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5 Lessons Roman Generals Teach us About Management

Ancient Rome was the last great western civilization before its collapse that led to the so-called Dark Ages. The Romans were incredibly innovative (pioneering battlefield surgery, aqueducts, welfare, concrete and many other things that are typically thought of as modern inventions), and yet all was lost due to some rather silly leadership blunders.

In this brief guide, you will learn exactly what not to do if you want to keep your own empire from crumbling around you.

See Also: 10 Creative Careers for History Majors

1. Don't crucify the wrong guy just to please the crowd (Pilate)

If Pontius Pilate hadn’t made the most tragic mistake of his career, he could have retired quietly as just another failed governor of Judea.

Instead, his colossal blunder has thrust him forever into the spotlight of history, alongside much more colorful and high-ranking Roman celebrities.

The problem is that Pilate investigated and interrogated Jesus and found him not guilty of what he was being accused of. According to at least one account, he even called in King Herod for a second opinion and Herod also agreed that Jesus was not guilty.

Pilate was no saint, but the idea of executing an innocent man still troubled his conscience. He still had one last card to play to try to spare the life of Jesus, which was to use the old "show benevolence at Passover" trick.

It was customary, or so the Biblical account tells us, for the governor to grant clemency to a condemned prisoner of the community’s choice at Passover.

Pilate then chose a murderer who we have to assume to be particularly nefarious (none of the Gospels tell us the full story of his crime—an early form of censorship to protect the squeamish?) and gave the crowd a choice between releasing the murderer or releasing Jesus.

He must have been sure they would choose Jesus rather than some depraved killer, but he was wrong. He completely underestimated the passion with which fundamentalists tend to prosecute blasphemy and apostasy.

With the crowd still calling for Jesus to be crucified, Pilate conducted the symbolic hand washing ceremony for which he is most famously remembered, declaring "I am innocent of this man’s blood. See you to it."

Translated into modern words he was basically telling them "If you want him crucified, do it yourself, I want no part in it."

Pilate was not a bad man, even though some Christian legends try to suggest there is a special place in Hell for him. He actually did nothing that could be described as evil.

Pilate was a good governor, but he was not good at diplomacy. The historical evidence shows that he intensely disliked the people he had been sent to govern, and that was eventually the reason why he was sent back to Rome.

Pilate’s error was to surrender Jesus when he still had other options to prevent the unjust execution. Obviously while he was not comfortable with it, he did not see the value in preserving one innocent life if he would have to kill dozens of others to put down civil unrest.

As a manager, you can’t afford to replicate Pilate’s mistake. In business, you usually have to make a lot of sacrifices, but the two things you absolutely should never sacrifice are loyalty and integrity.

So when your workers offer you a scapegoat, you have to assess the situation impartially and on its merits. If you find the scapegoat to be innocent, then you have to stand up for him or her.

What kind of message does it send if you don’t display loyalty to those who have done no wrong? Your integrity rests upon choosing fair actions over popular ones, and in the longer term this will prove to be a good decision.

2. Don't be too conceited (Elagabalus)

Running an empire is a big responsibility. So what should you do if that responsibility is thrust upon you before you really feel ready for it? The logical thing to do is confess that you don’t feel ready, but that’s not what conceited people do.

Such was the case when Elagabalus (real name Marcus Aurelius Antonius Augustus) ascended to Roman rule in AD 218 at the age of 14. As a Syrian, he was a bit of an outsider and worshiped the Syrian god Elagabal, after whom the citizens later named him.

He was also a seriously messed up kid who had no business being an Emperor and wasn’t particularly keen at first. Among the many problems facing the youth were his gender identity crisis and strong homosexual tendencies (despite his five marriages to women over the next four years).

The story of Elagabalus is quite a sad one. He was obviously immature and seemed lacking in ambition. Unfortunately, his grandmother was ambitious enough for the both of them and had the incumbent Emperor Caracalla (also a cousin of Elagabalus) assassinated so that the boy could ascend the throne.

Once in power, Elagabalus showed little interest in the day-to-day running of the Roman Empire. The first, and perhaps stupidest, thing that he did was to replace Jupiter with Elagabal, which was a sure way to make himself very unpopular with the citizens.

He then devoted a lot of time to cross-dressing, homosexual trysts, and attempting to find some way to have himself painlessly castrated, which was reportedly his greatest wish. All this was seen as very eccentric and turned the people even more against him.

Making matters even worse, he then married a Vestal Virgin, which was the ultimate taboo. If a Vestal Virgin was believed to have lost the very thing that gave her status, the punishment was for her to be buried alive. His purpose in doing so was to create children that would be "god-like".

His heterosexual marriages were symbolic, not romantic, and the only one he was really interested in cultivating was his unofficial homosexual marriage to his chariot driver, who he referred to as his husband. Yet he was anything but chaste and monogamous.

With each passing day, he appears to have become gradually more and more mentally unstable. By the time he was 18, the people of Rome were thoroughly fed up with him, considering him to be a sacrilegious and depraved abomination.

Riots broke out all over Rome, and the Praetorian Guard (Imperial Guard) demanded that he step down. This is where he showed for certain that he was nothing more than simply a seriously confused teenager who was a little too full of himself.

His response was to march into the Praetorian camp and call for everyone to be arrested and executed. Even for such an eccentric character as Elagabalus this was incredibly naïve. The Praetorians, of course, decided that the Emperor himself was more deserving of arrest and execution than themselves and promptly launched an attack.

The kid managed to outrun them for a short while and concealed himself in a trunk chest, but his hiding place was discovered, and he was killed without mercy.

With a little more humility, Elagabalus could have lived to a ripe old age simply by declaring he had no desire to be Emperor.

The lesson here is to accept your limitations and not have a false sense of entitlement. It probably won’t get you killed, but it will make you extremely unpopular and unsuccessful as a business person.

3. Don't let your guard down (Julius Caesar)

Julius Caesar is probably the most famous Roman General of all. His rule was remarkable and highly successful. His most notable achievement was his conquest of Gaul, which extended Roman power in Western Europe all the way to the border of Germania, and opened the way to Britain.

Caesar was so successful at waging war that he is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time. But, even such a brilliant military genius and statesman was still capable of slipping up when it came to understanding those close to him.

Nobody was as close to Caesar as Brutus. Accounts of their relationship vary, with some even claiming that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate son, as his mother was one of Caesar’s lovers (Servilia Caepionis). There can be no doubt that the two men held very high regard for each other.

Torn between his love for Caesar and his love for Rome, Brutus ultimately chose Rome. To say this was a shock for Caesar would be an understatement. The conspirators to some extent had conned Brutus into thinking they had the best interests of Rome at heart when, in fact, they were merely acting out of malice.

Initially when Caesar was attacked by the assassins who had gathered to kill him, he fought back valiantly and was actually defeating them, even though outnumbered.

When he saw Brutus standing among them, however, he felt such a sense of betrayal and anguish that he merely covered his face with his cloak and allowed the attackers to descend upon him unopposed.

The lesson we can take from it is to always be ready for a surprise attack, even from those we consider to be friends. It can happen.

4. Manage your reputation (Nero)

If ever there was a perfect example of the danger of not carefully protecting and managing your public image, the story of Nero would be it.

For most people, Nero is famous for playing his fiddle as Rome burned. The problem is that the story is completely untrue. Not only had the fiddle not yet been invented, but Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the Great Fire.

As news reached him of the disaster in Rome, he hastened back to the city and far from not caring, he opened his palace and made it a refuge for those who had been made homeless by the disaster. He provided food, shelter, medical care, and support for all those in need.

Many of the accounts of his cruelty and tyranny have completely overshadowed his exemplary form as a leader. His accomplishments included:

  • Strengthening the power of the Senate, and creating a more open and fair system of government.
  • Disciplining the Senate by blocking the passage of extremely unfair laws (such as one intended to allow former slaves to have their freedom revoked on a whim).
  • Introducing a fairer and less punitive system of taxation
  • Demanding transparent government, giving ordinary citizens the right to know how their taxes were being spent.
  • Greatly expanding the infrastructure of Rome, particularly in the construction of venues to support the arts and sporting competitions.

The latter accomplishment is perhaps the best evidence that stories of him having started (or ordered) the Great Fire of Rome are a fabrication of his enemies, as the Fire wiped out everything that he had worked so hard to establish.

None of the above, of course, should cause you to think that Nero was a saint. He certainly never fiddled while Rome burned, but it is quite likely to be true that he sang and played the lyre while Christians burned in his garden as human torches. This happened because he blamed Christian terrorists—most likely correctly—for having started the Great Fire.

Nero was, in fact, one of the most popular Roman leaders, and it was only after the fire had virtually destroyed Rome that his enemies were able to start successfully spreading the malicious rumors that led to his downfall.

His great mistake seems to have been to focus too closely on the local situation in the immediate aftermath of the fire, which allowed his enemies the opportunity to propagandize in the provinces.

Once the rumors took hold in outer areas of the Empire, Nero was on borrowed time. Knowing this, he became the first of several Roman leaders to commit suicide rather than face the prospect of being torn apart by an angry mob.

The lessons here is that PR and protecting your image as a business person is important. Your rivals will take any opportunity to discredit you.

5. If you're crazy and you know it, you ought not to show it! (Caligula)

Like his nephew Nero, it is possible that Caligula is a victim of bad PR. But if even a fraction of his legendary reputation is true, the only remarkable thing about his assassination is that it was such a long time in coming.

At the commencement of his reign, Caligula was reportedly a benign and benevolent ruler. Then he became ill, and sometime during his illness he underwent a complete change of character.

It is said that when a servant impulsively declared that he would give his own life if only Jupiter would make Caligula well again, the Emperor immediately responded with "Jupiter accepts your offer!" and promptly had the servant executed. This was the first of many alleged acts of tyranny that would make Caligula infamous.

Exactly why the illness created such a dramatic change of personality is a bit of a mystery. The religious view is that he was demonically possessed while his body was weakened by illness.

A medical view is that the fortified wine that wealthy Romans habitually drank was heavily laced with lead, which is known to be toxic to many organs in the body, including the brain. Caligula is said to have consumed at least 2 liters of this wine daily, which may have resulted in brain damage during his weakened physical state.

Most of the Roman Emperors seem to have indulged in some cruelty and vice; however Caligula reportedly took it to extremes. Along with frivolous and blood-thirsty executions which were notable for creative cruelty, Caligula also held himself out to be the living embodiment of all the Gods, and is said by some to have indulged in wild sex parties and incest.

Despite the theatrical depiction of the Roman citizenry, they actually were quite a moralistic and even prudish people. All of Caligula’s actions would have been highly offensive to much of the general population.

Then, like his true namesake, Julius Caesar (Caligula was a nickname), he was stabbed to death in a brutal and organized assassination.

In total, his rule had lasted less than 4 years, but in that time he executed more people than anyone before him. If he had not indulged so openly in his madness, he could perhaps have avoided his ultimate fate.

The lesson we can learn from Caligula is clear. You can’t just do whatever you want even if you are the boss. Nobody likes a crazy tyrant. You will either get fired, or your business will fail.

See Also: 5 Great Career Lessons from Christopher Columbus

History is always a great teacher and has the advantage over experience in that it comes without risk to ourselves. So it can be a valuable use of your time to study the notable individuals of history and learn what attributes gave them success and what led to their downfall. This knowledge will help you identify your own strengths and weaknesses, and you can use this to become a better manager.

Do you think I missed out any Roman Generals? Let me know in comments below.

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