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However powerful you think the United States has been at its height, it’s nothing more than a shadow compared to the grandeur of the Roman Empire. For nearly 500 years, up to and through the fourth century, the Roman Empire was a superpower of epic proportions.
Its tales of victory and growth have been recounted many times over in history books, speeches and films. In fact, some Roman achievements — from engineering feats to victories of war — are still considered advanced even in the 21st century.
But, as quickly and dramatically as Rome came to power, I learned from a recent guest lecturer at the University of Washington, its empire’s fall was even swifter. And, as much as historians like to study the rise of Rome and everything the empire’s leadership did right, it’s equally as fascinating to study this question: Why did Rome fall so suddenly? And what can today’s entrepreneurs learn from its example?
Overexpansion and instability
There are a handful of reasons why the Roman Empire fell. To point to any one culprit and assign it full blame would be doing history a disservice. But there is merit to the idea that these various factors were interconnected. For instance, at the heart of Rome’s demise were overexpansion and instability. That much is crystal clear.
As history writer Evan Andrews points out, the Roman Empire, at its height, stretched all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River. The amount of land Rome ruled was astonishing, to say the least, but the rulers got a little lazy about how they expanded and spread out power.
“With such a vast territory to govern, the empire faced an administrative and logistical nightmare,” Andrews explains. “Even with their excellent road systems, the Romans were unable to communicate quickly or effectively enough to manage their holdings.
“Rome struggled to marshal enough troops and resources to defend its frontiers from local rebellions and outside attacks, and by the second century the Emperor Hadrian was forced to build his famous wall in Britain just to keep the enemy at bay.”
Compounding the problems associated with Rome’s size and fragmentation was the fact that Rome had inconsistent (and sometimes ineffective) leadership. Between civil wars, outside attacks and assassinations, Roman emperors dropped like flies during the second and third centuries. This instability wreaked havoc on the empire from the inside out and, ultimately, was largely to blame for the fall of the empire in 476 AD.
Are you trying to scale too quickly?
Visit Rome today and you’ll see some of the relics of the Roman Empire. From the Colosseum and the Pantheon to the Roman Forum and the many churches and basilicas, there’s lot to see and do. But, as a business owner, a trip to Rome has additional value — as a reminder of just how quickly even the most powerful entities can come crumbling down.
In fact, you should look at the fall of Rome as more than a historical event. For you, it’s a warning of what not to do. If your business is doing well, as many are in today’s current economic environment, you may qcquiesce to the temptation and pressure to quickly scale; you may buy up real estate, capture more market share and grow revenue. People may be telling you that you have to do it “while you can.” But, that’s bogus.
The reason why: There’s something to be said for not biting off more than you can chew. Each time you expand, you have more “territory” to watch over. More territory requires more people, which in turn requires more resources. Company leadership gets stretched in new directions, which exposes weaknesses and areas in your business model.
This instability then opens the door for internal and external attacks, from internal politics and external competitors. You may be able to hold back some of these threats, but eventually, things will come tumbling down.
There’s definitely power in balancing power and spreading out leadership duties throughout your business. But, at the end of the day, there has to be some centralization and control. Vague power-sharing, in fact, was part of Rome’s demise. (At one point near the end, there were even multiple emperors!)
Everyone in your company needs to clearly understand his or her role, whom to report to, and what is expected on the job.
Learning from the fall of Rome
To summarize: Scaling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (You can’t exactly build a major corporation by sitting still.) But you can’t scale without a plan for how you’ll allocate resources and reinforce power and leadership. The Roman Empire eventually got ahead of itself. And if Rome can fall so swiftly, so can your business.