Synopsis: Even the greatest investors and most
powerful autocrats can only beat time for so long. 🗓
He could hear the rhythmic footfalls coming from around the corner. Someone was setting a quick pace and others, the minions, were following. It was January 1st, 45BC, but in any century, the footfalls would tell the same story. The boss was coming.
The man sighed, shuffled papers about this desk, checked his calculations one more time and then braced for the inevitable.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” The voice boomed before his doorway even darkened. And then, into his humble workspace spilled two thick muscled lackeys and his employer, a square jawed man with a hawkish nose and avian eyes. When the boss gazed upon you, it was like taking a winter dip in the Tiber without a toga. You did not feel his gaze so much as endure it.
“It will. I’ve run the calculations several times. Now we just have to sit back and let it work. There is nothing else we can do.”
“Sosigenes, my Alexandrian genius, when have you ever known me to sit back and be patient with…anything?” The young engineer and astronomer, Sosigenes of Alexandria, could not be sure, but he thought the boss smiled a bit and his cold eyes seemed to twinkle.
“Ah no,” he swallowed hard, “no Caesar I have not.”
Gaius Julius Caesar, alleged descendent of the Trojan Prince Aeneus, and therefore of the goddess Venus, conqueror of the Gauls and ruler of the Roman Empire smiled benevolently at his employee. “Well, then, why don’t you take the rest of the day for yourself. And Sosigenes….”
“Happy New Year.” With a flourish, the ruler of the known world and his entourage disappeared, their footsteps echoing again of the cobblestone street and the marble colonnades. Sosigenes exhaled for what seemed like the first time in a long while, glancing one more time at the calculations in front of him.
“Three hundred sixty-five and one quarter,” he murmured passing hand over his face to wipe away the sweat on his brow, “If I’m wrong, at least I won’t be around to hear about it.” Then he laughed. “None of us will be around to hear about it. Happy New Year indeed.”
Not long after seizing power in Rome, Julius Caesar had moved decisively to deal with the passage of time. If anyone had the power to do it, he seemingly did. But Caesar’s aim was not long or eternal life, both of which would prove elusive to him a mere year later when he was assassinated. In 45 BC, Caesar was concerned about the Roman calendar, which was based on the lunar cycle and frequently fell out of sync with the seasons. This was politically dangerous as it often extended political terms or interfered with elections. Summoned from Alexandria, Sosigenes urged his boss to ditch the moon and embrace a solar calendar of 365.25 days. He was wrong, the actual solar year being 365.242199 days, but right about the fact that everyone he knew was long gone before the error was discovered. It was not until1582 AD that Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers accounted or the 11 minute a year difference, replacing the Julian Calendar with the Gregorian.
Here are a few lessons from antiquity on the passage of time:
1) Calendars can change. Indeed, in order to get the calendar back on track Sosigenes added sixty-seven days to the first year of the Julian Calendar. Months are arbitrary and man-made creations, not some mystical force driving our investments. So, don’t put too much confidence in stock market shortcuts like the January effect, or sell in May and go away.
2) A modern philosopher named Bob Dylan once noted that “the times they are ‘a changing.” But human beings find it hard to recognize that. Instead we like to use the very recent past as a predictor of the future, overestimating the probability of current events continuing. Gaius Julius Caesar figured that being alive and being the Emperor were good predictors of the future. A few of his friendly Senators proved that he was wrong, that he suffered from recency bias, and that he ultimately suffered from many stab wounds as well.
3) Compounding, usually a force for good, has massive effects over the long term, also accumulating and exacerbating your errors. The reinvestment of earnings or interest creates exponential growth as long as you do something seemingly simple: leave things alone. If you stray from the wisdom of the ancients (or modern oracles like your humble author), or aren’t perfect in your timing, then your errors will compound at a rate sufficient to affect you and perhaps your retirement lifestyle. Note that this won’t take anywhere near 1,500 years to make itself known. And without a wayward astronomer handy, you’ll have to take the blame yourself.
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