Were Roman Slave Owners the First Management Theorists?
“Managing others always involves finding solutions to the age-old problems of assessing people from limited information, then incentivising, disciplining and rewarding them, to finally being rid of them,” writes Jerry Toner, director of classical studies at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, and author of “The Roman Guide to Slave Management,” in a provocative essay about the similarities between Roman masters and corporate bosses published at Aeon, an Internet magazine of ideas and culture.
“Owning slaves and employing staff are in a simple sense a million miles apart,” Toner continues. “A comparison of the two is going to provoke, but similarities do exist. It is an uncomfortable truth that both slave owners and corporations want to extract the maximum possible value from their human assets, without exhausting them or provoking rebellion or escape”:
Once he bought them, the Roman master tried to rebuild his slaves’ characters to suit his own needs. He made them forget their old gods and start worshipping at the household shrine instead, ridiculing their former beliefs. He might choose to brand them with his own mark. So, too (if less brutally), the modern manager ‘rebrands’ new recruits by teaching them their company’s mission. They must carry out rituals to publicly proclaim their faith in these new goals, such as attending away days (or off-sites) and taking part in humiliating group activities such as paint-balling or karaoke.
Slaves, like staff, were a substantial investment, and this moderated the harshness of their treatment. Each one cost a lot of money, enough to feed a family of four for two years. Treating them too severely simply damaged the value of your assets and reduced the expected return. The Romans thought that such cruelty might generate a short-term increase in performance, but it would soon wear out the slaves. In fact, if you tried to force them beyond the limits of reasonable service, you would end up making your slaves surly and unmanageable.
Such slaves were thought to be a vexation and a curse. Instead, Seneca urged masters to accept their obligation to treat slaves properly. Forgive them their mistakes, he said, chat with them, be polite to them, and share a meal with them. If masters did that, they could expect slaves to carry out their jobs diligently for many years to come.
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— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.Wait, before you go…
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