That's Classic: Modern-Day Business Lessons from Ancient Rome

What can MBAs learn from the Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius? All Roads Lead to Rome, a course taught by HBS professor Frances Frei and Harvard history and classics professor Emma Dench, surfaces insights into the age-old issue of leadership.
by Julia Hanna

What can MBAs learn from the Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius? All Roads Lead to Rome, a one-off elective course team-taught by HBS professor Frances Frei and Harvard history and classics professor Emma Dench, juxtaposed ancient texts by Julius Caesar, Seneca, Tacitus, and others with contemporary readings to surface insights into the age-old issue of leadership.

Q: Why is ancient Rome a good lens for exploring modern leadership themes?

Dench: It’s a remote, dead society, yet larger than life, which makes it a very good way to explore huge issues like power, mortality, standards, and mercy. There’s a common humanity, yet it’s not about us directly. Often the leader in question is experiencing a life-and-death dilemma—if he doesn’t get it right, he’d be killed. It’s very, very exaggerated. We’d ask, “How is this speaking to you?” Everyone would start by acknowledging that death was not a serious daily threat for them. But then we’d hear, “I’m not going to be killed, but I could be fired by my board of directors.”

Q: Give an example from the course of how you compare and contrast contemporary and ancient texts.

Frei: In the module Not Forever, we read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s [MBA 1995] chapter in Lean In about her husband, Dave Goldberg, then his obituary and Sheryl’s reflections on his unexpected death. That comes close to Marcus Aurelius thinking about his own mortality in Meditations; Augustine’s account of his mother’s death in Confessions; an extract from the historian Polybius’s writings on witnessing a friend weep over Carthage, the enemy city he has just destroyed; and a reading from Plutarch on how his fellow Greeks should deal with not being an imperial superpower anymore.

When it comes to leadership lessons, all roads lead to
ancient Rome and to leaders such as Julius Caesar. Source: Julie Berlin

If you know something is not forever, what would you do differently? A lot of things, it turns out, and not all of the analogies are as poignant as the death of a loved one. Our customers love us. That’s not going to last forever, so what’s the next thing we’re going to do? As opposed to: They love us, oops, now they don’t; uh-oh, what should we do? So cherishing and being proactive versus reactive.

Q: Suetonius’s “The Life of Caligula” is assigned alongside an August 2015 New York Times article on Amazon’s workplace culture. Are you trying to compare Caligula and Jeff Bezos?

Dench: No, not exactly. Caligula was as mad as you get—he had no block, was very creative, thought he was a god, made his horse a consul—there were good and bad aspects there. It was a scarily interesting place to start the course and kick up a lot of issues and questions, more than focus on any one individual.

For example, who is going to stop you when you go wild, when you stop listening? Who is going to be on your case? It’s such a good laboratory for budding CEOs. For the Romans, being an emperor is all about contradictions, because they’ve got to be wildly ambitious, almost a lunatic, but they also have to be considerate of and consult their peers and carefully use every segment of Roman society. Those contradictions speak to the sort of leader that HBS is looking to produce.

Q: What would you recommend from the syllabus if I’m new to the classics?

Dench: You can’t read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and not be affected. This guy is basically master of the universe. And the Meditations, as far as we know, were never intended for an external audience. They were for himself. It’s quite stream of consciousness. There are 12 books, each about five or six pages long. For example, in Book One he lists all the people who have been important to him, and what he feels he got from them in terms of virtues and advice. It’s astonishing.

Frei: The stories from Valerius Maximus’s Memorable Doings and Sayings will stay with you for-freaking-ever. It helps us understand severity, fidelity, and justice in our own lives, and generously teaches us how to effect changes of character and fortune. Then there’s Seneca, Nero’s tutor. His “On Clemency” is lovely. As you read, you realize he’s writing to the best version of Nero—and that if you do that with everyone, they’ll be that version of themselves more often.

Q: Were there any surprise favorites with the students?

Dench: Cato’s On Agriculture. It’s a back-to-the-land handbook, very practical. You learn about all the amazing medicinal and veterinary applications of cabbage, yet it also touches on ethical issues. It’s extraordinary.

Related Reading:

Why Leaders Need Great Books
Teaching The Moral Leader
Machiavelli, Morals, and You

This article first appeared in the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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