Published on

Zuccotti Park, from a Bench in Ancient Pompeii

When I look at the occupiers, I tend to see them through sore old Roman eyes, as an indictment of what American business has become

There is a particular bench in the ruined city of Pompeii that I like to sit on whenever I visit the site, a shady seat attached to the front of a once luxurious house, facing a once bustling street. I remember the first time I saw the bench. I allowed myself to think: how nice of those long-dead owners to provide a resting place for passers-by. They must have been generous sorts, like those people who plant trees in parks or help construct playgrounds that they themselves will never use. But then, double-checking this kind assumption against my knowledge of ancient Roman social life, I had to admit: no, the owners of the house were probably not as selfless as their happy bench made them seem. For they had put it there not for the benefit of random passers-by, but for the clients of the household, that crowd of lesser peoples who because of their privileged attachment to the house were expected every day to get up before dawn, to run a comb through their hair, put on their most uncomfortable togas, and make their way through Pompeii’s dicey streets precisely for the purpose of sitting on that bench. Whoever arrived first took the prime spot closest to the door, while those who dawdled sat farther down the line or were forced to stand. And once they were there they were all kept waiting, lined up like pigeons on a wire. For the bench was less for their sitting than it was for their benching, put there to keep them waiting, to log the order of their arrival and to put them on proud display for all the morning’s other passers-by. Eventually the master of the house would shake the sleep from his eyes, get dressed and have his doorman let them in, receiving them in the order of their benching, with those who came in first being greeted as his biggest fans and clearly the most devoted to his cause. Once inside that great man’s den, his clients had one basic duty to dispatch: they had to say hello to him and wish him a good day. That’s what their benching was all about. Once that was done the master of the house would thank them for their kind attentions and send them on their way, sometimes dropping coins in their pocket on the way out the door, or giving them a basket of food to take home to the family. By the time the dawdlers at the end of the bench were let in, the generous man’s bag of coins, along with his patience, may well have run dry.

All of which leads me to think about the way financially advantaged peoples make use of the workers they employ today. Like all other heads of moderately successful families in the ancient Roman world, the man inside the Pompeian house was the head of a corporation, the family business that was the family itself. His bench wasn’t there because people waited, but because he needed to keep people waiting. He used it as his company’s billboard to dazzle the gawkers and the curiosity-seekers of backwater Pompeii with the high quality, as well as the sheer number, of those whom he could keep waiting. And he did it not because he was sadistic, determined to demean his people by using them as props, but because all of Pompeii’s other C.E.O.’s did their advertizing that way, because that’s the way it was done in the far off, big city of Rome, and because he, in fact, owned a prime location on one of his city’s busiest streets. To keep up with the competition he needed employees, clients who depended on him, as many as he could collect and care for, not just for the services they provided and the votes they cast, but for that one unquantifiable thing that they could produce for his corporation that no C.E.O. could ever provide for himself: honor. That was the main currency of the ancient Roman world, the stuff that made big families big, and kept those who didn’t have it from even bothering to try. To lack clients, or to have them show up late looking scrawny, unkempt and uncared for, was the sign of a lack of wherewithal on the patron’s part, indicating a badly run operation, a C.E.O. stinting in benevolence (gratia), taking honor but giving none in return, and thus a corporate family on the rocks. The stock value of Rome’s great families could abruptly rise and fall on the power of such indicators. The family that took bad care of its people was doomed to fall into decline. Other businesses would treat their people better.

However silly it would be for me to draw parallels, too many and too strong, between what happened then between patrons and their clients and what happens now between corporate managers and the workers they employ, I cannot help but think that the Roman C.E.O.’s held up their end of the moral bargain far better, and much more nobly, than we. At least at certain times, and in certain key respects. For the Romans, it was unthinkable that a business leader might resent the existence of his workers and try to offload them, or sell their jobs to the lowest bidder. Those employees were the business, and their happiness and devotion defined what success was. Were it a matter of raking in profits for investors by chasing cheap labor, one could just opt out of the whole honor business and purchase a gang of slaves. Some did this, and they were considered not ‘job creators’ or apple-pie entrepreneurs, but bottom-feeders driven by greed, lacking in moral purpose and self-control. Success as a C.E.O. was judged by the generosity one had exhibited, the community one had built. It was a matter of how many people you could point to and say, ‘look at that man there. Do you see how well dressed he is? Do you see the fine small house he lives in and the beautiful garden he keeps? I did that! He is well cared for and successful because he is one of mine, and I have dozens of others who are just as happy and well cared for because I am the one who takes care of them!’ If someone were to approach such a man and tell him ‘Look. Don’t you see that you if you were to dump all these people with their nice gardens and replace them with displaced Gauls and desperate Oscan field-hands you could rake in enough money to buy a secluded mansion with fishponds and dine on larks tongues every night?’ he would be confused by his questioner’s strange words, wondering ‘how am I to eat lark’s tongues without my people? What would the point of that be?’ Such shabby treatment towards the very workers whom he received every morning as ‘friends’ (amici) would destroy the company’s entire line of credit, bankrupting the man of his honor, without which any stack of money, no matter how high, was just so much sordid barbarian lucre.

When I look at the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, I tend to see them through sore old Roman eyes, as an indictment of what American business has become, and the scandalous product of how ‘success’ has come to be perversely defined. I see them as people who have been shooed away from the luxurious doors where their parents were once welcomed, told that the kind old C.E.O. who used to run the house doesn’t live there anymore; that the business is still active, raking in billions, in fact, but that it no longer has anything to do with building communities and taking care of people. Not in the old way, anyway. Its focus now is on generating wealth for the investors, corporate citizens who are required to give nothing back locally, or at all, because they are citizens in name only, belonging to no known community. When it comes to profits, they take them offshore. When it comes to losses, they stick taxpayers with the bill. Thus it’s still about people, just not about real people, and certainly not about you people. The occupiers have been sold this ugly truth for as long as any of them can remember. From birth they have been made to drink the mother’s milk of the American Dream only to realize that the one sure way to live that dream anymore is to find a way to profit from its destruction for everyone else. Our business leaders, bless them, have set it up to work that way.

It’s not that the occupiers don’t get any of this, it’s that they get it all too well. And so they stand outside, without a bench to sit on, looking shabby and smelling none too rosy, waiting for their fellow citizens to actually care. What they expect from today’s wealthy corporate citizens isn’t terribly mysterious. It’s what all ancient Pompeians would have expected of any elite citizen of their town who wanted to earn their devotion and respect: that he act like a citizen, perhaps even a good one, in some meaningful sense.

Kirk Freudenburg

Kirk Freudenburg is a Professor in Department of Classics at Yale University, and a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (FAAR 2002).  His Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, co-edited with Shadi Bartsch and Cedric Littlewood, is forthcoming this spring.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Share This Article

More in: