In business, nothing really changes (plus: what you can learn from bed-wetting Romans)

If I told you there was a place in Italy where you could learn a powerful business lesson while soaking up the sun, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was Rome or Milan.

There’s nothing so slick about this place, but the lesson is no less valuable for it.


Buried metres-deep in ash, unseen and forgotten for centuries after the deadly volcanic eruption in 79AD before being rediscovered seventeen centuries later, it has earned a place on bucket lists worldwide.

Rightly so: add it to yours.

Once you master being alone with your thoughts in near-40 degree heat amid a tsunami of tour parties, it’s a seriously sobering experience.

There’s nothing like the hard, physical evidence of a thriving population, brought to an almost instant (and unthinkably gruesome) end, to make even the most cynical stop and think – not least about priorities.

Desperate families huddled together in buildings where, understandably, they thought they’d be safe. Treasured possessions hurriedly stashed away, with the full expectation of returning for them later. Animals caught up in it all, like the tethered dogs and horses with even less chance of escape than their owners. “Heartbreaking” doesn’t start to cover it.

More than anything, it’s a place that startles the visitor with its unexpected familiarity.

Ancient it may be, but its stunningly well preserved ruins and their contents tell the story of people no different from ourselves.

As individuals, their stories are fascinating. (Hats off to the archaeologists and historians who’ve pieced it all together – sometimes with a bit of artistic licence – from the wealth of artifacts, graffiti, and writings).

They were us.

Adults. Kids. Babies. Free. Slaves. Bosses. Workers. Owners of small businesses. Poets. Farmers. Enemies. Lovers. Swindlers. Honest. Rich. Poor. Struggling. Successful.

Just add mobiles, Snapchat, skinny lattes, online shopping and selfies and it could be 2019.

That much is clear from the graffiti. Like the social media of its time, it reveals the human condition, for better and worse…love, lust, jealousy, greed, loyalty, debauchery, fear, aspiration, cruelty, intrigue, bitterness – it’s all there.

It’s a must-see visual aid for anyone looking to get life back in proportion.

There’s something very grounding about stonework at a well, worn down by human hands, where thirsty folk drew water every day while worrying about their kids, their health, their house or their job, 2000 years ago. Or wheel tracks worn into cobbles where horses pulled carts down busy streets.

Life is short, and our worries are, in the scheme of things, like fireflies. Likewise, trinkets – coveted in their day, but now just curiosities disfigured by weather and ash – remind us that sulking because we can’t afford the latest generation phone is a 21st century habit we should be ashamed of.

As a society, the complexity and sophistication are breath-taking. There’s widespread evidence of highly developed civic, social, political, and legal systems (their painted election posters probably generated just as much caustic comment as our Euro 2019 junk mail). Engineering prowess and innovation are everywhere – running water and underfloor heating for starters; raised pavements line the roadways, with pukka pedestrian crossings formed in stone slabs, lifting walkers above the dirt, waste and horse droppings swilling below. There is widespread evidence of great creativity – exquisite frescoes in the homes of the affluent, an abundance of statues, luxurious formal courtyard gardens and incredible mosaic floors (including one famously warning visitors to “beware of the dog”).

It was a busy, thriving, successful place – although still recovering and rebuilding after a volcanic eruption a few years earlier. Nowadays it’s some distance from the shore, but in its day it had an active port, trading in goods from every part of the Roman world.

As a port town, it would have had been buzzing, with all the spin-offs that a healthy international trade brings. Various roads led uphill from the harbour, feeding visitors in, and these, like the many other side streets and alleys, were littered with shops, taverns, and a profusion of other businesses (including a disproportionate number of brothels).

There are plenty of clues to the types of businesses. And they provide another reminder that little has changed in 2000 years – as true in business as in life.

33 bakeries have been discovered, identified by their ovens and millstones (in 79AD “our bread is made in store” was probably a given), as well as scattered remnants of grain – and even remains of the mules used to power the millstones. In one, a carbonised loaf was found in the oven, poignant evidence that it was in use at the time of the eruption.

Storerooms filled with jars of “garum” – a type of fish sauce – speak of numerous businesses engaged in manufacturing it; no surprise in a coastal city.

The list goes on. Wine and olive oil production. Fruit and vegetable merchants. Butchers and fishmongers. Painters, decorators, signwriters. Sculptors. Stoneworkers. Carpenters. Fullers. Potters. Laundries. Tanneries. Leather workers. Blacksmiths and farriers.

And inevitably, inns, taverns and eateries, a prominent part of business life then as now. Thermopolia, the equivalent of café-bars, served customers from street-facing masonry counters with inset terracotta jars containing the hot and cold food. Still clearly visible across the city, like the stone seating areas where customers ate, they’re a very visual reminder of what business is about when all’s said and done – meeting human needs and desires – and of the issues faced by owners, staff and customers.

Teleport back and imagine the buzz (after all, that’s what inspired this post).

Hot and bothered staff. The smell of good food and drink. Laughter. Banter. Raised voices. Complaints. Greetings and goodbyes. Great times and bad. Life, in a nutshell. And no different than any town today.

To get a feel for the word on the street, owners and potential patrons needed to look no further than the walls around them. Business-related graffiti was rife, here and at nearby Herculaneum – and probably every bit as influential as Trip Advisor. It yields some great insights:

“Traveller, eat bread in Pompeii but go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better…”

“Two friends were here. While they were, they had bad service in every way from a guy named Epaphroditus…”

“The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison…”

And the alarmingly frank feedback on an inn wall:

“We wet the bed, host. I confess we’ve shouldn’t have done this. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot”.

I promised you a business lesson. And here it is:

Take heart. The challenge of attracting and retaining customers is nothing new.

Like the 33 bakeries, every one of these businesses must have faced stiff competition – and needed a regular flow of (hopefully regular) customers in order to stay in business.

Sure, some would thrive off the back of loyalty from friends, a great location (the Roman version of the burger van at a gig), or a common preference for that type of food. But on the whole, like their 21st century counterparts, every one of them had to give people a good reason to choose them over their competitors.

Like today, they all had a reputation, good or bad – and what that boils down to is what we’d call their brand.

Who knows how they promoted themselves, or dealt with bad PR (particularly when it was carved deep into a wall) – but there’s no doubt that they had to engage in their own form of brand management to stay in business.

Being “average” in 79AD was probably just as much of a one-way ticket to business oblivion as it is today.

So the next time you’re tempted to grumble about the new competitor opening up in your street, or how hard it is to stay on top of social media, or whatever other obstacle you think is unique to you or the 21st century…think of Pompeii, focus on being more remarkable, and less average – and thank your lucky stars that with all the branding tools at your disposal it’s never been easier to shine.

And remember the proverb: “the more things change, the more they stay the same”

By the way…

If you’re planning your own trip to Pompeii, here’s a few tips:

– buy a good guide book before you go, and then think about going it alone rather than shelling out for a tour guide. Tour groups get bogged down in bottlenecks and the guides often linger too long at points you’re not interested in. You’ll also spend a lot of your time waiting for slower members of the party to catch up. A guide book will let you plan your visit before you go, instead of feeling overwhelmed once you’re there;

– if you want a lively history book about Pompeii I’d highly recommend historian Mary Beard’s “Pompeii – the life of a Roman town”. It’s a very easy read (and contains some pretty racy stuff – these Romans were a debauched bunch!) that will equip you with facts – and spare you the myths sometimes peddled by guides who should know better. (Incidentally, that link is to the online bookseller – I don’t earn anything from suggesting them, but they’re got a great ethos of giving high street bookshops a percentage of their sales);

– an estimated 2.6 million people visit every year, so just accept there will be crowds – and don’t complain, because you’re part of it! If the crowds bother you, aim for off-season or very early in the day;

– bring plenty of water, suncream, a hat, sunglasses and comfortable footwear;

– when we visited (October 2017), we found that the on-site café actually wasn’t too expensive – surprisingly, given its captive market;

– we found it really cheap to get to Pompeii by train from Sorrento, making British fares look exorbitant;

– allow enough time – sites are spread out all over the city, and there are surprises around every corner. A full day would be best if you want to take it easy in the heat.