What if the Romans had the internet?

Working with a historian and a world famous psychologist, we asked ourselves this question.

PC ROman

There is a lot of talk about the positive and negative effects of the web, How it allows us to excess on all things good and bad. How it’s created a more connected world, one where freedom of speech is uncensored. But also created isolation and detachment.

Or how it’s been used by terrorists, pornography and pedophiles– only recently Google has banned thousands of search words.

Has the web really changed how we act or has it just adapted to centuries-old behaviour? Are the successful elements of the web – Facebook, Twitter, blogging, YouTube and Wikipedia – actually only successful because they appeal to our basic psychological instincts?

I have always been fascinated with the psychology that goes on behind consumer behavior and have adapted several psychology based approaches like NLP and Enneagrams into powerful marketing tools and often sought the opinion of professional psychologists.

What I have learned is that you need to return to basic human instincts if you want to understand how people behave.

Despite the popularity of Behavioural Economics, a repackaging of consumer psychology basics, the current obsession with data may lead some to question if Adland really understands consumers at all.

According to research (Nielsen) 91% of female consumers think advertisers don’t understand women.

Yet instead of looking at the mind, marketers can easily get distracted by numbers. Sadly we live in what has been called the ‘Numeric Society’, so it is no wonder many businesses think the answer to better marketing lies in analytics. This belief is what I call ‘after think’ – looking at the outcomes not the reasons, the after rather than the before.

Even Einstein warned his fellow scientists about making number too much of the focus, and it is often quoted in marketing circles, “Make the important measurable, not then measurable important.”

No other medium has allowed us to see how consumers behave as well as the web. It provides us with a large number of subjects, real time response rates and an ability to test. So it is no wonder that one of the biggest growth areas is web analytics.

What if Romans invented the internet?

To see how basic human behaviour adapts to the web I think we need to look at it another way. Imagine if the Romans had invented the internet. How would they use it? By comparing basic human behaviour we can see why the internet has been successful, and understand that to successfully market to consumers, or users, we need to adapt to them, not expect them to adapt to us.

Bartering and markets

Let’s start with Roman market traders. The need to trade seems to be embedded in many of us, and the internet offers convenience, speed and comfort. Our Roman traders would soon create what would become Amazon and eBay.

But traders need to build trust – word soon spreads about bad ones – and in Roman communities, good traders soon gain a positive reputation. And so the ratings system is born on eBay and Amazon Marketplace: rated by people not companies, because we trust people far more than we trust companies.

Social sites

Romans like to socialise, so would soon develop LinkedIn for the serious stuff and Facebook for the casual stuff. Humans are by nature pack animals and we all need to feel connected. The success of Facebook isn’t down to clever thinking but meeting the basic psychological need to connect and belong. We are, after all, pack animals.

What is interesting about Facebook is the way people behave. The number one reason people leave the site is fear of exposure and loss of security, yet by contrast others totally expose themselves.

Teachers are advised to avoid putting up compromising images so students can’t use them against them. Grads are advised that images of pot smoking drunken binges won’t go down well with potential employers. So why do some of us drop all barriers on line?

There are two theories. One is that being a virtual world, it is like a dream, detached from reality, there’s no sense of consequence. Others say it’s because there’s a different set of rules to online etiquette. Or people are simple ‘internet intoxication’, like a drunk, they lose any common sense.

There are those that keep a tight rein on friends, ‘selectors’ who limit their collective to people they really know and have real relationships with, a real world attitude. Research has shown that most of us actually only have about 12 close friends but can associate with up to 150, the maximum size of traditional clans.

And then there are ‘collectors’; some even reach 5,000 friends, the maximum number allowed by Facebook. They seek self-value by ‘having’ lots of people; some deceiving themselves that many friends equals love and worth. In spite of the fact that humans can only put a name to a maximum of 1,500 – 2,000 faces, which is ironically the size of many tribes in traditional societies.

Even the Greeks claimed no man could maintain more than 100 friends, but unlike the Romans, they didn’t have Facebook.

Chatter and brands


Romans were big gossipers, so would love Facebook and Twitter. Apparently it’s a basic human instinct that grew out of grooming, according to social psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar. In ‘Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language’, he claims that “humans developed language to preserve personal alliances within groups grown too large for ‘hands on’ grooming.” In short, language allows us to groom larger groups of people.

This is certainly true online and Facebook is the perfect grooming tool. Dunbar’s work is held up by social networking specialists as the answer to why we like to chat so much. He shows conclusively that, on average, two thirds of all human communication is “social”: talking about others and ourselves.

“90% of brand mentions in word-of-mouth happen offline”

But the real chatterboxes are not the Romans but the Rowomen. 92% of women pass along information to others, and are far more inclined to share information than men, ten times more likely in fact.

US word-of-mouth research specialists Keller Fay have discovered that up to 60 brands a week are mentioned in these conversations but only 10% of conversations happen online, while 90% occur offline. And another factor, WOM is dramatically more influential than social media.

Consumers, even when engaging with brands online, don’t massively trust them. And there are few brands that can really command enough loyalty to be called ‘fan brands’ like Starbucks. In fact a recent look at many brand Facebook pages reveals a tiny membership compared to the actual number of customers, with little real member activity of any real value.

What consumers want is something for free: offers, information and a real benefit, not a relationship. If you are a very rich 60-year-old Roman don’t kid yourself that the 25-year-old maid on your arm loves you, you are just her meal ticket, and consumers can be the same about liking brands.

Keller Fay also discovered that 74% of chat online between women relating to brands was about offers, making the web a great platform for sales promotion. It’s basic human psychology – people want freebies, it really is that simple,

Views’, ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ are deceptive; we often put too much value on quantity over quality. As one psychologist we worked with said, “clicking buttons is easy to do in an impulsive environment.” How many of us have joined a Facebook group never to revisit it again?

And the of course there’s the big issue of the epidemic of faking up numbers – 79% of marketers don’t believe social media numbers – but that’s another article I’ve already written.

The lure of clans


Humans like to associate with groups, to belong. One of the worst feelings is isolation or rejection. How many of us joined music-based clans like goths or hippies in our earlier years?

Gathering en masse is much easier online than it would be in the physical world.

Popular movements unite like-minded people and as a unit they start to behave powerfully as one. Psychologists say that a person’s behaviour changes to reflect the beliefs and aspirations of the group rather than those of the individual.

You only have to look at what happened when Pampers upset mums and they united against P&G. Or the establishment of Mumsnet, now one of the most powerful female consumer groups in the UK.

Psychologists Tajfel, Billig & Turner have shown that part of our social identity comes from those groups with whom we associate, which is why consumers are inclined to buy products that allows them to identify with a desired group. The key here is to identify the group first and link the product to it.

But the caution here is that a collective group is nothing unless it’s kept stimulated and motivated or, like kids, members will lose interest and wander off. This is a mistake many brands make; acquisition is stage one, the hard work is keeping people interested. Even the Roman’s knew that.



Well there’s nothing like watching a Christian getting chewed up by a lion, or gladiators fighting to the death. Yep, the Romans invented aggressive, death games. Forget World of Warcraft, C.O.D. or any of the others, they liked the real taste of blood, so online games would certainly have an appeal especially when it’s too wet outside or all the Christians have been eaten.




Roman’s were hardly sexually oppressed, orgies were a common thing, so the internet would have been a great bringer of pornographic pleasure. And knowing the Romans, they would probably all have webcams in their bedrooms to show off.




Google Earth would certainly have made it easier to watch over the empire and spot countries they’ve not yet invaded.


The search for knowledge

No great society, especially the Roman Empire, would have prospered without knowledge. The web is the greatest invention in history, better than any library, for satisfying the desire for self-improvement. So the Roman’s would have quickly invented their version of Wikipedia.

Consumers have become hungrier for knowledge than ever before, seeking to know more before they buy because they can online. Here, too, motivations differ between men and women. While men seek out depth and detail, women seek the advice and opinions of others.

If a man was buying a chariot he’d want to know all the technical stuff: how much horsepower it has, how fast it goes, so he can look like an expert but emotionally he’ll see the chariot and himself in it and how that looks.

A woman looks at the context: how will it look in the drive, how it will be for the family, will it be good for the environment? They will ask other women what they think and share their own experiences. In short, women like to share, men like to show off. So not a lot has changed since Roman times.

Insights and opportunities

Using the internet to build relationships of value (with the intention of selling) we need to think like consumers rather than follow rules. Look at the before not the after. To ask ourselves how we can adapt to basic human desires and behaviour, not expect the consumer to adapt to us. And with so many more brands fighting for consumer attention than in traditional media, it requires a different mindset.

We have at least 100 to 300 brands we engage with through purchasing and very few of these are important enough to us to want to engage with beyond purchase and use.

Emotionally, I love brands like Fender (guitars) Honda (motorbikes) Mac (computers) and Desigual (fashion) but haven’t joined any of their Facebook sites. Why would I? Ironically, most of the Facebook sites I have joined have been so I can publicly complain about bad products, bad ethics or poor service.

A twin edged Roman sword

For some brands the web has been not just a friend but a foe, allowed disgruntled consumers to attack the brand and share their disdain. Or worse, expose the lies they have been telling in ads – a kid with a £600 laptop can bring down a £6 million campaign overnight, it’s called ‘Brand Terrorism’.

Like all good marketing, it may not be rocket science; but there is an art to understanding how people think, and sometimes that’s more a gut thing than a data thing.

And whatever the next great online idea is, if it doesn’t meat human needs, it probably will fail, “Et tu Brute.com.”

  • Gilbert Hill

    When I studied archaeology many years ago, a key way to understand the Roman Empire was the core-periphery model. Basically, the ‘core’ of Rome and environs absorbed raw materials and slaves from the periphery (Britain was at the extreme of this), and sent back refined goods, wine, pottery etc. I am sure they would have used the internet and social media platforms as a way of establishing reputational value of potential trading partners, as well as propaganda tools. Interesting piece, thanks for sharing!


    The Romans won because they got there first.
    Wikipedia, Google, won because they got there first.
    The Scots kept the Romans out because they were there first.
    If they had the internet, nobody would have got it first except Romans.