Recently I saw an article on Facebook’s CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, and his interest in the classics and especially in the Roman Emperor Augustus, and I have to admit it aroused my curiosity.
Before I read the article, I wondered whether Zuckerberg was like many other CEOs who hold the story “Odyssey”, as a model for good leadership. The “Odyssey” promotes “order, harmony and happiness for everyone – powerful and weak alike”. This noble objective can be achieved when a good leader respects his obligations to his people and makes communal life tolerable for everyone. Indeed, a good leader cannot succeed at everyone else’s expense.
But it wasn’t about the “Odyssey”; it was about Zuckerberg’s fanatical interest in his role model, the Roman Emperor Augustus. Zuckerberg told the “New Yorker” that he was fascinated with the career of Augustus, and how he established a legacy of two hundred years of peace.
But much of this success, in my opinion, was due to Augustus’ mastery of all types of propaganda and spin. Before we draw conclusions about Zuckerberg as a leader, let’s look a little at what we know of the Emperor.
Augustus got an excellent press with many academics throughout the centuries, as I found when I had the opportunity to study this period many decades ago. He, the story went, brought peace and prosperity to Rome, when everyone from the poorest citizen to the senatorial class were tired and weary of the civil conflicts of the previous hundred years. People wanted peace, and some normalcy, and Augustus certainly provided it.
He was a shrewd politician, who connected well with ordinary people, and was well known for his generosity and austere manner of living. He wasn’t seen as pompous and presented himself with ‘dignitas’. Yes, perception was everything, and he knew how to manage it.
But look at the other side of the story. He wasn’t a great general, but was one of the shrewdest politicians to come onto the Roman political stage. This shrewdness is demonstrated in his choice of his two closest collaborators: Agrippa, a loyal and natural military man, and Maecenas, a “spin doctor” par excellence. Augustus, for example, didn’t defeat Mark Antony at Actium; he watched from a safe distance as the naval battle went Agrippa’s way. Then Maecenas crafted a simple but effective story for public consumption, and Augustus was hailed the victor. The natural media-savvy propagandist, Maecenas, then produced Mark Antony’s so called “dodgy will”, which it was claimed he had lodged in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins. This master stroke completely destroyed whatever credibility Mark Antony had. The examples of these mixed messages based on half truths and lies goes on and on throughout his entire reign.
Yes, peace was established and the city’s economy prospered, but the costs were great: the senate was reduced to a puppet assembly, other assemblies were either suppressed or turned into a talking shop without any power, and all nominations for official positions were controlled by the dictator. Indeed, the whole political and social life of Rome was centralised under Augustus, which he controlled along with his wife, Livia, with an iron fist. He was granted the “Imperium” for the whole army for life, which eliminated any return to senatorial rule. Indeed any military commander who disobeyed or misbehaved was dealt with severely. All of this was supported by the emergence of a strong middle class that was faithful to him.
Does this fad of hero worship of Augustus, one of the greatest propagandists of all time, tell us anything about Mark Zuckerberg? Is it a little worrying that the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world publically holds one of the greatest masters of the “dark arts” as his hero?