Next month I’ll be attending a conference at the ZiF Center at the University of Bielefeld. The conference is not OrgTheory related, but Bielefeld is near the Teutoburg Forest, which in A.D. 9 was host to one of the great Organizational Disasters in history, when P. Quinctilius Varus led three Roman legions into the dense forest in torrential rain, where they were annihilated by a force of Germanic tribes led by Hermann (or Arminius). In Suetonious’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars, we see the emperor Augustus rending his clothes at the news and being heard to shout or moan, “Varus, give me back my legions!” whenever the memory of the defeat occurred to him.
And what a defeat it was: something of the order of 20,000 Roman soldiers died—essentially the whole army in the field. In volume II of The Sources of Social Power Michael Mann discusses Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow and, in passing, remarks,
Marshal Ney wrote to his wife with anguish of the rear guard he commanded, “It is a mob without purpose, famished, feverish … General Famine and General Winter have conquered la Grande Armée”. It was literally decimated: Fewer than 40,000 limped back into Germany, the most complete loss of a major army since AD 9, when the legions of Varus disappeared into German forests.
(This is on p.276 of volume II. Oddly, Varus appears on p.276 of volume I, as well.) In Roman history, such gigantic losses were not by any means unheard of. The mother of them all is the Battle of Cannae, two centuries before Varus, where Hannibal’s army outflanked, encircled and destroyed a Roman army of about 60,000 men—bad management by CEOs having rather more severe consequences in those days than in present times.