Slaves or Wage Slaves

January 1, 2016

Vedius Pollio, a rich Roman, once invited his friend the emperor Augustus to dinner. The entertainment was interrupted when a slave broke a valuable crystal cup. Trying to impress with his toughness, Vedius ordered the slave boy be thrown to the huge moray eels in his fish pond.

But Augustus was not impressed. In fact, he was outraged at this novel form of cruelty. He ordered Vedius to free the slave boy and told the other slaves to bring all the crystal cups they could find and smash them in their master’s presence. He then told Vedius to fill in the fish pond and get rid of the moray eels.

Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.

Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.

The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.

The Romans thought deeply about slavery. They saw the household as the cornerstone of civilised society. Similarly, the modern corporation is the bedrock of the industrial world, without which no kind of modern lifestyle, with all its material comforts, would be possible.

And just as a household needed slaves, so companies need staff. Permanent employees, like slaves, are far more desirable than outsourcing to outsiders. The Romans thought external contractors could never be relied on like members of the primary social group. They failed to turn up when instructed to, took liberties with their fees and, taking little pride in their work, carried out their tasks shoddily. With slaves, however, who were stakeholders in the system, the Romans could be sure that work would be carried out as they wanted it.

So it was vital that the master took the utmost care over whom he admitted to his household. Buying any old slave risked contaminating the morale of the whole household. The prospective slave-owner tried to ascertain all the facts before committing to buy: whether the slave was likely to try to run away, or loiter about aimlessly, or was a drinker.

The Romans thought clever slaves were troublesome and a threat

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