case of an untimely death (or if other circumstances occur that are defined in the policy). Let’s say you have a spouse and a few kids. You know that if something were to happen to you it would leave them in a serious financial bind; being down an income could mean moving to a worse neighborhood, serious lifestyle changes, debt, and so on. An appropriate life insurance benefit Life insurance is worth considering if anyone in your life depends on you financially.
Roman soldiers: pioneers of life insurance
So where did the idea of life insurance come from? The first known example of life insurance was in a powerful organization with a high turnover rate: the Roman Army. Burials were culturally significant to Romans but expensive, which was bad news for poor soldiers constantly waging wars across ancient Europe. In response, they started burial clubs. Members of these clubs would cover funeral costs for their fallen comrades. It wasn’t much compared to the complexity of modern life insurance, but it at least provided a basic honor to soldiers and their families in the case of a tragic death.
Coffee Houses and Churches Not much is known about insurance in general after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, another high-risk field sparked its rebirth during Europe’s colonial era in the late 1680s. Merchants, sea captains, and sailors all worked high risk jobs; pirates, storms, and disease were serious threats to shipments and crews. What we think of as insurance was born to protect the pockets of investors in the case of a maritime catastrophe.
The first life insurance company opened in London just a few years later in 1706. The Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office was founded by William Talbot and required members to pay an annual fee. In 1759, American Presbyterian ministers created an organization to protect families of deceased pastors, with the Episcopalians following suit a few years later.
Something like modern life insurance was beginning to appear. But the next two centuries saw massive economic and social changes that permanently affected the insurance industry. We’ll explore those in part II!