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Pages from World Bank History: A Parody of the World Bank in ancient Rome

August 8, 2003 - Despite the seriousness of its purposes, the Bank is not without its touches of humor. This article, by David L. Gordon, delivers a Bank assessment on the economic prospects
of ancient Rome. It appeared originally in the January-February 1969 issue of “International Bank Notes.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Everyone knows that. But of course there was no World Bank in those times. If there had been, just imagine how it might have contributed to the growth and grandeur of Rome. If one could reconstruct the files of some Latin counterpart of the Bank, one might find, for example:

An excerpt from the report of an early economic mission to this emerging country:

“The Kingdom of Rome has experienced a reasonably satisfactory growth rate in recent years, but from a low base as compared with the neighboring Etruscan and Sabine states. The Government, under the Tarquin dynasty, is stable and follows conservative financial policies. The expansion of industries—mainly pottery, iron smelting, and brick making—has averaged five percent annually over the past decade, but agriculture has lagged and educational progress has been slow. There appears to be some scope for Bank lending for productive projects, particularly in these latter sectors…


David L. Gordon

The cover of the January-February 1969 issue of International Bank Notes


“The earliest settlers reportedly subsisted on wolf’s milk. These animals are extremely inefficient and unreliable milk producers. However, the hillsides within Roman territory offer good grazing and it seems probable that, with proper technical guidance and the introduction of high-yielding varieties of goat, a dairy industry could be established that would raise nutritional standards considerably…

“The Sabine Kingdom has made representations to the Bank that certain properties belonging to them were seized by Rome; that their claims remain unsatisfied; and that no loan should be made to Rome until a proper settlement is reached. The Mission was able to inspect a number of the properties in question. They are well maintained and in good condition; they appear to be amply satisfied and quite well settled. Thus there would seem to be no impediment to Bank lending on this ground.”

From a putative Loan Supervision Mission report some time later:

“Construction of the two sections of the Via Appia, financed under Loan No. LXXXIV, is being carried out approximately on schedule and in accordance with specifications. However, local costs have exceeded estimates, and local payments to contractors complementing the Bank loan are over three months in arrears as a consequence of budgetary difficulties resulting from escalation of the Punic War. The Mission reached agreement with the Government on measures to be taken to correct this deficiency.

“A more serious cause for concern is the occurrence of pavement failures at numerous locations. These appear to be caused by the passage of elephants recently introduced into Italy by Hannibal. Considerable rehabilitation work may be required.

“Moreover, the use of elephants may be not merely a wartime expedient but a lasting technological advance; after the reopening of trade with Africa they may progressively replace the oxcart for movement of bulk cargo. If so, roads built to the previously accepted standards would be liable to deteriorate rapidly.

“It is recommended that prior to approval of further road projects in Italy a study should be carried out to determine:

  1. the cost advantages of shipping by elephant over conventional means, taking due account of the greater capital and foreign exchange requirements for the former and their higher fodder consumption;

  2. the likely rate of growth, and distribution by routes, of elephant traffic;

  3. the costs of reconstruction and/or increased maintenance of these routes to carry the increased elephant traffic; and

  4. an optimized expenditure program, taking account of the respective investment requirements for route construction and improvement and motive power, the expense of maintaining routes and equipment, and cargo haulage costs. 

“Given the complexity of the several variables, this analysis will require use of the latest abacus techniques, in which only a few Egyptian and Phoenician consultants are experienced…. The study is estimated to require 97 man-months, and to cost 220,000 sesterces, plus or minus 20 percent.”

From a still later Loan Supervision report:

“The mission inspected the bridge being built across the Rhine under the direction of Julius Caesar, which was included in the project to be financed in part by Loan No. CCCXLIV. The work is progressing rapidly. However, the mission learned that contrary to the provisions of the relevant side letter, the design of the bridge was not prepared by approved consultants, but apparently by Caesar himself; and the construction is being carried out by his own forces rather than by contract open to international tender. Consequently the costs incurred for this portion of the project are not eligible for reimbursement, and Caesar was so informed. 

“He has requested the Bank’s agreement to apply the funds thereby released to the construction of a bridge over the Rubicon, which is considered of the highest priority and urgency. Engineering designs have been completed and the cost estimates appear reasonable. The forecasts of growth of southbound traffic two years hence, made by Caesar’s experts, seem exaggerated; but after adjusting them to a more realistic prospect the mission considers the new bridge is still justified. Approval of the proposed change in the project is therefore recommended, provided that the Bank’s normal contracting requirements will be observed.” 

Without records there is no history. Courtesy of ISG’s World Bank Group Archives.

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