Ancient Entrepreneurism — Italian Style

Early versions of lunch counters and Silicon Valley can be found 2,000 years ago.
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

Many people are familiar with Pompeii — the Roman city near modern-day Naples, Italy, that was buried by the enormous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Less well-known is the nearby town of Herculaneum, buried at the same time. Both offer fascinating examples of entrepreneurism in ancient times — with a few equally fascinating differences between them.

At the time Vesuvius erupted in October, it was a prosperous city of approximately 20,000 inhabitants. While the clouds of hot ash and pyroclastic flows eventually buried the area to a depth of 15 to 20 feet, enough time elapsed between the beginning of the eruption and the major impacts on the city that all but about 1,150 residents were able to escape.

Buried in this volcanic ash, Pompeii remained largely untouched for 1,700 years. When serious excavation began in the mid-19th century, it provided a remarkable look at life, and business, in ancient times.

Streets in the commercial areas of the city show vibrant entrepreneurism. All kinds of shops sold everything you find in similar corridors today, from clothing to pottery, cooking wares to household goods. Workshops produced leather, glass, farming implements, building materials and more. Markets similar to today’s grocery stores sold produce, spices, meat and seafood.

Particularly interesting are the restaurants, which numbered over 100. The majority of them were something like what we might call a lunch counter. There were actual counters, at which patrons sat on stools. Some of them have round depressions at each dining position, possibly an innovation designed to hold hot coals under the serving dishes, keeping food warm while people ate.

The Roman empire is known for its excesses, and Pompeii was no exception. The large brothel near the center of town features numerous erotic frescoes, and in a creative entrepreneurial touch, stones imbedded in the streets nearby feature carved male phalluses pointing the way to the establishment. Also in the vice category, there were about 85 bars in the city by one count.

From the standpoint of entrepreneurism, though, Herculaneum is considerably more interesting. It was a smaller, wealthier town, with a population of about 5,000 at the time of the eruption. And evidence suggests that it was also a place of technological research and experimentation — possibly the Silicon Valley of the Roman Empire.

While both cities had heated baths, some sites in Herculaneum contain more advanced plumbing, possibly including hot running water that reached upper floors of buildings. Similarly, mechanical structures elsewhere have been interpreted by some archeologists as being rudimentary elevators.

Most remarkable of all, there is evidence to suggest that Roman engineers in Herculaneum may have been on the verge of harnessing steam power. Remember that it was around the year 1700 that the first steam-powered devices were invented, a gap of 16 centuries. In this sense, it is possible that the eruption of Vesuvius saved humankind. Consider that this was a civilization that pitted gladiators in mortal combat, and watched animals devour humans as forms of entertainment. Its armies conquered vast territories while frequently engaging in large-scale slaughter. Adding steam power to this mix is actually a rather frightening thought.

Basically, though, the businessmen and entrepreneurs of 2,000 years ago were very much like their counterparts today: working to make a living, looking for advances to give them that competitive edge — and sometimes, employing some very creative marketing strategies.


Keith Twitchell’s blog, “Neighborhood Biz,” appears every Thursday on