07/09/2013 06:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Ancient Entrepreneurs of Pompeii: Rethinking History

"History is kind of a wiggling mosaic; it is a time-track you can pack according to your vision,"
- Ed Sanders (poet, author)

One of the great tragedies in world history occurred right where I am standing now -- over 1,900 years ago. The volcano exploded at night on August 24th, 79 AD and continued erupting for eight hours, raining rocks and ash onto the nearby town of Pompeii, where an estimated 16,000 people lived.

Almost all the residents died. They were suffocated by volcanic gas, crushed by falling stones that had been hurled into the sky by the erupting volcano only to crash back to earth and wipe out homes and families, or incinerated by lava. The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to twelve different layers of tephra -- volcanic ash, lava and rock fragments -- which rained down onto the town for about six hours.

For 1,500 years historians knew the city existed from the ancient maps, yet it lay hidden, the horrible carnage documented by an eyewitness account by Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption from a distance and wrote a letter describing the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who had tried to rescue Pompeii citizens.

The tephra, up to 20 feet deep, suffocated and hid the city but saved its secrets. Although many bodies were destroyed, around 2,000 skeletons were found when the dead city was discovered in the 16th century quite by accident by canal diggers.

I spent today exploring Pompeii with tour guide Roberto Canitano, who has been sharing its remarkable history with tourists since 1960. Affectionately nicknamed "the Senator," this 79-year-old guide took his captivated audience through the old city and eagerly shared stories of life in Pompeii the day of the tragedy. As he described to us in detail the shops, the businesses that made helmets, the shoe stores, the 18 brothels, 85 bars, and the hundreds of restaurants, he brought history to life by focusing on individuals and their motivations.

The Senator's attention to detail appealed to all age groups. A twenty-year old junior at Brown, Nora McDonnell sat near me at lunch and told me how fascinated she was by the loss of the intellectual property -- in Pompeii, the paintings on the walls showed a mastery of perspective, a technique that was lost until the Renaissance.

What struck me most was how many small businesses there were in Pompeii, and the fact that our guide talked about them in such detail and understood that they were the life force of the community. His approach was in marked contrast to most history books, which rarely mention small businesses or entrepreneurs, unless they become hugely wealthy and famous.

"History is the memory of states," said Henry Kissinger, and in fact few historians mention shop owners! Winston Churchill, Jared Cohen, Jeffrey Sachs -- they all essentially ignore small business owners, even though their activities drive our economies and histories forward. Think of the Boston Tea Party, for example, which was resistance by colonial tea merchants who were mad that the British Tea Act was going to raise their prices and cause them to be undercut by the government-created monopolistic East India Company. Yet even Howard Zinn, in his groundbreaking book A People's History of the United States, overlooks the historic impacts of small business owners. For that matter, so did such ancient historians as Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus.

For the field of history, the small business person is invisible -- the entrepreneur is forgotten and ignored. The psychic damage this perspective has done to our collective consciousness is significant. How do we empower our children to be entrepreneurial, if they don't learn about the importance of small business throughout history in school?

Curious, I asked my loved ones what they thought, focusing on Churchill -- a familiar figure in our family, as we have all read and cherish the material created by this Nobel Prize-winning genius.

"He was too busy with other things," said one. "He had to focus on affairs of state," said another. "He did not have time to write and think about that," added one more.

That's when I knew I was on to something. If history focuses primarily on the actions and impacts of states, no wonder we grow up believing government should solve our problems. The governments of the world become ends to themselves, teaching us all that every problem, every solution, even every conflict has to be solved by the government. The histories of the world's revolutions and wars are primarily written by government-funded historians or government employees.

To use a Churchillian phrase, think it possible that they were mistaken.

Not today, not now, not with me. The entrepreneurs of old and their band of brothers today -- they are the backbone of history, the real, yet ignored, heroes. It's time to rewrite history with a new perspective focused on trade and the people who create the jobs, solve the problems, and generate the solutions that move civilizations forward. That is what I realized at Pompeii today.

Ignoring the community of entrepreneurs makes us blind to our own history. If we don't appreciate the backbones of our communities and tell their stories in our histories, our own Zeitgeist becomes distorted and we advance toward the future misinformed about our past. History that ignores the entrepreneur is history frozen in time, and provides the misguided perception that people do not change. In fact, entrepreneurship is about constant change. Workers become investors, investors become entrepreneurs, fortunes are made and lost and when value is added to scarce resources the entire community benefits and advances.

If historians would begin to include the stories of entrepreneurs, our children would understand their own power to change their circumstances and write their own histories. They would discover true self-empowerment, which can't be granted by any government but comes from self-confidence and ownership, and would understand that they have influence as individuals, and that history can be altered by what individuals think and how they act.


Standing on the streets of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius behind me


In the Pompeii market where so many entrepreneurs sold their products and services