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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Did you know?

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.

Exploring Herculaneum's past

About Herculaneum

A brief timeline

  • 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, due 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.
About Herculaneum
About Herculaneum

Herculaneum city and its layout

About Herculaneum

Location and geography

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 like Portici. In fact, the modern town of Ercolano (where the ruins are found) is almost built upon Herculaneum — so a complete excavation of Herculaneum would mean demolishing the settlements in present-day Ercolano.

About Herculaneum
About Herculaneum

People and culture

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. Additionally, dietary patterns varied between genders — men predominantly consumed cereals and seafood, while women favored meat and dairy products.

Beyond the Herculaneum ruins: The surrounding areas

About Herculaneum

Unfortunately, Herculaneum and Pompeii were not the only towns to face the full fury of Vesuvius in 79 AD. There were at least 3 other different towns that suffered similar fates:

Oplontis: Oplontis is famous for its Roman villas, particularly the luxurious Villa Poppaea. This seaside villa was buried and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Villa Poppaea was a massive estate with over 100 rooms, stunning frescoes, and expansive gardens, showcasing the wealth of its owner.

Boscoreale: Another of Vesuvius' victims, Boscoreale is known for its lavish villas. These residences were decorated with high-quality frescoes, some considered the finest Roman examples ever found.

Stabiae: While Stabiae was discovered before Pompeii in 1749, unlike its more famous neighbors, it was reburied for a period hindering tourism. The villas open to visitors today are Villa Adriana and Villa San Marco.

Looking for more content on Herculaneum?

You no longer have to worry about Herculaneum being the neglected child of Vesuvius. There’s plenty to read, hear and watch on this fascinating site.

About Herculaneum

For kids


  • Digging up the past: Pompeii and Herculaneum by Peter Hicks
  • Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Osborne illus. Bonnie Christensen
About Herculaneum

For adults


  • Herculaneum: Past and Future by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
  • Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Deiss 
About Herculaneum



  • Season 6, episode 3 of Secrets of the Dead / Herculaneum Uncovered
  • Real History | Herculaneum: A Fate Worse Than Pompeii | Vesuvius Uncovered 


History Hack: Herculaneum

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. His approach was further refined by Amedeo Maiuri in the 20th century.

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?

On an experimental basis, the Italian proposes to allow tourists in small groups along with a guide to access the theater. However, the dates of this have not been confirmed yet.