Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Rome, Inc. by Stanley Bing (Gil Schwartz)




(Read only if your interest is strong)




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Stanley Bing (Gil Schwartz in real life) can write the funniest pieces about corporate life, capturing both characters and situations deftly. His regular column in Fortune has become a “must read” in every issue. While I’ve enjoyed some of his book length works in the past, Rome, Inc. was disappointing. Bing came across as if he were forced to complete an assignment that he found mildly interesting, and went through the motions to complete it. There were glimpses of his skill, but not nearly enough to recommend this book. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 6, “Marius, the First Mogul,” pp. 66-69:



Caius Marius was born to parents who had nothing and who were nobody. From start to finish, he was the quin­tessential self-made man. In the ancient world, that was an amazing thing, and only Rome, Inc., up to that point in his­tory, could have created the climate of entrepreneurial opportu­nity in which a poor little ragamuffin from the stinky slums of the city could rise to be consul—the highest position in the land!— more times than any other Roman in the history of the Republic. Okay, he didn’t deserve the job a couple of times, and he sort of stole it once or twice, but that’s pretty impressive, too, right?

Marius was a crazy, juiced-up, bombastically angry mother, and he wouldn’t stay down, no matter what. There was a statue of the man himself at Ravenna, a small, lovely northern Italian town which, sadly, became the corporate center for a while when the wheezing, overextended organization was on its last legs and Rome was in ruin. The statue was “quite corresponding with that roughness and harshness of character that is ascribed to him,”

Plutarch wrote. “Being naturally valiant and warlike, and more acquainted also with the discipline of the camp than of the city, he could not moderate his passion when in authority.” I don’t know about you, but that gives me a nice frisson of recognition.

He was rude, too. One time, at a celebration of one of his great triumphs, he came and immediately departed, showing no interest in the performance because it was in Greek, a language he never took the trouble to learn, partially because it was often taught by slaves upon whom he looked down. In fact, the histo­rian notes, he could have done with a couple of Greek graces, or he might have never “brought his incomparable actions, both in war and peace, to so unworthy a conclusion, or wrecked himself, so to say, upon an old age of cruelty and vindictiveness, through passion, ill-timed ambition, and insatiable cupidity” Passion. Ill-timed ambition. Insatiable cupidity. Makes you feel kind of at home, doesn’t it?

Marius was raised in a little cow town well outside of Rome— rude and undeveloped, but brimming with those mythic Roman virtues of simplicity, hard work, and family life. He joined the corporation very young, as a soldier, which is analogous in con­temporary terms, I think, to coming in through the Sales Department. Most senior officers now collecting eight- and nine-­figure salaries came to their companies through that door. Salespeople fight every day and are judged by what they have done for the firm lately not over a period of time. They have to work drunk, and they don’t punch a time clock. They live and die by maintaining the territory that is given to them, and conquer­ing more. They are also highly personable, insincere when they need to be, and vicious in a close fight. All these qualities lead to a certain kind of combative, results-oriented personality that suits itself to senior management very nicely

Marius began his working life as a foot soldier fighting for Scipio Africanus, who you will remember was instrumental in turning Carthage into a parking lot. After that, he besieged Numantia, which is just south of another place that no longer exists in Africa. In this campaign, which was one of perhaps a dozen that were going on in the Hacking and Slashing Department at that time, Marius proved himself to be the bravest of his contemporaries, and came to the notice of the senior vice president of field operations, Scipio himself. He was particularly adept in bringing the army, which was sinking into luxury and excess, into some kind of order. This, too, is refreshingly familiar to us. How many senior officers do you know who earned the affection of ultrasenior management by cutting costs and keeping a hard eye on the expenses of the foot soldiers?

In a truly fortunate stroke for the young mogul-to-be, his boss saw him actually kill a man in hand-to-hand combat. Later, at a party as his betters sucked up the free scotch and wolfed down the pigs in a blanket and teeny quesadillas, the subject arose, in that great corporate atmosphere of macho drunkenness and swaggering power, of who might be fit to succeed Scipio himself, at which point the old man clapped Young Marius on the shoul­der and said, “Hey! Why not my man Marius here?” At that moment, Marius saw his future, and it was not simply the future of a sales weasel. From that time forth he had his eye on the kind of office that has its own bathroom and two assistants in the ante­chamber outside.

Coming back from his initial gig, full of pith and vinegar, with an ego the size of his ambition, Marius threw himself into pol­itics. Through family connections, he had himself named a tribune of the people, a post that derived its power directly from the amount of kissing up you did to the common corpo­rate employee. He immediately introduced a piece of legisla­tion that would have limited the power of the big noises that ran the judiciary, for Marius’s self-interest lay in casting his lot with the people, which in that day made him a man of the Left.

This did not sit well with Cotta, the senior officer at the time, who got the Senate to attack Marius for proposing it. This was no light thing back then. People who annoyed others in politics often found themselves in prison, or even running down the street with their sheets flying, an armed mob hired by one parti­san or another screaming behind them for blood. Gangs were routinely hired by one senator or another to off an obnoxious adversary, especially one who was not a patrician.

But was our Marius worried? Was he scared? Did he scurry around behind the scenes trying to get this little problem with his superiors, who were older and presumably more honed in state­craft, solved? Most importantly did he back off his legislation? Okay those are all rhetorical questions. Of course he didn’t.

What he did was this: he marched into the Senate, which was far more impressive than any boardroom any of us have ever been in, and told Cotta that if he didn’t back off he would have him thrown into prison.


In my opinion, this excerpt was one of the best passages in Rome Inc. If you find that you liked this a lot, by all means, read and enjoy Rome Inc. If you expect more from Bing, continue to read his Fortune columns, and look to his next longer work for something which matches his potential.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


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