False Gaius Petronius Arbiter Quote

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

~ Gaius Petronius Arbiter

Falsely attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Quote is from Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), in Harper's Magazine, "Merrill's Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure" (Jan 1957)

Ratings and Comments

Bill Nash, Sydney, Australia

This is a great sentiment... but it is not really by Petronious. But its false attribution is key to the depth of its satire. That it has since been quoted by scholars as genuine has only added to its power as an epithet of inefficiency. The best research can find no reference to it prior to the immediate post WW2 period. It is reputed to have been found as a barrack room noticeboard comment in a British Army base in Occupied West Germany. No doubt a Classical Scholar Conscript who found himself compelled to anonymously criticise the inefficiencies of army management. P.S. The Roman Petronius died at his own hand on the orders of Nero in 66AD (CE for the politically correct) - Some quotes of this have him as a General or Admiral, Roman or Greek. He was Rome's great Satirist.

Pulpit Pundit, Cincinnati
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Pulpit Pundit, Cincinnati Bill Nash, Sydney, Australia 1/2/21

"CE for the politically correct"  Why add this snarky aside? It adds nothing to your contribution and devalues it by inserting an unnecessary political element. If you prefer AD to CE then, by all means, use it but try to refrain from turning it into a political debate.

Editor, Liberty Quotes

Thanks, Bill!

Joe, Rochester, MI

Applies to governments too. Take U.S. Social Security, they keep reorganizing it too, but it's still going down the tubes as the largest scam (or pyramid scheme) in history.

Jim Pearson, Liverpool, UK

Is not this quote by GAIUS PERTONIUS PONTIUS NIGRINUS, who was consul in AD 37 and governor of Egypt and not the "arbiter elegantia"?

Editor, Liberty Quotes

Jim, If you can provide a source and citation, we would be happy to make changes. Thanks.

Timothy Barnwell, Providence Village, TX

Robert Townsend Uses this quote in his book "Up the Organization" and attributes it to Petronius Arbiter. Townsend, Robert. "Up the Organization: How to Stop the Organization from Stifling people and Strangling Profits". Knopf, New York. pg 162. 1970.

Fred, Springfield, IL

I was looking for this quote from "210 BC" It perfectly fits a situation I am in now. Sorry to learn the source is likely false. Having been in many government (military and civilian) positions all my life, (I'm 72) WHO EVER said this was indeed a wise and observant person. I love it.

Christopher J. Ward (Dr), Hobart, Tasmania Australia

I spent my whole working life in the service of my country in one form or another. Even though the quote itself appears to be of dubious origin, the sentiment is consistent with bureaucracy, public or private. See also The Peter Principle, Parkinson's Law, Murphy's Law, Murphy's Law according to SODD, the comic strip "Bristow" by Frank Dickins (UK) or talk to anyone who has served in the military.

Alan, Edinburgh

never rub another mans ruhbarb

Bill Galbally, Leamington Spa
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Bill Galbally, Leamington Spa Alan, Edinburgh 7/1/20

Brilliant  not heard that before.

E Archer, NYC
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E Archer, NYC Bill Galbally, Leamington Spa 7/9/20

Said Jack Nicholson as the Joker in "Batman" movie. ;-)

Tony, Iowa
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Tony, Iowa    1/13/07

I spent 30 years in federal government law enforcement and we field agents had this quote taped inside our briefcases and somewhere very visible on our desks. These little reminders, once highly publicized throughout our agency, resulted in about 50% fewer meetings. Up until today, I thought it actually was Petronius Arbiter who coined the phrase. I still love it and still use it.

David, Adelaide
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David, Adelaide Tony, Iowa 6/10/21

Tony, there's nothing saying he didn't say it at some point. I can imagine the Roman administration constantly changing something especially on the change of emperor.

jdp, xyz
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jdp, xyz    6/21/07

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.” - Charlton Ogburn, pp. 32-33, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure,” Harper’s Magazine, January 1957

walter c., eugene, OR

Perhaps the quote is not from "Roman Times" but I'm sure it was just as valid in Roman times as it is in the hierarchies of today.

Leon B, brisbane

As mentioned just above -- this quote may be from Charlton Ogburn c. 1957, not Robert Townend c 1970. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlton_Ogburn

John W., Rochester NY

I work at an large corporation and we have had that quote hanging or posted for decades. Our leadership just announced another major worldwide reorganization in a "major press release'. To find the quote was falsely attributed makes it no less truthful, just ironic. How informative this site is, Great work!

Anonymous, Baingstoke, UK

I prefer this quote to be from Gaius Petronius, as he sounds at least noble, far more so than the other two options, I mean, Charlton Ogburn and Robert Townsend, Plebs the pair of them by the sound of it.

Fred Lunsford, Flowery Branch, GA

I first heard this in the mid 70's after arriving on my first ship, the USS R.K. Turner DLG-20 (later CG-20). I've been looking for it of late; why? The more things change, the more things stay the same. Like some of the others who have posted, attributing this to Petronius rolls off the tongue a little sweeter. Illusions can be a wonderful thing, on occasion.

Ishaka GG, Calgary

In my opinion, it will be an error to attribute this quote to another person but Gaius Petronius or somebody in his time. Charlton Ogburn's version seemed to me lifted off an older version.

Matt, Manassas, VA

The quote is from the Satyricon which was published in Roman times. The debate is who actually published the Satyricon. It is thought to be Gaius Petronius Arbiter, but the text cited another author, likely thought to be a pen name used by Gaius Petronius Arbiter.

Anonymous, Newcastle, UK

Damn - wanted to use this in an assignment......i was hoping it was true, I did get it from someone who was in the forces......maybe I will try my luck and use it anyway.....maybe to be shot down in shame but it does sound good!

Lee, Michigan

Anyone who has worked for the same organization for a considerable period of time will identify with this quotation, despite the uncertainty of the source. I posted this on the door to my office at one point, but unfortunately misplaced it just in time for another reorg. My advice: quote it freely and attribute it to 'Anonymous.'

Ron Murray, Colonel USMC (Ret), Sierra Vista, AZ

A great quote regardless of who said it. Don't know about the 1970 attribution as I had it posted in my offices while on active duty beginning in the early 60s.

Ron Murray, Colonel USMC (Ret), Sierra Vista, AZ

Sorry to take up space, but purportedly to be from "Merrill's Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure" in the January 1957 issue of Harper's Magazine: "We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization."

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Anonymous    2/25/09
Russ Owens, Tallahass, FL

I'm pleased to learn a "possible" real source of this quotation before I use it extensively. I am a retired Presbyterian Minister and since my ordination in 1955 (I'm 78) our church has merged and/or reorganized many time with no noticeable result. I'm ready for the next reorganization plan!!!

Editor, Liberty Quotes

Thanks, everyone. The quote can be found in Harper's Magazine, January 1957, written by Charlton Ogburn, Jr.. We will check on the Satyricon reference.

Anon, Canterbury

Very true, my own Organisation re-organises at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately it's the office layout they change, they haven't quite realised the problem is it's the lack of technically trained personel they have, not who they sit beside in the office.

Bob Edwards, Carterton

I have had this qote printed up since 1960 , and it is more truthful than ever with the change of goverment. "Here we go again" as we used to say during my days in the RAF 1959-1985.

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    Anonymous    6/20/10

    You give two dates for Petronius - 66 AD and 210 BC. He must have been very old! Can you explain? Owen O'Sullivan, Dublin.

    Graham, Bristol

    Matt says above that this quote is from the Satyricon by Petronius, can anyone else confirm or refute this?

    Calvin, Madison

    I worked for an organization in the late 90's for a couple of years. This quote fit them to a "T." They continue to use this "strategy" to this day.

    lasse nice, uptown

    Prominent and healthy

    Aniruddha Sen, Kolkata, India

    When I was a practicing manager several years ago, I came across this quote rather accidentally, had it printed on a card and placed it under the glass top of my office table -- facing my visitors and bosses -- for all and sundry to see. It never worked on my, or perhaps anybody's, bosses, but the content of the quote remains immensely quotable till this day. I rate it as an "eternal" pearl of wisdom, insofar as the "homo sapiens sapiens" are concerned.

    James Carhart, Portland, Oregon

    This is very close to an eternal truth about human behavior, in my view.

    Howard Fulweiler, Columbia, MO

    Colonel Ogburn was my regimental commander in Germany in 1955. He was a wise man, and the quotation seems characteristic of his mind and insight.

    Tom Loeber, Sunnyvale, CA

    Just came across the abbreviated quote in a speech by Stafford Beer, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaPX1t-99Ys . Beer attributes it to a 210 BC Greek Petronius. Seems Beer was mistaken but it made for some good theatre and got an extended laugh out of me. :~)

    Rod Kenyon, Sydney

    Wikipedia and e-mail references are not research. Perhaps you should read the actual historical roman documents before we circular reference chain mail like falsehoods. The falseness are claims of research. Even if it was not Gaius Petronius Arbiter - it is absolutely true and the sign of leaders with no real answer - just a desire to be seen to be doing something for political praise.

    Chris Quinn, Bingley, UK

    My last boss before I retired was a fan of this quote. He had another one that was just as true and really struck home too: "Working with auditors is like wrestling with a pig in mud. It is OK till you realise that the pig is enjoying it"

    Bill Galbally, Leamington Spa
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    Bill Galbally, Leamington Spa Chris Quinn, Bingley, UK 7/1/20

    That is an absolute classic  and so true of my organisation!

    D Sadler, TX

    A word search of the Gutenberg text version of Satyricon shows nothing for the words "reorganizing" or "reorganized" and "illusion" shows up twice but not related to the subject quote. Conclusion: It does not seem to be from that text. The 1957 source may be the most reliable, if not the most elegant, source for now but eternal truth of human condition also seems to ring quite true.

    Graham, Penarth
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    Graham, Penarth D Sadler, TX 9/29/18

    Why would the Satyricon use the American spelling of reorganized? Try reorganised!

    E Archer, NYC
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    E Archer, NYC D Sadler, TX 10/2/18

    Perhaps search for the original Latin pre-translation?

    Stan Smith, Langley Virginia

    I think Charlton Ogburn Jr was the reincarnation of Gaius Petronius Arbiter.

    HTR, Hardwick, vt

    This quote reminds of the years I spent at a large university.

    Anonymous, Wellington NZ

    Incompetent blundering by frequently changing Ministers in charge
    Ted Stongle - MOH

    Dan Glendon, Malanda

    False or otherwise "the effect" has been worked to the bone in Government organisations "change creates the allusion of progress" satisfies all new implementations that can be conjured and continues on and on.

    Roger Griffiths, Brisbane

    This is one of many quotations I have been meaning to check out for years - in a way disappointing to find it's not ancient wisdom, but satisfying to think that a modern satyrist may have ascribed it to an ancient satyrist! Now I'm scared to click on the link below to more Petronius quotes in case they aren't truly his either - oh what the hell, here goes!!

    For something completely different (M Python) here's a quotation that should make it into the lexicons:

    "Those who are determined to be insulted are never disappointed for long." (Or: '--- are easily satisfied." Take your pick!)

    Correctly ascribed to: Me!!

    Charles, London

    The original Harpers magazine said:

    We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the Illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.

    Note that the oft quoted text has fewer words and has been edited for more impact, (the original only applied to a nation) suggesting that Harpers was the origin. (it is unlikely that the extra words would have been added to a known quote) A shame, I liked the idea it was a universal truth. But I'm not going to let the truth get in the way and will continue to ascribe it to Petronius.

    Per, Oslo
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    Per, Oslo    2/1/16

    So true! It has applied to all but one company I worked for. The one exception was a startup where everybody saw the need to get things done, not spend time on tomfoolery like the upteenth reorganisation.

    Pat Conner, Rutledge, GA

    I really don't care where it came from. I just know that it fits a situation I am currently involved in.. The team can never get better because we are always changing people and the captain does not see this as a bad thing. Why change/fix something that is not broken just for the sake of changing. We have no consistency on our team so we can not move ahead. We are always starting over.

    Fred Jones, Adelaide, South Australia

    Re-organisation is a method for a new CEO to stamp their authority on the organisation they are now leading. It can be a tool to give your crew a new job that might not have necessarily have been theirs under old structure. You can make yourself seem modern, motivated and professional under the new structure when essentially you are really singing from a new hymn sheet. What are you going to measure your performance to old values and structure or new ones that you have conjured up to make yourself look efficient.

    Anonymous, Toronto, Canada

    I think we are about to see this quotation in action at the highest levels of the Executive Branch of the United States government. Hail Caesar!

    Andrew, London

    I remember trying to find the source for this more than 15 years ago. Everyone is now confident it is Ogburn, but that doesn't explain why it was ever attributed to Petronius. However, I remember seeing that there was a New York satirical journalist in the 1950s whose pen-name was Petronius Arbiter and that he was a likely source or that part of the urban myth, but all record of him seems to have disappeared from the web.

    Andrew, London

    I can confirm that the quote is absolutely NOT in the Satyricon in any way, shape or form.

    And as to Gaius Petronius Pontius Nigrinus, he existed, but he didn't leave any quotes behind, either directly or (via quotes by others) indirectly.

    Andrew, London

    P.S. Petronius lived ca. 27AD – 66 (if wiki is right, which it is, more or less).

    Please get rid of that 210 BC DATE!


    Editor, Liberty Quotes

    Thank you, Andrew, we have made the changes.


    I have carried this quote in pocket throughout my military career, and every time we reorganized I'd pull it out just for some sanity. Our biggest reorg in the Air Force was by Gen McPeak, and he made a real mess of things.

    Arthur S Agate, Portsmouth. UK

    That who ever it came from, it will always stand, I was introduced to it on a managment training course 35+ year ago, it always seemed a shame that the "Directors" never went on these courses. & Nero did order Gaius to kill himself, as happens (symbolically) to those who point out to Directors these truths regarding reorganisation, it's costs, monetary & on moral.

    Kevin McG, Harlow, England

    Can you get it on a T-shirt? It's truer today than it's ever been at just about every level of every organisation. Shakespeare put the pith of it more concisely - "striving to better oft we make things worse".

    Phillip Glen Armour, Faribault

    I used this quote in an article I wrote in ACM's "Communications of the ACM" ["The Reorg Cycle" February 2003, Vol 46. No. 2. pp 19-22].  I called it "apocryphal" insofar as it is generally ascribed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter.  I have seen ol' Gaius variously described as the author of Satyricon and a member of the Greek Navy.  The latter is unlikely since Gaius Petronius is a most Roman name and the Greeks mostly used citizens in their navy.  No matter. 
    I used the quote as an intro to the idea that reorgs are simply a single-dimensional hierarchical management reaction to a multi-dimensional and event-driven reality.  Basically management can focus only on one major aspect of a business.  Over time, this focus tends to fix whatever problems that aspect was experiencing but at the expense of other aspects.  Sooner or later, usually when management changes, someone comes along and says "why are we organized by 'x'?  We don't have problems with 'x'.  We should be organized by 'y'"  And so they reorganize--until the problems with 'y' are fixed and 'x' is again broken, that is.

    The word "reorganize" is a mixture of Latin and Greek.  The "re" prefix can mean "again" and the Greek word "organon" means "tool"--so reorganizing is "retooling"--fair enough, eh?

    However, "re" can also mean "against" and "organize" is partly derived from the Greek root "ergon" meaning "work" which, in many cases is much more apt IMO.

    Peter Desmond, Moogerah Australia

    A similar management gem from the military was applied to a particular Australian Defence bureaucrat who was an compulsive reorganizer. Put one ton of canaries in a half ton trailer and you must stop regularly to bang the sides of the trailer to keep half the canaries on the wing.


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