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Herculaneum: A snapshot of Roman life preserved by Vesuvius

Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town, opens up a remarkable window into the past, frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum's unique preservation under volcani...

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Fun facts

It was found that the Vesuvius eruption caused the brains of one of the victims to turn to a glass-like material. This was because the brain had heated up very quickly before cooling down just as fast, thereby crystallizing brain matter.

Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was engulfed by a pyroclastic surge that carbonized and preserved wooden structures, furnishings, and even food.

The ancient Romans believed that Herculaneum was founded by the god Hercules on his return from Iberia.

Why visit Archeological Park of Herculaneum?

  • Behold well-preserved remains up close: Did you know that archeologists discovered organic remains like food and feces in Herculaneum? One organic remnant you will definitely spot on your visit is wood — and lots of it. On your visit to the House of the Wooden Partition, you can see a wooden door that still slides on its hinges!
  • Immerse yourself in vibrant art: You’ll see the vivid clarity of the frescoes as you enter the houses in Herculaneum. This is because the intense heat baked the pigments onto the walls, leaving behind some of the most well-preserved frescoes of the Roman world.  Depicting everything from mythological scenes to idyllic landscapes, these frescoes offer a glimpse into Roman artistic tastes and beliefs.
  • Appreciate remarkable street and city planning: Walk through excavated ancient Roman streets, and admire the foresight behind a well-planned city that’s at least 2,000 years old. The streets follow a grid-like pattern, with wide streets intersected by narrow crossroads at right angles.
  • Beat the crowds: Escape the crowds of Pompeii and explore a more intimate and redefined experience at Herculaneum.  The grand scale of the residences speaks volumes - many boast two or three stories, and some even incorporate shops within their compounds.  Herculaneum's compact size allows visitors to immerse themselves in a more intimate setting.
  • See the sea: As you enter the archaeological site, breathe in the fresh Mediterranean air and bask in the stunning scenery. The elevated platform shows you stunning views of the azure waters of the Bay of Naples and the majestic Mount Vesuvius that’s forever linked to the city’s fate.

Herculaneum plan and layout

Herculaneum’s street plan and city layout followed the grid-like system of Pompeii, with the intersecting north-south and east-west streets. The main roads were called decumanis maximus and decumanis inferior. The crossroads were called the cardo.

Unlike Pompeii, which was a bustling port, Herculaneum was a residential town that was smaller in size. However, proximity to the seaside also meant that it had a thriving maritime culture, though at a smaller scale than in Pompeii. Furthermore, Herculaneum lacked a definitive wall. Instead, the sea itself acted as a wall on each side of the promontory, creating a natural barrier.

Herculaneum location and geological structure

Vis-a-vis Vesuvius, Herculaneum is located on its western side, closer in proximity to the volcano than Pompeii. At its deepest point, the intense pyroclastic surge that engulfed Herculaneum buried it within some 30m of volcanic matter. This ensured that it was better preserved than Pompeii.

Now, due to the phenomenon of bradyseism (where volcanic activity uplifts or descends the earth’s crust due to the filling or emptying of an underground magma chamber), some parts of Herculaneum are believed to be 4m below sea level. 

This has also resulted in Herculaneum being situated lower than its neighboring towns of Ercolano and Portici. In fact, Ercolano is almost built upon Herculaneum — so a complete excavation of Herculaneum would mean demolishing the settlements in present-day Ercolano.

Herculaneum city and its people

Herculaneum was a wealthier town in comparison to Pompeii, with its residents primarily being members of the Roman aristocracy. However, this didn’t exclude the common folk like artisans, traders and slaves — the evidence of their lives lies in the preserved shops, taverns and homes. Public spaces were smaller compared to Pompeii, suggesting a focus on private residences and leisure pursuits.  

The presence of boat sheds (fornici) along the shoreline highlights Herculaneum's connection to the sea. Fishing, maritime trade, and perhaps even leisure boating could have been part of the town's lifeblood.

From the remarkably well-preserved organic remains (like feces), scientists were able to piece together the Ancient Roman diet: the proximity to the sea meant that seafood made up 70% of what they ate. There was also a notable difference between the genders — while men largely ate cereals and seafood, women consumed more meat and dairy.

A brief history of Herculaneum

  • 8th-6th century: The Oscan people, an Italic tribe, are believed to be the first to settle in the area around the 8th century BC.
  • 6th-4th century BC: The Etruscans, another powerful civilization, likely exerted influence over the region during this period. In the 6th century, the Greeks took over and established a trading post named Heraklion, drawn to the town's strategic location on the Bay of Naples. The Samnites, another Italic people, gained control of Herculaneum in the 4th century BC.
  • 89 BC - 79 AD: Following the Social War between Rome and the Italic groups, Rome takes over Herculaneum, granting its male population Roman citizenship.  The town adopts a Roman layout and institutions.
  • 79 AD: Vesuvius erupts, coating and preserving Herculaneum in volcanic material. The town is instantly destroyed, and most inhabitants perish.
  • 18th century: Herculaneum is accidentally rediscovered in the mid-18th century during well-digging excavations.
  • Present-day: Archaeological work continues at Herculaneum, uncovering new details about the town and its inhabitants.

The destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD

After a period of earthquakes in the years leading up to 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius unleashed a powerful eruption. A massive plume of ash, rock, and superheated gases shot into the sky. Pompeii, a thriving Roman city located downwind from the volcano, was buried under a thick layer of ash and pumice. The ash rained down for hours, collapsing buildings and suffocating residents who couldn't escape. Located closer to the volcano, Herculaneum faced a different kind of destruction. Here, the pyroclastic surges were even more intense. These fast-moving clouds of hot ash and gas reached incredibly high temperatures, instantly vaporizing people and leaving behind only skeletal remains.  The city was also buried under a deep layer of volcanic debris.

Frequently asked questions about Herculaneum

How much of Herculaneum has actually been excavated?

Due to the hardened volcanic material coating Herculaneum, experts believe that not even 1 acre of the town has been unearthed, as opposed to 55 acres in Pompeii.

What was the Herculaneum population like?

There were approximately 4,000-5,000 people residing in Herculaneum at the time of the Vesuvius eruption. Most residents were well-to-do and possibly had noble lineage. This is evidenced in the lavish two and three-storeyed homes, a sight that was rare in ancient Rome.

Who owned the houses in Herculaneum?

It was mostly owned by members of the Roman elite who inhabited these luxurious living spaces. For example, it was rumored that Julius Caesar’s father-in-law Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus owned the Villa of the Papyri. Similarly, the House of the Relief of Telephus was said to be owned by Marcus Nonius Balbus, the Governor of Crete and part of present-day Libya.

How did archeologists determine the diet patterns of Herculaneum victims?

The cesspits of the town were excellently preserved due to the hard volcanic material that entered the drains via pipes. Stool samples were salvaged from these cesspits and helped scientists ascertain the eating patterns of the population — with seafood, meat and dairy products topping the list.

How was Herculaneum discovered?

The discovery of Herculaneum was a complete accident. A local farmer, while digging a well in the nearby town of Ercolano, chanced upon some bronzes and rare objects. When the news of the find reached Prince d'Elbeuf, an Austrian army commander stationed nearby, he ordered further exploration. But Karl Weber, was considered one of the first archaeologists to explore Herculaneum with a more scientific approach in the mid-1700s.

How are artifacts in Herculaneum so well preserved?

A pyroclastic surge, which is a superheated gas and ash cloud, swept through the town. The intense heat instantly carbonized organic materials like wood, food, and even some textiles, essentially baking them in place. This process preserved their shape and details in a remarkable way.

What are some unique Herculaneum facts?

1. Nearly every house had a latrine, and shops were sometimes built into the villas (as in the case of the House of Neptune).
2. Herculaneum’s basilica has a list of 2000 exclusively male names, perhaps hinting at all the members of the population.
3. Modern scientists and archeologists introduced falcons to curb the pigeon population. The pigeons were damaging Herculaneum’s structures with their acidic droppings.

Can you enter the Herculaneum theatre?

Yes, but only with a guide. However, the floors are slippery; there are constant water leaks and the exact layout is still undeciphered.