A few years ago I was given the opportunity of a lifetime for a consultant. “Come to Rome and use it’s history to help a team from Microsoft understand how empires fall.”
With my existing understanding of Roman history, I was excited:
- An empire that lasted for a thousand years in the West and nearly two thousand years in the East. (To put it into perspective this was about 850 longer than the British Empire in the shorter lived Western part.)
- Amazing, buildings and technology: The Colosseum was the largest sports stadium in the world until the 20th century. The Romans invented concrete and then the technology was lost for hundreds of years. And Roman influence is evident in virtually all European languages, architecture and culture.
I read, watched documentaries, asked experts and yet I arrived in Rome without a fixed idea of how I would bring the theme to life. I arrived in the middle of the afternoon the day before we were due to start. Fortunately it was summer and the days were long. I checked into the hotel and dashed out, map in hand. I ran from site to site taking it all in and persuading the staff at the Forum entrance that I really did want a full ticket, even with only an hour left to closing time.
I went from the Forum to the Palaces of the Palatine, saw the Circus Maximus and Trajan’s Column, Titus’ Arch, Caesar’s Forum, The Colosseum and the Pantheon and read everything I could find about it all.
That evening I scoured the pamphlets I had picked up and filled in the gaps with Wikipedia and gradually the narrative came together.
The following morning the team from Microsoft arrived we started the day conventionally enough as I facilitated a meeting and then in the afternoon we set off on a walk around Rome.
Our first stop was on a small grassy bank in a park with a view of the Colosseum. On this hill side in the 15th Century a young man had fallen through a cleft in the rock and found himself in a strange cave with figures painted on the wall. It turned out that he had stumbled into the remains of the extraordinary Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden Palace. Built to emphasise his glory and power it covered between 100 and 300 acres including the site of what is now the Colosseum where a huge lake had been constructed with a full sized galley for Nero to have convenient boat trips. In fact the Colosseum takes its name from the colossal 30 meter high bronze statue of Nero that had stood nearby and was remodelled, after Nero’s death, into a representation of the Sun God Helios, by the time the Stadium was built.
Together we toured the Colosseum, the Palatine and The Forum and I shared the stories and the history of the various places. Finally we made our way to the Pantheon which is where the empire narrative concluded.
The Pantheon nearly 2000 years old, still holds the record for having the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built. It survived the earthquakes that damaged the Colosseum, it survived invasions, riots and wars.
The Domus Aurea lasted barely 70 years,
The difference was that wheras the vast palace was built to the glory of a single individual the Pantheon was built to the glory of all of the Gods. Once Nero had died, no one wanted to sustain the memory of his excess.
The lesson we drew was that any enterprise will only be sustained for as long as it is delivering value to enough of it’s stakeholders. Whenever a small elite are allowed to become the main beneficiaries at the expense of other stakeholders, decline has already set in. This goes for business as well as political empires.
In October this year I will return to Rome with my business partner Mark Thompson and a group of like minded senior leaders from a variety of significant businesses to ask:
Is it possible to understand Europe in the 21st Century by examining Rome in the 5th? Can we compare the conditions that led to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire to the ‘end of an epoch’ experience we seem to be having today? Join a group of like minded peers as romp round the domain of the rational in Rome, October 2015.