Saturday, May 26, 2012

Vespasian: Jobs Over Machines

A mere snippet within a snippet, thus one story on yesterday’s PBS Newshour, titled “Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete,” related that the emperor Vespasian (9-79) had once declined to approve labor-saving machinery for lifting heavy objects, like columns, saying that it would reduce employment. This surprised me. I went on a search to find out more. Here is a quote from a book, by a professor at City College of New York:

The beginning of Rome’s long decline might symbolically be traced to a seemingly minor incident that occurred early in the reign of Vespasian. Vespasian reached Rome in October AD 70, resolved to restore order and discipline to a Roman government that had languished under Nero and several dissolute successors. He embarked on a vigorous construction program which included the Colosseum. Suetonius relates that an inventor approached the emperor with plans for  a hoisting machine that would greatly reduce the need for manpower but was rebuffed with the reply, “I must feed my poor.” Vespasian feared the machine would exacerbate unemployment in a society already overrun by idlers and slaves. Labor saving devices such as the water wheel were not wanted and consequently were neglected until there was a significant decline in both the general population and the number of slaves late in the 4th century. But a society that does not use its inventors will eventually lose its inventors.
     [Stanley David Gedzelman, The Soul of All Scenery: A History of the Sky in Art, link, see Chapter 3]

The source of the story is thus the historian, Suetonius (circa 70-130). What amuses me about the quote, above, is the author’s view that Roman decline might be traced from one emperor’s nixing of labor-saving machines—rather than, say, from the civil wars that brought about the empire itself. Vespasian was a good emperor; he represents a kind of breath taken by Rome in the midst of its rush to its ultimate Decline and Fall. Here was an emperor who actually thought about the laboring people. Can anyone provide me with a second example of action such as this at the highest levels since—rather than mere talk?

Added Later. Of course this story was right on my bookshelf all along. Here Suetonius’ own words:

He [Vespasian] first paid teachers of Latin and Greek rhetoric a regular annual salary of 1,000 gold pieces from the Privy Purse; he also awarded magnificent prizes and lavish rewards to leading poets, and to artists as well, notably the restorers of the Venus of Cos and the Colossus. An engineer offered to haul some huge columns up to the Capitol at moderate expense by a simple mechanical contrivance, but Vespasian declined his services; ‘I must always ensure,’ he said ‘that the working classes earn enough money to buy themselves food.’ Nevertheless, he paid the engineer a very handsome fee.
     [Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars]

When one reads something like this in other times—and the economy of old is still humming, and productivity still means something positive, and the future is not as yet emergent—the story goes by without notice—especially in a context where teachers earn big bucks, poets get rewards, and artists are receiving honors. And that “handsome fee” to the soon-to-be-obsolete inventor gives this story a kind of happy closure.

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