Modern Day Lessons from “The Roman Guide to Slave Management”
Greek Vase of Slave Giving Child to Mother
It has been said that you can find lessons for life in almost any book, and that the oldest texts have the most enduring lesson.
What can we learn today from the book "The Roman Guide to Slave Management”, written as a guide for managing slaves during the Roman Empire’s peak around 100 AD?
"The Roman Guide to Slave Management" was written to reflect the views of slave-owning societies, pulling from many sources to give the Roman view of slavery 2,000 years ago.
While slavery was part and parcel of societies around the world from pre-Columbian North American to Africa to Asia to Europe, we have the greatest wealth of information on Roman views of slavery.
Slavery for Greco-Roman society was not racial as it was in 1800s America, indentured servants excepted. Romans could sell their Italian children into slavery to pay debts, while non-Romans could own them. Romans did their current citizens a favor by requiring those being sold as slaves be sold outside of their territories, so the new slave wasn't seen by former friends and colleagues.
American society today is successful because it doesn’t define people by a “class” that interferes with meritocracy. Romans could be sold into slavery as punishment for their crimes or to pay back debts, meaning free Romans could end up slaves, while freed slaves generally became Roman citizens.
While the book treatise focuses on managing slaves, it has interesting advice relevant to today. (I won't consider any comparison between wage slaves who can change jobs and true slaves who were "Avox", tools without a voice who could be maimed and murdered at an owner's whim. Then again, a father could execute any member of his family, too.)
Greeks considered slaves as slavish, preventing their acceptance into a middle class even after being freed. In contrast, Romans saw slavery as a temporary condition. They could and would accept freed slaves as potential equals, though treating them more like the “new rich” were mocked in the early 1900s by old rich landowning families.
Some of the advice for managing slaves and underlings remains true today, despite 2,000 years of time and many social shifts, simply because human nature hasn’t changed very much. What management lessons can you glean today from “The Roman Guide to Slave Management”?
Finding The Right Person for the Job
Find out the background of those you may consider working for you, such as their legal liability for misdeeds and work ethic.
Don't bring in too many people from the same background, or their loyalties will be to each other instead of the larger whole.
Those who refer workers may do so simply to get rid of them instead of give an honest reference. Verify skill sets and abilities.
Hire people with the skills you need for the job you have. Don't hire someone who has talents that exceed the position and hold them down.
Avoid workers who are melancholy, because they will be unable to work well and distract others with constant complaining.
Select people for jobs based on the temperament and physical attributes it requires. Those pushing the plow need to be strong enough for the job and yet gentle enough with the animals to do the task well. Giving someone work they cannot physically accomplish is the fault of the manager, not the worker.
Training Your People
Train people for the roles you assign them.
Trained talent is expensive. Consider the raw talent that can be shaped into that which you need and consider it a long term investment. However, developing home grown talent can be time consuming, which is why it isn't done more often.
It is only social conventions that lead one to own/manage another. Teach the social conventions for someone's role and position.
Recognize that those shifting from one organization to another need time to learn their new roles and new rhythms.
Have clear job roles to generate clear accountability, which in turn ensures hard work. When you change someone’s job role, ensure that they are trained for it.
Someone who has not had to work in a long time or hasn’t worked in the field (literally or figuratively) before may need time to keep up with everyone else.
Trainers can develop great talent in the next generation or spread bad ideas that infect others. The worst are those who have a little knowledge and think they are geniuses.
Promotions and Demotions
Organizations that could assimilate newcomers and permit those at the bottom to rise up the ranks are far more likely to grow and endure than those that do neither.
Those who are not in charge often act with bravery and nobility during times of crisis, and these underlings should be considered for higher rank.
If a former manager has to be demoted, send them to work somewhere else. It creates confusion and unease to have to give orders to a subordinate who used to be in charge.
Working people beyond the limits of reasonable service makes them surly and unmanageable. Don’t demote people whose performance fell simply because too much was demanded of them.
Those who try to tell the boss how wonderful he/she is should learn that this is not to their advantage. Reward instead those who work hard and deliver results. Those who fail to deliver should be demoted.
Let your manager have input on who the assistant manager will be, since this is someone he or she needs to work with closely. However, that position is still the owner’s decision.
Incentives and Punishments
Do not punish people brutally for minor offenses. Don't treat them with injustice or cruelty.
Normal people perform badly if good behavior brings no benefits and there are no punishments for failure.
Privileges should be granted in accordance with how well they have been deserved, not favoritism.
Praise workers generously, especially those who are motivated most by it.
Require individuals to take personal responsibility for the upkeep of their tools. The cost of replacing tools is expensive, and holding them accountable reduces losses.
Managing Payroll and Labor Expenses
The greatest talents have the highest price, but don't pay scandalous amounts for someone based only on a name and the prestige you hope it will bring you.
It can be seen as degrading to ask outsiders for help, but it is always time-consuming to bring in external contractors. They may not arrive as expected, work shoddily and take liberty with their fees. Rely on in house talent for regularly performed tasks, using people capable of performing them. But hire external contractors for unpleasant tasks that those in house will not want to perform and/or won’t perform well.
Good Managers versus Bad Managers
Good managers understand all the tasks that go on underneath them. And if there are gaps in their knowledge of business operations, they fill them.
Bad managers constantly seek short term gains to improve their appearance of profitability, to the long term detriment of the organization.
Asking someone’s opinion shows respect for them, but you do not have to follow it. Seek the advice of those who know more about a subject than you.
Managers should only use workers to the organization’s benefit, not for their own personal benefit.
Potential troublemakers are kept in check when the lowest subordinate can report to top managers the misdeeds of their bosses.
Timeless Management Tips
Don't rush to react. Always count to ten before acting.
Give clear and certain commands when you want something done. Don't vacillate about what you want, and never get angry if someone didn't deliver incorrectly on an unclear request.
Do not make the mistake of adding to headcount to increase prestige, though this is a common reason why managers add underlings and contribute to management bloat. (Having slaves in Roman time was a status symbol, as well as a convenience, and it was condemn-able then to have useless lay-abouts.)
Business managers at the top tend to find that the number of workers at the bottom tends to increase because of the ease of hiring them, while the work load on middle managers tends to increase. Balance the demands on the front line managers so that they aren't pushed out of the firm.
Ensure that everyone in the organization learns at least the rudiments of the common language, so they can talk to each other and understand the boss' instructions.