How Rome’s first emperor Augustus (Octavian) strengthened the empire

Is diversity all that it’s cracked up to be? Does diversity weaken you or strengthen you? A lot of historians claim that Rome fell because of diversity. 

The Roman empire had allowed the Franks and the Goths and the Vandals and the Huns and the Saxons and the Angles to settle on their land. They had made them their vassals and had armed them. And it was these “Barbarians” that attacked Rome when it was weak. And piece by piece, these attacks led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century – where it disintegrated into various smaller Kingdoms.

Indeed, a lot of brutal leaders have learnt from this history lesson. And they’ve tried to homogenize their country by repressing the minorities. Because they’ve seen the mighty Roman empire that lasted for over a 1000 years disintegrate because of diversity. So is diversity really any good at all?

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire

Rome was founded in 753 BC as a kingdom by Romulus. In 509 BC, it became a republic when the citizens exiled the king and his family. And in 27 BC, the republic became an empire when Julius Caesar’s heir – Octavian (also known as Caesar Augustus) won the civil war and became the sole ruler. 

For the next two centuries, Rome expanded its borders dramatically while remaining very peaceful internally. Rome witnessed its golden age and it was all because of Augustus’s strategy of building a diverse empire.

Augustus expanded the Roman empire extensively by annexing Egypt and conquering Hispania and a huge part of North Africa. But the famous Roman Legions were not enough to conquer and maintain control of these lands. Rome needed more soldiers. And so, Augustus made “Auxilia” a permanent part of his army. These were soldiers who were not Roman. They were recruited from other conquered lands. And in a short while, these auxilia made up 50% of the Roman army!

Many empires have made soldiers out of their conquered subjects. But not many have managed to build a loyal army out of them! Case in point: when Alexander was winning the war against Darius, many of the Persian subjects switched sides immediately without defending Persia, even though Darius was still alive. Alexander’s march across Asia was swift because no one resisted him until he reached the Persian homeland.

The auxilia on the other hand were extremely loyal to Rome. Even during losses, they fought till the end, never switching sides. And this was despite them being paid less – every Auxiliary soldier only made 5/6th of what a legionary soldier made.

How did Augustus build loyalty in these diverse group of soldiers?

Augustus didn’t treat the auxilia as disposable. They were treated fairly. But most importantly, he tried to assimilate the diverse group under one label. He did this by giving the auxiliary soldiers a pathway to citizenship. After serving for 25 years, an auxiliary soldier and his children could become Roman citizens themselves!

The auxilia fought for Rome and thought of themselves as Romans! They shared their diverse techniques of fighting, which made the Roman army really strong! Historians marvel at the fact that – except for a few minor exceptions, an army made up of long ruled subjects didn’t revolt or betray for centuries!

So what went wrong? Why didn’t this loyalty last?

The loyalty disintegrated because of short term thinking and penny pinching. Rome switched from the auxilia to the foederati system. These new foederati units were not paid at all. Instead, they were given land at the frontier of the empire and were expected to pay for themselves. 

At that time, it seemed like a stroke of genius. Rome got more soldiers for free – in return for unwanted land! But it was impossible for these foederati to become Romans! These soldiers could never assimilate into the empire! And so the empire lost their loyalty! These foederati indeed revolted when opportunity arose!

Diversity without assimilation will end up biting you. If you’re building a diverse culture, you’ve got to assimilate all the diverse players too. Diversity makes you stronger only when everyone is aligned to the same cause and think of themselves as one unit.

So how do you assimilate a diverse group to think of themselves as one?

Henri Tajfel did a classic experiment in the 1970s. 64 students from a school in Bristol, UK were selected for the experiment. They were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and were asked to estimate how many dots were there. Based on the answer, the boys were told they are either “overestimators” or “underestimators”. In reality, the boys were assigned the label of “overestimator” or “underestimator” randomly unrelated to their answers.

The boys were then asked to give points to others on a series of subjective tasks. And what do you know? Overestimators gave more points to other overestimators and underestimators gave more points to other underestimators!

Rebecca Bigler – a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin did a similar experiment. In a 6 week summer school, half the students were randomly given yellow shirts to wear and half the students were given blue shirts. No other distinction was made and nothing was told to them. Teachers didn’t treat anyone differently. 

After the summer school was over, the students were surveyed. Invariably, students wearing the same coloured shirts became closer friends with each other!

You really don’t have to go overboard and give incentives for people to assimilate together. All you have to do is provide:

  1. One and only one same label
  2. And a way for them to distinguish themselves from others in the world.

As soon as you create two labels, you will have two groups. Assimilation requires grouping under only one identity. 

Action Summary:

  • Building a diverse team is meaningless if the group is not assimilated. In fact, without assimilation, you will have more trouble as each diverse group creates their own clique.
  • To assimilate a diverse people, you have to make them associate with just one identity. Unite them under just one label, or one colour, or one flag, or one purpose.
  • Make people feel like they belong. Make people want to belong.