LinkedIn Pulse: What Roman emperors can teach us about business

An extract from another interesting article from "Barry Strauss". Click on the link to find our more or register for their regular updates:

Think of Imperial Rome and you might envision decadence, violence, and decline. But think again, because Rome built one of the most successful empires in history. The emperors weren’t just peeling grapes, chasing courtesans or watching gladiatorial games. They were directing a massive enterprise. At its height in the second century AD, the Roman Empire stretched some three thousand miles from Edinburgh to Damascus. In fact, the best of the emperors still offer pointers about running a business today.

When it comes to scalability, management, investing in your workers, branding, inclusivity, and establishing a legacy, the lessons of the Roman emperors are, well, classics.

To start with scalability, there is an eternal debate about how to grow a business but not too fast. Well, the Romans had it figured out eons ago. The motto of the empire might have been: grow strategically, fortify your bases, and don’t rush to build and expand just to build and expand.

The Romans learned this the hard way, through experience. Before the emperors, Rome’s generals were hell bent on winning victories abroad in order to build up political capital at home. Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul (roughly, France and Belgium), was the all-time champion. But Caesar’s successor, Augustus, established one-man rule: he was Rome’s first emperor. And he learned new lessons.

Further expansion would be expensive and politically destabilizing. So Augustus negotiated a settlement with a rival empire in the east and scaled down ambitions in the west after his troops were ambushed in Germany. Augustus’s successor, Tiberius, recalled his most ambitious commander from the Rhine.

The emperors recognized that with conquests extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, Rome had already expanded into the most valuable markets… that is, territories. Rome’s new symbol was not the legion on the march but the defense works on the border. The most famous of them is Hadrian’s Wall. Stretching across what is now northern England, the wall symbolized the empire’s determination to protect its frontiers without expanding them.

Managing a business well requires investing in people and plants and doing so remotely when necessary. The Roman emperors had it covered. They invested heavily in infrastructure by building roads and harbors. They knew that it was essential to communicate between regions. So the government ran a courier and transportation service featuring relay posts, rest stations, a change of horses for soldiers and vehicles for public officials.  

Even such a despised and controversial  emperor as Nero built significant public works: in fact, he pioneered the use of concrete, thereby pushing the boundaries of construction. In fact, Nero pioneered the dome, which became Rome’s greatest contribution to architecture. The emperors policed the seas so that grain ships could sail to Rome and they subsidized the price of bread. They stabilized the currency (when they weren’t inflating it) and, above all, they codified the laws.

The emperors also won the loyalty of new people. Unlike most ancient cities, who jealously guarded their citizenship, Rome shared its citizenship with outsiders. Little by little, the emperors extended Roman citizenship to their supporters in the provinces, as a way of rewarding loyalty. Finally, about 250 years after Augustus took power, the emperors made all free people in the empire Roman citizens.

Investing in your workers is essential to business success. Today, big companies have only recently become more progressive with wage increases, leave policies, and benefits packages. They might have started down this road earlier by studying the Romans.

The emperors knew that the most important part of their workforce was the army and navy. Every emperor depended on his troops to protect and the borders and to stay in power. And so the emperors rewarded the military generously. Augustus, for example, compensated 300,000 veterans with land, money or both. His successors continued to be generous. Legionaries, who were all citizens, were well paid. Non-citizens could serve in their own units and, after 25 years, were rewarded with citizenship. As the emperor Septimius Severus said to his sons on his deathbed, “Pay the soldiers and ignore everyone else.”

Diversity and inclusivity are important tools of today’s businesses in a multi-ethnic society. The Roman Empire did not have Human Relations offices, but the emperors were surprisingly inclusive in their hiring policies. Many emperors relied on slaves and former slaves to staff their administrative offices, often promoting them to senior positions.  One extraordinary case is that of Caenis, an influential female secretary in the imperial family who helped stop a coup d’etat against one emperor and eventually became the common-law wife of another. She was an ex-slave.

Although women could not vote or hold office, the emperors considered them a crucial part of their base. Augustus gave extraordinary authority to his wife Livia and she mobilized Roman women in support of his government. One example: prominent women outside Rome offered their backing to the regime by sponsoring religious rituals in memory of esteemed women of the imperial house who had passed on.

Although there were no empresses, imperial women wielded vast patronage. They could make or break careers and on at least one occasion the emperor’s wife probably chose his successor. After the emperor Trajan’s death, his wife Plotina signed the letters to the Senate naming Hadrian as Trajan’s successor – an unusual thing for the emperor’s wife to do. Some said that she did so in spite of her husband’s deathbed refusal. Plotina had long favored Hadrian but Trajan was unenthusiastic. It’s not surprising that, later, as emperor, Hadrian named Plotina a goddess upon her death. Less expected, though, is another sign of Hadrian’s respect for women: he was the first man in history to declare his mother-in-law a goddess.


 is key to building a business, and there is no more successful brand in history than “Augustus.” It was not the man’s real name, but a new title, meaning something like “The Reverend.” It served to make people forget its holder’s relatively humble roots and to hide the fact that he had seized power in a civil war and become, in effect, a king – something the Romans didn't want.  Caesar brought on his assassination in 44 BC by flirting with the idea of becoming king. His adopted heir, the man we now call Augustus, learned the lesson of what not to do. And it worked. The name Augustus is a great example of creating a persona to engage and cultivate the masses to help overshadow some of the nefarious acts.

Finally, there is the matter of legacy. It’s not enough to found a successful business: the true test is passing it on to a successor and having that person continue the business effectively. A founder, therefore, must pay almost as much attention to the succession as to getting the business up and running. Augustus did just that. In spite of seeing his first three choices to succeed him die young, he persevered. In the end he successfully turned the reins of power over to his adopted son, Tiberius, who maintained the dynasty and the empire.

Imperial Rome might seem as pertinent to today’s world as an abacus. In fact, it’s full of prescriptive, relatable, and actionable lessons, from growing a business to passing it on to a successor. Augustus CEO isn’t a stretch – it’s a tutorial.

Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, is the author of

"Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors From Augustus to Constantine."

Strauss is also the host and producer of the podcast

Antiquitas: Leaders and Legends from the Ancient World