Unlikely Lessons from the Roman Empire

Whenever March rolls around I generally have two thoughts:

  1. Why is it still cold?
  2. How many years has it now been since Julius Caesar’s assassination?

I imagine many share my first thought, but far fewer share my second. Most of my friends are more interested in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or trying to one-up each other with the number of digits of pi they have memorized on Pi Day. (Yes, I hang out with some cool people.) But as someone who took five years of Latin and two of Attic Greek between high school and college, I’ve always been fascinated by Greek and Roman culture (actually this fascination started with the Disney movie Hercules that I saw in third grade, but I digress).

Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.E., was a turning point for the Roman Republic. Rome had been under republican rule for 465 years at that point, almost twice as long as the United States’ own republic has existed. Gaius Julius Caesar was just the latest of several men who attempted to take full control of the state. He had been named dictator in perpetuity (dictator was actually a constitutional position in the Republic, traditionally only filled during emergencies) by the Senate after a civil war with Pompey. Other Romans became concerned that their republican system of government would not survive Caesar’s reign, and on the Ides of March they assassinated him, out of a desire to preserve the Republic.

The opposite happened. The assassination sparked a chain of events that led to Caesar’s adopted son Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C.E., and he assumed the title Augustus soon thereafter, becoming the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Rather than saving the Republic, the assassins actually catalyzed its transformation into an empire.

There’s no way to know what would have happened had Caesar not been assassinated. But this progression has always made me think about unintended consequences. The murder of a dictator to save democracy is an extreme example, but it’s worth recognizing that sometimes actions taken hastily end up causing more problems than they resolve, no matter what the intent behind them. Wanting to help without understanding the context or failing to fully comprehend the potential ramifications of one’s intervention can do more harm than good.

This is why the first part of GTECH’s methodology is Investigate. GTECH began as research at Heinz College at CMU, and the drive to make sure we “do our homework” is still ingrained in the organization. I see Investigate as having two branches here at GTECH. Some of what we do solely falls into the Investigate category (as opposed to the Act, Connect, and Sustain categories). We are often involved in policy discussions, and we work to create processes and resources that we can put at neighborhoods’ disposal to help navigate policies around land use in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

The other part of Investigate, however, takes place as a part of all of our projects. Before we take any action we work to learn as much about the relevant issues and communities involved as we can. We get involved with discussions around community priorities, listening to what neighbors and families want and need, and how GTECH can help. Doing thorough research, especially by hitting the pavement and talking with people in the community, can help us understand and mitigate unintended consequences that could result from our actions.

Over our ten years of history we have, admittedly, learned about unintended consequences through trial and error, and we’ve grown a lot both personally and as an organization. We continue to strive to do better in working with community members to achieve the results they want. This Ides of March, roughly 2,059 years (math is hard because there is no year zero) after Caesar’s assassination, let’s remember to reflect on our actions and how they affect those around us, recognizing that they often have different effects than we’d anticipated.

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