Ciao, ragazzi!

A dear friend, let's call him Signore Beel, left this morning, having spent a wonderful four days with me here in the Eternal City. When last we'd seen each other, I was a tired, disillusioned New Yorker, clad in black and searching for meaning in the universe or Mr. Right or, failing either, a decent sandwich in the White City area.

Over a meal of smoked swordfish carpaccio and creamy, delicate artichoke torte, Signore Beel made an interesting observation. He said, „You seem more at ease with life now. This appears to have been the next natural step for you. Everything you've done before has led up to this.

I was looking at this stage of my life as a u-turn extraordinaire. However, the more I thought about what Signore Beel had said, the more sense it made. Our histories shape us, right?

For example, my grandmother, clutching a pot roast and fleeing the Tsar, drew on historical lessons to develop her razor-sharp sense of misanthropy and her fetish for prune danish and clean bathrooms.

Maybe my various jobs and relationships can help me to develop a historical context for understanding the story of ancient and, in particular, Imperial Rome&Mac183;

So here are three observations about life, backed up by truths from Ancient Rome and truths from Corporate Cubicles, examples of using the past to understand the present and visa versa.


Ancient Rome Julius Caesar started small, enjoying a successful though unspectacular career in the theoretical Roman democracy of 45 BC. One little promotion, a couple of well received projects, a dash across the Rubicon and this guy is suddenly a completely different person. A power-hungry lunatic who appoints himself Dictator For Life.

Corporate Corollary Ever worked with someone who gets promoted into Senior Management? One day she's complaining about the Staff Survey and vowing to use nuclear force to obliterate the term „value-added. Then, as if plucked by Jupiter himself, this heretofore normal human being gets promoted and, WHOA! She's talking gibberish („leveraging competence clarity, ) and offering you advice on how to „increase your visibility with the senior heads and team leads.

I worked with a guy who was promoted to Vice President, then sent an e-mail explaining that he was now a critical member of the senior management team and would be „spearheading this year's strategic plan on behalf of the Chief Financial Officer. He knew we would understand that it was no longer possible for this busy, important individual to read e-mails from junior colleagues (aka The Rest of Us). Therefore, he concluded, he would very much appreciate having all mail from junior colleagues sent directly to his newly appointed deputy, instead. Hail, Caesar.


Ancient Rome Suetonius, the 1st Century's equivalent of the Daily Mirror (or Page Six, for the Americans in the crowd), tells us that Nero, Emperor of Rome, fiddled while the city burned. Wrote Suetonius, „For six days and seven nights together this terrible havoc [fire] raged&Mac183;he [Nero] remained at his palace and chanted a poem on the ruin of Troy, in the tragic dress he used on the stage.

In the absence of a viable Plan B, most Romans lost their homes to fire and destruction. To make matters worse, Nero later confiscated the land and built himself an even larger pad on the spot where several thousand Romans once lived.

Corporate Corollary I was working with a company during a corporate takeover; i.e., our organization was buying a larger, better known competitor. Not all that dissimilar from a fire consuming the town, actually, for we were up night after night, working, working, working. Trying to save as many jobs as we could. Trying to keep things going. We were lost lambs, baaaa-ing in the night for our leaders.

And where do you suppose these leaders were to be found? Check one.

a. In the corporate board room pouring over financial statements b. In the lawyers' offices fretting over contract details c. In the accountants' quarters, ensuring the numbers were in order d. On the golf course

(BIG HINT: Nero fiddled while Rome burned&Mac183;)

Unfortunately, like the Romans of yore, we lacked a coherent Plan B. We assumed, wrongly, that our leaders would rescue us. No. Instead, they sent us some temporary Human Resources help in the form of a miserable poison dwarf whose ONLY contribution was creating a spreadsheet containing a list of EVERYONE'S salaries (including colleagues from the acquired company), attaching this document to an e-mail addressed to All Staff and then hitting Send. This is true.


Ancient Rome When you see films like Gladiator, you might be struck by the absence of strong female parts. Oh sure, there's the love interest. Or the sister of the demented emperor who uses sexual favours to secure Russell Crowe's freedom. (Hello???? Who WOULDN'T do that for Russell Crowe?)

Anyway, back to my point. Women had very little influence in ancient Rome. With one exception. They could become one of Rome's six Vestal Virgins. In that capacity, they would spend 30 years of their lives tending to the ceremonial flame. They couldn't have sex but they were allowed to have bank accounts and they got to ride around in chariots and get bowed to on a regular basis.

Corporate Corollary Well, thank God no one ever asked me to guard the company furnace (although I did seem to attract more than my fair share of questions about the office HVAC system, for some strange reason). And although my social life didn't always cooperate, my sex life has always been considered a personal, not professional matter. Nonetheless, I think I can understand how those Vestal Virgins felt: sometimes you take a job lacking in intellectual excitement because you like the clout and, hey, you wouldn't mind a little bowing from time to time. But the truth is this: when you're miserable in a job, you're probably not going to meet the partner of your dreams. So, following this Catch-22 to its logical conclusion, you might get asked to the company brainstorming session away day at a dumpy 2-star hotel just off the A40 (with free booze and stale peanuts), but you're NOT going to have a wild night of it with Johnny Depp. Capischi?

In beginning to piece together the story of this fascinating city, I am able to draw heavily upon my knowledge and experience of corporate culture.

Seriously, it is remarkable learning the history of this amazing city. Amazing, too, to make connections between the worlds of the Caesars and the world in which we find ourselves today. Sometimes it feels like a thin historical thread; other times it's a mighty rope, worn away perhaps in some places over time, but still strong enough to carry us through the ages. Let's hope it survives the Bush Administration&Mac183;.

Ciao, ragazzi. Tanti baci.



© Copyright Amy Selwyn 2004