Where'd you get that nice toga, Senator?

Lessons about trade for our modern budget-slashers and government-bashers, courtesy of an early emperor named Obamatus.

Crosscut archive image.

George Washington, as a Roman Senator, on the Capitol Grounds

Lessons about trade for our modern budget-slashers and government-bashers, courtesy of an early emperor named Obamatus.

The year was 450 A.D. Rome was besieged by imports. The people were unemployed as low-cost goods from the Germanic tribes and the Mongolian hordes flooded the empire.

Emperor Romulus Augustus Obamatus summoned Praetor Lockatus. “You are responsible for Rome’s competitiveness; why cannot we employ our citizens? Why are our chariots made in Nara, our sandals in Gongju, and our togas in Pingcheng? The Germanic tribes sell us our tools. Even our wine is from the Franks in Gaul. Our papyrus is from Egypt and our tin is from Britannia while our olive oil is from Iberia. There is rumbling in the markets. I fear for the future of Rome. What is your advice?”

The meeting led to the proclamation of a Roman Export Initiative (REI). The Roman government would assist the small and mid-size shop keepers to sell their products from Egypt to Hibernia. The Roman government would also assist major business. A State of the Empire Speech was presented to the Senate. outlining the threat and how Rome must now invest in education, research, and infrastructure, including repair of the aqueducts and roads that tie the empire together. Obamatus said that the Empire had become complacent since the Punic Wars and did not see the rise of economic competitors.

Some members of the right side of the Senate were aghast at the Emperor’s approach. These Senators were Equites from rural villages and patricians who did not want to pay taxes. The patricians' wives wore flaxen hair imported from Germany.

Senator Paulacus rose to speak. He said that Rome’s economy must be only defended by private business. There was no role for government in assisting our exports. “What is good for Wallforum is good for Rome.” We must eliminate the Roman Commercial Service and allow market forces to work. We must worship Mercury, the god of commerce, and seek his guidance in our decisions.

Lockatus rose to respond. He eloquently argued that other nations use government economic strategy, incentives, and tools to attract investment and sell into Rome. “We can no longer ignore what our competitors do to penetrate our markets. The Mediterranean has changed and we must adjust to the new realities.” Lockatus noted that some countries have stolen our chariot designs. They make cheap sundials and put our brand on them. Their companies are even government owned. They peg their currency to the argenteus. Rome must adjust or decline and may even fall.

Lockatus faced Senator Paulacus and met his challenge. Sadly, some our biggest companies no longer say they are Roman companies; they now say they are Mediterranean companies. They are no longer tied to our community. They move their work outside of Rome for cheap or slave labor and transport their wares on fast galleys made in Greece to our ports. You go to the dock and you see full urns made in North Africa arriving and empty urns leaving. The Roman government must be a leader in keeping Rome competitive and employing our citizens.

Senator Murryus rose to speak about a conversation with the Persian ambassador. Ambassador Darius observed that the Roman leadership and citizens failed to observe what is happening in the rest of the world, always looking inward. They follow the gladiators but not the economy. The ambassador joked that Rome did not even notice the approach of a military threat until someone reported a large group of elephants in the suburbs.

A group of new Senators called the “Muslum” party named after a popular Roman honeyed wine drink, supported Senator Paulacus. They advocated eliminating most the government and allowing individual business to provide the service. They noted the success of the privatized Rome fire service and its admirable new business model: If your villa caught on fire, the fire service arrived and bargained with you for the sale of your home and when they had bought it, put the fire out.

This historical essay is written with apologies to the UW history department that after budget cuts will only focus on American history between the Civil War and WWI.


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