Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, author, and TV presenter. In her new book, “Emperor of Rome”, she explores what it was really like to be a ruler in the ancient world. Here, she explains how some of her findings can help redefine how we think about power and leadership today.
Some people think of the Romans — and their marble statues of men in togas — as distinctly remote. But, actually, what makes Roman culture so extraordinary is that it also allows us to kind of understand what it was like to live 2,000 years ago. We can read their letters and look at their jewellery, and let it draw us into a remarkably vivid idea of the past.
It’s a part of history so approachable that it offers a glimpse of how their world may have compared to ours. And it’s that combination of closeness and distance that makes it so appealing and fruitful to think about.
It’s important to recognise how some [..] ancient ideas are still written into our assumptions of what it means to be powerful.
In my new book, “Emperor of Rome”, I explore the facts and fiction of the rulers of the ancient world. I’m reluctant to draw direct leadership lessons from this time. But I do believe that, by looking at how Roman emperors performed their role — whether well or badly — we can sensitise ourselves to some of the ways in which power works in our own world.
The definition of power
Ancient Rome offers a safe space for debate and critical thinking because we’re not going to offend anyone by criticising the Romans. They’re not here anymore. But some of their templates of power are.
Our modern image of leaders is still influenced by these Roman imperial figures. We’re still surrounded by the statues depicting them as powerful men who speak with authority and get things done. We may now think that this is a warped notion of leadership, but it’s important to recognise how some of these ancient ideas are still written into our assumptions of what it means to be powerful, whether that’s in politics or business.
Through my years of research, it's become clear that successful emperors had three things in common. Firstly, they were good at pretending to be an emperor. They played the imperial part by dressing up as military versions of themselves to uphold their image as successful fighters, even if they never went into battle. They also knew it was important to build — from Vespasian’s construction of the Colosseum in Rome to Hadrian’s Wall across Britain — and to change what people saw around them to insert tangible proof of their impact. Finally, they were well known for giving things away. From cash handouts to entertainment, they knew that generosity was the key to winning people over.
An emperor’s willingness to listen to people at the bottom of the food chain fiercely contributed to their power.
There’s not much a modern business leader can learn from any of these characteristics. And probably nothing good would come from it. But if we look harder, we can see that these rulers were also concerned with activities that are closer to home. Underneath the traditional Roman template of a successful leader, emperors stressed aspects of power that might be more useful to us.
A new template for leadership
Despite the popular image of decadence and luxury, Roman emperors spent many hours judging court cases from people across the empire. They understood that they had to get their hands dirty in people’s problems if they wanted to establish their leadership. And I’d argue that this willingness to listen to people at the bottom of the food chain fiercely contributed to their power. Yet it’s a side of the emperor that is often overlooked, partly because we tend to think of listening as a very passive virtue. It’s a stereotypical feminine trait, and so often gets perceived as less authoritative.
Roman emperors also recognised that the public image of the ruler was crucial and that power rested on visibility. Julius Caesar was the first living Roman to have his face on a coin, while Augustus — his successor and the first emperor “proper” — had over 25,000 of his statues distributed across the empire. It was a boastful gesture, of course, but it also created a sense of identity and community (a “brand”) among people. Across the empire, they would recognise their leader and feel like they were part of something. It went right down to private objects, from earrings to cookie moulds with the emperor’s face on them. The emperor was seen everywhere.
Finally, there were several periods in Roman history where there were joint emperors. It wasn’t always a one-man rule, although that’s how we normally think of it. Romans recognised — at least to some extent — how important it was to collaborate, that sometimes it is more impactful to do things together.
Romans certainly drew on the traditional ideas of military success and massive building. But that’s not the full story. Whether it’s listening to individuals, creating a sense of community, or collaborating with others — they invested in a range of the characteristics that haven’t traditionally been attributed to successful leaders.
Thinking beyond traditional templates
To bring it back to today, the most important thing people can do is to think beyond traditional templates. It’s about recognising how some of the concepts we continue to follow are deeply rooted in history. That’s true for business and company culture as much as anything else.
Ancient Rome — with all its vivid stories — offers the perfect place for that. It gives us a view from outside ourselves, and as such helps us make sense of the world around us. It may not be the first direction in which a business leader would choose to look, but I’m confident that it would offer some genuinely thought-provoking, even helpful, answers if they did.
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