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A Latin Lesson for Managers?

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There is something about the saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ that springs to mind when reading the latest weekly feature from FTdynamo


The UK’s Channel Four TV station recently broadcast a remarkable program on the building of the Colosseum in Rome. Sometimes dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, the Colosseum was an extraordinary achievement for any age. Even though the purposes were hardly advanced, its specifications – a 50,000 all-seater stadium complete with three underground floors for performers, lifts to raise them to arena level and even a sophisticated retractable silk canopy to shelter spectators from the elements – are rarely matched even today.

The design called for 155,000 tons of marble, reinforced concrete of a quality which escaped most 20th-century builders, and seals so watertight that in its early days the arena could be filled with water and used to stage naval battles.

The Colosseum is another reminder that the 20th century has no monopoly on engineering and technical expertise. But there was another crucial element in the building’s success, this one more often overlooked: as well as engineers, the Romans were brilliant managers. The Colosseum (a state enterprise, incidentally, paid for out of public taxes) took just 12 years to complete. Part of the workforce consisted of slaves, certainly, but many of the 30,000 who worked on it were skilled masons and other craftsmen and technicians whose effort was coordinated to the millimeter and minute. At one stage, construction required 200 cartloads of marble to be delivered to the site each day – a just-in-time performance which would tax even today’s powerful computer scheduling applications. So well designed and construction was the arena that it satisfied its gory function for several centuries before falling into disuse.

Thus, while it’s a commonplace that Roman building techniques were 1,000 years ahead of their time, it’s sobering to reflect that in their management abilities they were even further ahead. The Roman army was a model of discipline and control; the marble and pottery industries were the prototypes for 20th-century mass production. In today’s terms, the Colosseum was brought in on time and under budget, and displayed remarkable economy and fitness for purpose. How many of today’s grand projects, built with far greater technical resources, will be around in the year 4000 to fill spectators with awe at their aesthetic, engineering and management achievement? Perhaps it’s time for managers to go back to their Latin primer.


FTdynamo features writings and opinions by leading people in the the world of work and business.

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