Management Theories of Roman Slave-Owners

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Most Romans thought cruelty to slaves was shocking, Jerry Toner says:

They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.

Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.

The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.


  1. Borepatch says:

    I’m reading Will Durant’s “Caesar and Christ” (Vol 3 of the Story of Civilization), and he mentions repeatedly how Emperors (starting with Augustus) imposed criminal penalties on masters who were cruel to their slaves. It eventually (100 A.D.?) became illegal to kill a slave.

  2. Kent says:

    If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy Business Secrets of the Pharaohs by Mark Corrigan

  3. Lucklucky says:

    The most resemblance we have to slavery today is taxes. Taxes are imposed on those that don’t agree with them by force. Democracy or a Dictatorship, the end is the same; Democracy is just voting to choose the winner who can use the State violence.

    But I am not surprised that a director of classical studies chose corporations, where there is no violence if someone doesn’t want to be part of it.

  4. T. Greer says:

    Modern firms are far more productive than the Romans ever were. The market destroys firms whose culture keeps them from offering goods and services on par with their competitors. I wouldn’t take business tips from the Romans.

  5. Coyote says:

    T. Greer, modern firms produce little or nothing except parasites, sociopaths, and psychopaths who backstab and step on civilized people to gain power over others in their journey up the corporate ladder. Your delusion of “market forces” as a “good” is a fantasy propped up by ivory tower indoctrination and a religious belief in “money” as the ultimate good, inculcated by Calvinist acceptance of the Babylonian woe, usury. “Work” is slavery. Listen to the souls trapped in the vicious circle of debt enslavement and endless pain of seeking “more” — stuff, raises, keeping up with the joneses, yada yada — and the masters only want more slaves, “cattle” in their terminology. Wake up and smell the slaughterhouse down the road.

  6. Coyote says:

    And, Mr. Greer, the point of this article had nothing to do with comparing “productivity” of Romans, who lived in different time-space universe than us, with today’s “corporate wage-slave” management. Leadership should mean something besides interchangeable slaves who are treated like $#@!, used up, and thrown under the bus to improve the “bottom line”, which seems to be most of our current MBA “management” thinking.

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