Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rome, Inc.

I have been reading a fair amount lately about ancient civilizations. I mentioned in an earlier post Susan Wise Bauer's excellent book, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. Another really great read is Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? which thoughtfully explores the parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States today. The latest book on my reading table is Peter Watson's Idea, A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. My hat's off to Watson for a one-volume romp through the great ideas that have driven our civilization.

With all of this ancient history rattling around in my head, it occurred to me that there are some remarkable parallels that can be drawn between Greece and Rome and today's companies. What I'm thinking about specifically is innovation. Greece is almost universally acknowledged as the foundation of Western culture. The innovations that came from the Greeks span almost every domain you can name: architecture, theater, philosophy, science, history, the list just goes on and on. The Greeks loved exploring new ideas. The Romans' focus was twofold: empire and efficiency. They believed in the mantra that bigger is better. They were ferociously productive at building everything from roads to amphitheaters. They originated much of what has come down to us as law, perhaps because of the needs for contracts. They borrowed from everyone, especially the Etruscans and the Greeks and then improved upon and replicated the ideas. Rome was Big Corporate. Greece was Silicon Valley. Scale versus creativity, operations versus innovation.

Why were the Greeks so innovative and the Romans not? This is a complicated question with lots of dimensions but I can't help but wonder if it didn't have a lot to do with the small, independent nature of the Greek City-States, the polis. Greece was a loose amalgam of many independent small governments that were fiercely independent. Yet many Greek scholars traveled widely between these independent City-States pollinating new ways of thinking and new innovations. While some of these cities rose to central power for a time (I think of Athens in the 5th Century BC), there was generally no long-term "Rome", no corporate headquarters that enforced one way of doing things.

The Romans had Rome and they built everything from roads to aqueducts to frontier garrisons on a common blueprint. There was one best way to do everything and Rome knew what it was. As a result, the Romans were highly successful in expanding their empire, the ancient equivalent of corporate growth. All of this worked until growth slowed and finally stopped in the 2nd Century AD. The weight of complexity, bureaucracy, and dictatorial control began to eat the vitality of the Roman Empire from within.

Rome could not have happened without the Greeks and many other cultures. Large corporations could not survive without the acquired innovations of small companies. Were the Romans more successful than the Greeks? What's your definition of success?

So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.
Greek biographer & moralist (46 AD - 120 AD)

[Bust of Pericles, leader of Athens' Golden Age, from Wikipedia]