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Modern-Day Lessons From 'The Roman Guide to Slave Management'

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.


It has been said that you can find lessons for life in almost any book, and that the oldest texts have the most enduring lessons.

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?

Greek Vase of Slave Giving Child to Mother

Slavery was a nearly universal institution practiced across history and continents.

Slavery was a nearly universal institution practiced across history and continents.

Historical Perspective

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 giving 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.

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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.

Use outsiders when those who already work for you aren't right for the job. It is cheaper that way in the long run, both in productivity and quality.

Use outsiders when those who already work for you aren't right for the job. It is cheaper that way in the long run, both in productivity and quality.

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 10 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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 21, 2017:

Ronald E Franklin Thank you.

Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 21, 2017:

1. It is obvious in concept creep so that anything other than happy, bubbly life is classified as mental illness, that grief over the death of a spouse or being shy is classified as crazy. Same problem with the lie that 1/4 of college students are sexually assaulted - we know it is false because no one on Earth would pay 10K/year for such a risk but millions pay it per year.

2. We need more mental health beds for the truly mentally ill and need to stop pathologizing everything else. Calling moral defects and bad choices "illness" relieves the person of responsibility but does not FIX anything. It also takes resources from the truly mentally ill when we focus on lots of frustrated, bored or lonely middle class people out of the dream that throwing them into the bad category will drive them to fix things - it isn't.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on October 21, 2017:

1. How do you know? Cite your source.

2. How do you manage the mentally ill now?

Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 21, 2017:

1. Those diagnosis rates are inflated per the misguided belief that inflating the numbers will make it more acceptable.

2. In ancient times, you either left them to charity or left them to their families or killed them.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on October 21, 2017:

How do you manage the mentally ill?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health about 22.1% of the U.S. adult population (about one in five adults) suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. This is an understatement of the number of persons with mental health problems, as many people do not seek treatment. Some studies indicate that 32% of U.S. adults suffer from some sort of mental illness within their lifetime.

Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 20, 2017:

Shasta Matova Thank you.

Shasta Matova from USA on February 09, 2015:

Congratulations on HOTD. These are great management tips, and it is good to know that they have stood the test of time.

Anne Harrison from Australia on January 26, 2015:

A fascinating hub - well done on HOTD! Many historians write of the economic success of Rome being based on the large number of slaves providing 'free' labour, but just as today, nothing is free, even training staff comes at a cost. Voted up

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 23, 2015:

Though we live in a society that is vastly different from that of the Romans, the thing that hasn't changed and never will is human nature. These principles, to the extent that they are based on insight in to that unchanging human nature, are timeless. Interesting hub. Congrats on it being selected HOTD.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on January 23, 2015:

What a creative way to interpret what we can learn from this piece of history! I see the connections you've made - and they're very apt, in terms of management, budgets and organizational issues. Congrats on the HOTD, Tamara! Very deserved!

Carla Paton from Agate, CO USA on January 23, 2015:

RE: "Normal people perform badly if good behavior brings no benefits and there are no punishments for failure." It is performance review time at our company...what we (the worker bees) have discovered over the last 5 years, is it doesn't matter how hard we work, due to the "calibration" process (like grading on a curve), we get marked down by upper management who neither knows us personally or knows what we do/have done. It creates a vicious circle of disencentive to work any harder, and, in fact, to work much less.

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on January 23, 2015:

I agree with Aesta1's comment, wondering why we tend to ignore lessons from history. Very interesting read and a good reminder. Congratulations on HOTD honors!

Rebecca O'Reilly from California on January 23, 2015:

Good Hub. Voted up, very useful info.

mySuccess8 on January 23, 2015:

Everyone will encounter many different types of people during one’s management career. You have given great tips for building a successful and cost-effective human resources management in organizations, whether big or small. As you have rightly emphasized, it is also about treating and respecting the co-workers like family members. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 23, 2015:

Indeed there are lessons to be learned from them. I often wonder why we sort of ignore the lessons history has given us.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on January 23, 2015:

Most of the advice is good for any workers one might hire for the home or business. Very interesting hub and well done. Congrats on HOTD.

The cheer life on January 01, 2015:

That looks pretty

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