How Ancient Rome Handled a Great Crisis

At the moment, nations all around the globe face the true test of their political, economic and social systems. It is this times of crisis that will define a generation.

It is almost a cliche at this point, that we should look at the true merit of people and institutions, not in their golden age, but in their times of struggle. To note how they manage to survive and perceiver when others don’t.

The cliche might be overstated, but it is not less true. As Sir Winston Churchill understood during the darkest days of british history, the summer of 1940, as the French Republic had just capitulated to the German war machine.

Churchill said the following on 18 June 1940 to the House of Commons: “… if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour”. Churchill understood that if was not the long 19th century of British prosperity that would define the British people’s history, but the great overwhelming struggle they faced in 1940.

However the civilization that embodies this principale the best, is perhaps not the British but the ancient Romans. The Roman Republic and Empire experienced a great deal of colossal crisis throughout its existence. However their ability lied in persivience. Through civil wars, plagues, invading Carthaginians, the “Eternal City” still stood.

As the ancient king Pyrrhus of Epirus is supposed to have said “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”. Rome could, like no other state, persevere through a crisis. However why was this possible, and can it teach us anything about the crisis we experience today?


Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus Roman Statesman and Dictator. 518 -430 BC

One of the most infamous examples of Roman crisis management is the appointment of Dictators.

After Rome had overthrown its kings in the 6th century BC, a republican government was established. The system was created to prevent one individual from obtaining to much power. Therefore the political top was split in two. Now two Consuls would lead the Republic. Both with the ability of cancelling each other out and with a 1 year governing term.

However this system proved less efficient in times of military conflict and other emergencies. For that reason the Romans created a temporary absolute political position, called a Dictator. The Senate would appoint the Dictator, but after that he would not have to comply to them. He would also pick a Co-Dictator called a “Master of Horse”, but the Co-Dictator would still ultimately be a subordinate to the Dictator. Keeping all political power with one man and cutting all possible bureaucratic bottlenecks that might arrive.

Dictators also did not have to fear retribution for their actions after the crisis had passed since they were exerted as soon as their term was over. A Dictator served for 6 months, or shorter depended on how long the crisis would last.

Rome’s political system can for many centuries of its existence be seen as a mix of democracy and monarchy. Attempting to take the best of having a democratic system, while avoid the problems democracy creates in great crisis.


The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae

Some might say that size doesn’t matter, but when we are talking about empires it truly does. The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, and it ruled over vast territories from the British Isles to Iraq.

This of course gave Rome a advantage, since it had access to almost endless resources. Including large amounts of grain from Egypt , metals from Spain and slaves from North Africa. Rome could therefore also divert resources from less affected areas to prevent larger damage, in times of crisis.

Italy itself was also rich in men and resources which in the early days of the Republic gave Rome a massive advantage over Pyrrhus and Hannibal. Since Rome could lose battle after battle and legion after legion, but still had the ability to field a new one. While their enemies slowly got worn down.

However what gave Rome’s size its greatest strength, was something different. It was its decentralized structure. The Empire could experience a great crisis in a Spanish province however the Middle Eastern provinces would remain unaffected. This provided the Empire with an enormous amount of stability and made sure that the imperial center would rarely get shaken by these local crisis throughout the Empire.

It also worked the other way around. So when a bloody political conflict was raging in the city of Rome, the imperial provinces would often work unaffected.


Roman God Neptune

A colossal part of Rome’s ability to survive crisis also laid in its ability to steal or adapt other civilizations ideas, technologies and skills.

This is perhaps most clear when looking at the Roman gods. Jupiter reminds one of Zeus while Poseidon reminds one a great deal of Neptune. That’s no coincidence, because when the Romans arrived in Greece they greatly admired the Greek city states, and sought to emulate them as much as possible.

However the Romans did not only plagiarize, they often sought to built on the already established ideas. As they did with Greek warships, which they greatly advanced on through the ages. By building on the original Greek designs.

The Roman army, highly regarded as the source of its stability and power, was in large part the product of other civilizations. Ideas from Greece, North Africa, Anatolia and Persia influenced the Roman army, and made it into the ancient worlds finest military machine.

So when a crisis struck Rome, they would seek to learn from that experience by adapting the best part of their enemies advantage. When the next battle, economic crisis or natural disaster would arrive, Rome would be more capable of overcoming it.

Ancient Rome and Today

Coronavirus check at Italian Airport

Therefor the three lessons that Ancient Rome can teach us today is avoid political gridlocks and bottlenecks at all costs, don’t let the political center be rocked and learn from those with better ideas.

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