When I travel outside the U.S., I am motivated to read a book related to that country. To try and immerse myself into the culture. To get into the mood. A recent trip to Italy led me to a recently published history of Rome called SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. This excellent book covers the period from the founding of Rome around 800 BC to about 200 AD. That alone is amazing: a 1000 years of history. The Roman Empire finally dissolved in the 1400’s when it fell to the Ottoman Empire. America? We have been around for less than about 300 years. Adolescents compared to the Roman Empire.
This book resonated on many levels. We are so focused right now on the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, unprecedented in so many ways. Some are calm, and feel that despite the chaos, all will be well. That our democracy will survive. Others fear the worst. That maybe we are watching our country slide into oblivion. That we are on the precipice.
Reading a history of the Roman Empire forces you to think in broader terms. There are important lessons in thinking more broadly, as you can so easily get caught up in the “noise” of our daily life. This is especially true today in our interconnected, digital world. News and information travel instantly. Social media shapes perceptions.
If you paid attention in high school, you vaguely recall that Roman history is important. Our society, our form of government and the colonists who founded this country were influenced by the Roman’s. We are all Romans in that sense. In reading this new historical work, there were several interesting correlations to some of the broader trends in our society today. Some in my opinion are disturbing and warrant serious reflection. Our country is changing. It may not be for the better.
This book does a particularly good job at describing the life of the common Roman resident, slave or otherwise, who lived under the ruling elite. Much of what has been written in the past about the Roman Empire is from the perspective of the elite, not commoners. That makes sense as the elite were able to leave their mark extensively in the archeological record and the written word. But new information about the life of ordinary people continues to emerge, and it is interesting to ponder how they might differ from us, or are the same.
There are several observations. The less powerful politically have always been subject to the ruling elite not unlike today. In large part, the recent election was a rejection of the ruling elite, something the common Roman citizen or slave had no way of rectifying without resorting to violence. Today, that is a warning to the elite, and has been throughout history. If the elite push too far, and there are no other good options for the “common folks” to affect change, it will happen violently at some point.
In the early centuries after the birth of Christ, the Roman ruling class kept the non-elites happy by providing them free “stuff”. Namely, food and entertainment. In that way, those under the thumb of the elite remained docile, willing to put up with the obvious corruption, brutality and idiosyncrasies of the ruling class.
How is that any different than today in the U.S.? The growth of the federal government and the re-distribution of wealth continues unabated, especially since WWII under FDR. It was during the FDR administration that this country moved away from the libertarian philosophies of our founding fathers to a more “progressive” set of principles. Our politicians seem to become more corrupt and profit handsomely from their government “service”. And we stand by and watch as long as we have our free “stuff”.
Finally, it is amazing to read about those in power and the life of common citizens and slaves in the Roman times, and think that not much has really changed. For all of our advancements in technology, for how refined we think we are, people are basically the same. Driven by ego, greed, jealously, etc. In other words, human. We still kill one another, but now we can do it remotely and on a broader scale.
A second observation relates to the fact that over the 2000 years of the Roman Empire, civil war was a fact of life. It happened many times and for a variety of reasons. America has been around for only 260 years, not 2000 years. We have suffered one civil war. Unfortunately, if history is a guide, we will suffer additional violent, internal strife. I would contend that the only other time in our history where we were as polarized as we are today, was in the several decades leading up to the Civil War. Don’t think for a minute that it cannot ever happen again, as history does repeat itself. A sobering thought as we may be seeing the fault lines developing before our eyes.
Third, it is interesting to ponder what happened as Roman society transitioned from a Republic, with a powerful Senate and elected “consuls”, to an Empire with all-powerful, dictatorial emperors. As this transition happened around the birth of Christ, the Senate became less powerful, and by-passed by the emperors. We might be seeing this right now as more power flows to the central government and congress cedes more control to the executive branch via executive orders.
And finally, we may believe that the United States will retain its global economic power indefinitely. While we understand at some level that all great societies have grown, then died out, that cannot possibly happen to us, right? Wrong.
To make this point, see the figure below. In my innovation consulting practice, we have a concept we call the “product life cycle”. All products exhibit this life-cycle and the business world is replete with examples of companies who have succumbed to the inevitable. They are like the proverbial frog in a pot of cold water on the stove and stand idly by as their world falls apart around them.
We can take this same concept and apply it to a society, like the Roman Empire…or America. In the case of the Roman Empire, the time scale on the x-axis was about 2000 years. Well, you say, we have some time so why worry? But do we?
Just as we see all around us in the business world, life-cycles are becoming shorter. The internet and the rise of the post-industrial, information age has decimated traditional management models. Information and knowledge flows instantly through the economy. Product life cycles, and in some cases, company life-cycles are shorter. The same thing is likely to play out in the life-cycle of societies, like the United States.
In summary, we can learn much by studying history. It is as true today as it ever has been. We humans have such a short attention span. Rather than getting caught up in the noise that is represented by social media, for instance, you might step back and look at the bigger picture. The broader changes in our society should be a concern to us all. Our way of life, freedom and standard of living, so taken for granted, is not a given.
Jeff Groh is a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. He believes more often than not, both sides of the political spectrum actually agree on the ends, but it is the means that fuel disagreements, with the far right and left resorting to name-calling rather than a pursuing a rational debate on the issues, trade-offs and unintended consequences. His consulting company, New Product Visions, helps companies improve their innovation management practices, and he is passionate about the creation of economic value and prosperity by restoring our country’s manufacturing base. Want to email me? email@example.com