Emperor Vespasian and the Art of Making Choices

Published: Good Men Project (April 30, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa shares a brief story from Roman history to teach a life lesson.

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Whenever I discover an anecdote from ancient history that offers a clear lesson for the present, my inner history nerd rejoices at the opportunity to share my latest find with anyone who might offer me their attention.

Much as you, dear reader, are doing right now. Which brings us to Vespasian, the 9th Emperor of the Roman Empire, and the most important decision he ever made.

Whenever I discover an anecdote from ancient history that offers a clear lesson for the present, my inner history nerd rejoices at the opportunity to share my latest find with anyone who might offer me their attention.

After finding that Rome had been devastated by a terrible economic crisis and sweeping fires (which many suspected, without proof, had been intentionally set by Nero three years earlier), Vespasian took it upon himself to spearhead a series of ambitious public works program, constructing and/or repairing buildings, roads, aqueducts, and a whole host of other infrastructural necessities within the city. One day, a brilliant inventor found Vespasian while he was personally supervising an aspect of his city’s construction. After receiving permission to approach him, he proceeded to show the emperor a blueprint he had drawn of an innovative new machine he claimed would make it possible to complete all of Vespasian’s construction goals more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than ever before. As the historian Will Durant later wrote, Vespasian may very well have been faced with the possibility of starting the Industrial Revolution right then and there, seventeen hundred years early. Instead, much to the engineer’s shock, Vespasian declined his offer. “My people need jobs,” he simply said, before turning back to his work.

On an immediate level, Vespasian’s decision is an excellent case study in choosing immediate human needs over abstract dreams of progress. While the inventor who approached Vespasian was no doubt disappointed by the emperor’s technological short-sightedness, Vespasian recognized that the products of humankind’s brains and brawn were only positive forces if they served greater human needs… and, understandably, casting thousands of his subjects into poverty did not strike Vespasian as an act on behalf of the greater good.

At the same time … Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the inventor was correct in predicting the usefulness of his invention, it’s impossible to predict how history would have been different if Vespasian had agreed to the inventor’s requests. Perhaps the jobs lost would have been offset by a notable improvement in the average Roman citizen’s quality of life; perhaps enough new jobs would have been created to exceed the losses caused by the invention’s adoption; perhaps jump-starting the Industrial Revolution by more than 1600 years would have made the modern world look very different than it does today.

The fundamental question at issue here is what ultimate role the various agents of change—not just technological but political, social, economic, cultural, even spiritual – are supposed to play in our lives. Should human beings be viewed as parts that exist to serve the welfare and success of the larger communities of which they are a part? Or should instead the various parts that make up a society exist to improve the quality of each individual human life to the greatest extent possible?

Does progress exists for the sake of human beings, or do human exist for the sake of the abstract concept of progress?

More simply put: Does progress exists for the sake of human beings, or do human exist for the sake of the abstract concept of progress?

There is no easy answer to this question, just as there was no clearly correct decision for Vespasian to make on that fateful day. All we know for sure is that, every so often, a human being is presented with a choice that will have monumental consequences regardless of the decision he or she eventually makes. When Vespasian was confronted with his big moment, he erred on the side of helping ordinary people keep their jobs; others facing the same choice may have very well erred toward improving the human condition as a whole instead of safeguarding the welfare of a handful of individuals.

If nothing else, it is comforting to know that little moments like these—when one man or a group of people determine the very shape of history itself—actually happen. While it doesn’t prove that every one of us can make a difference, it does show that any one of us may, at some point, be offered that opportunity. However intimidating that prospect may seem, the alternate possibility is far, far worse.

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