Discover more from Hot Takes
Marketing lessons from the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire, renowned for its architectural marvels and military prowess, also holds timeless wisdom for what we all do today
"Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too." — Marcus Aurelius
Everyone is making Roman Empire memes lately (myself included) so I thought it would be fun to do a post on some marketing lessons we could learn from this deeply fascinating period. As a note I think it’s so cool this is a topic that has seeped into the wider consciousness of the internet, even otherwise vapid places such as TikTok. Perhaps there is hope.
The Roman Empire is of course celebrated for its incredible achievements in architecture, governance, and military conquests. However, one aspect of Roman civilization that is often overlooked but really fun is their sophisticated marketing and branding work. Yes, the Romans were not just builders and conquerors; they were also expert marketers well before ‘marketing’ was a codified practice. After all, every civilization brands itself, it is a natural byproduct of the organization of humans and the sprawling of empires.
Strategic Infrastructure and Branding: "All roads lead to Rome"
The Romans understood the power of connectivity and both the physical and metaphysical benefits. Their vast network of roads not only facilitated trade but also symbolized Rome's dominance serving as a visual representation of their power. As Cicero the famed Roman orator stated, "the highways of the Empire lead everywhere," reminding us that a strong brand identity and robust infrastructure can pave the way to becoming a household name. And look how successful this was, we’re still talking about the Roman Empire, after all.
The well-known saying “all roads lead to Rome” seems to be true--at least, that’s what Moovel Lab, a team from Stuttgart dedicated to urban mobility research, points out. Titled "Roads to Rome," the project has mapped out over-land routes across Europe that converge to the city.
From a grid of 26,503,452 square kilometers covering all of Europe, the researchers defined 486,713 starting points that were superimposed on the continent's street map. Then an algorithm was developed for the project that calculated the shortest route between each of the points and the Italian capital.
The resulting cartography reveals a route map that, in fact, leads to Rome. The thicker lines represent the most used routes and are the roads where the smaller routes converge.
Influencer Marketing - Emperors and Gladiators: "Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi" (What is permissible for Jupiter is not permissible for an ox)
In ancient Rome, emperors and gladiators held immense influence. As Seneca, the stoic philosopher of the time observed, "virtue, without which fame is empty," we see that an endorsement of a product by admired figures such as emperors or gladiators could elevate it to new heights, as they were considered virtuous (something significantly deeper than simply well-known/popular). We’ve written on this concept before as many still miss nuance here. In modern times, influencer marketing similarly thrives when authenticity and alignment with values are both present.
I don’t think we need to share how emperors wielded influence, we all know how that works, so let’s talk about Gladiators instead. For those who slept through history class, Gladiators were considered popular heroes in Roman society. They were often admired for their courage, strength and endurance in the arena (insert a Chamath meme here). The admiration for Gladiators extended to various segments of society, from the common people to the elites. Gladiators even had devoted fan clubs known as "factiones" — sort of like the fandoms we have today online (nothing is new under the sun). People would publicly align themselves with a specific faction and passionately support their favorite gladiators similar to a football game.
Further, wealthy individuals and even emperors sometimes sponsored or endorsed specific gladiators. These endorsements elevated the status of gladiators and added to their popularity: a gladiator with imperial sponsorship could become a household name. Some gladiators were celebrated not just for their combat skills but also their virtues. Their bravery, honor, and resilience in the face of death were admired qualities in Roman culture, and these virtues became associated with the products or services they endorsed. All of this sounds familiar, because it is.
Gladiators were also frequently depicted in Roman art, mosaics, and literature. Their images were used to evoke emotions and capture the imagination of the public. This contributed to their influence as cultural symbols and successful gladiators who earned their freedom could transition into different roles in society. Some became trainers, bodyguards, or even entertainers. Their stories of rising from slavery to fame and fortune were compelling narratives that inspired others, again not dissimilar from the popular narratives Hollywood produces today.
In some cases, gladiators even used their popularity to exert political influence. They could sway public opinion and even be involved in political or social causes. Some emperors sought the support of popular gladiators to bolster their own image and legitimacy. This was illustrated through the popular movie directed by Ridley Scott we all know and love. Again, history repeats and rhymes.
Localization and Adaptation: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
In the Roman Empire, there was a mutual process of adaptation when it came to the areas they conquered. The interaction between the Romans and the local populations led to a complex interplay of cultural exchange and adaptation. And so, the Romans governed diverse regions and evolved into a rich cultural exchange spanning language, trade culture, urbanization and more. Diversity not only upheld, it was encouraged (as long as loyalty to Rome remained).
So, the Roman Empire was a melting pot of cultures. In the words of Roman author Pliny the Elder, "variety is the soul of pleasure." Modern businesses should follow this sage advice, personalizing their marketing to cater to specific audiences and cultures, ensuring that their message resonates deeply. We talked about using memes in a previous post here, a great way to accomplish this and speak to specific groups in their own language. Quick service restaurants (QSRs) also do this today through the localization of menus to fit the tastes of specific areas. Many such cases.
Building Trust Through Architecture: "Exemplum et documentum" (An example and a lesson)
The Romans built iconic structures that symbolized their grandeur. In the words of Vitruvius the architect, "firmness, commodity, and delight." The firmness of a well-designed storefront or customer experience can inspire trust, the commodity it offers, and the delight it provides, establishing a lasting impression on customers. As I stated recently, I believe certain industries like music and movies are failing at this today. It will be their downfall.
Community Engagement - The Roman Games: "Panem et circenses" (Bread and circuses)
The Roman Games were more than just mere spectacles; they nurtured community. As Juvenal the satirist noted, "the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more." Modern businesses can foster community engagement through events, social media, and shared experiences, just as Rome's games brought people together and solidified their loyalty. Certainly the games can be viewed through the opposing lens as well, and too much bread and circuses can lead to downfall. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of sport and celebration, as long as it is counter-balanced with a seriousness of daily life (we’re currently lacking this part in America, and marketing could help here too).
I fully endorse everyone exploring the Roman empire (and all history) to understand more about our modern world. My fear is our current age will not be looked back on with such wonder, but it’s not too late to do better here and change this. The next 200 years can be our very own Pax Romana-like period of prosperity, if we’re brave enough.
Hot Takes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.