Around Us / Herculaneum
I have just come from speaking […] of Vesuvius and of the recently
discovered ancient city of Herculaneum. Nothing is more
remarkable than having found an entire city in the bosom
of the earth.
Charles de Brosses, 1739
On 24 August in the year 79 b.C., Vesuvius awoke from the longest of slumbers, catching the local population completely by surprise. The eruption was apocalyptic: all life at the foot of the volcano was wiped out, and even the memory of the lost cities soon faded. 1,700 years later, the Vesuvian towns returned to the spotlight, providing the world with its two most important archaeological sites, Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The first excavations to be carried out were in the Herculaneum area in the eighteenth century; at the time, work was carried out using techniques that would now be considered coarse.
Unlike Pompeii, which was buried under a layer of ash and lapilli, Herculaneum was covered by a 20 meters flood of pyroclastic mud, that allowed the perfect preservation of organic materials (plants, textiles, wood etc…).
It was immediately obvious, however, that the find, which gave an idea of Roman antiquity in all its forms, even the most minute, was one of extraordinary importance.
At the time of the eruption, Herculaneum had a population of 4,000 inhabitants. It extended over an area of 20 hectares contained within the city wall of which only a trace is visible facing the beach. Compared to Pompeii, commercial city, in Herculaneum rich Romans would spend their holidays, as it is shown by the villas that look out to sea.
At Herculaneum, unlike Pompeii, where the eruption destroyed roofs and attics, a large part of the buildings remain several stories high. In the excavations you can visit beautiful private buildings like the House of Relief of Telephus, which is distinguished by its refined marble decorations, or the House of Neptune and Amphitrite that has the most beautiful mosaics in the town.
Building of great importance is certainly the House of the Deer, thanks to its sumptuous rooms and the wonderful garden in which are found statues of deer being attacked by dogs.
Villa of the Papyri is probably the most amazing discovery, famous for its sculptures, now on view in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, and its library of philosophical texts: a unique collection consisting of more than 1,800 papyri.
Just as to Pompeii, baths had an enormous importance in Herculaneum. Not all the Herculaneum people had water at home and so their use of the thermal baths was a true necessity. But at the same time this was an authentic phenomenon of custom; an expression of a particular conception of free time. People went to the thermal baths not only to have a soak, but also to stroll, eat, meet friends, make conversation, make acquaintances and seek political support. The thermal baths offered, therefore, an occasion for social life in an area, which naturally provided and facilitated it.
Suburban Baths is one of the best complex preserved in ancient times, with its beautiful mosaic floor depicts sea animals, which has reached the present day in excellent condition.
Very characteristic buildings are certainly thermopolia, which were public establishments that served hot food and drinks. Meals consisted of flat bread or “focacce”, fried fish, eggs, olives, sausages and also sweetmeats and fruit. Wine was the most common drink. There was red and white. It was diluted with water and seasoned with honey, spices or herbs.
To complete the experience is essential to visit the barrel arches: these are vaulted rooms (port warehouses and boat storage) that open onto the beach. In these, since they were in 1980, have been found approximately 300 human skeletons, terrible evidence of the eruption in 79 b.C.: here, along with any valuables they were able to recover, especially necklaces and coins, had sought escape the people of Herculaneum who escaped to the shore, where they were killed by the high temperature caused by the blazing clouds exploding from the volcano.
The visit of excavations offer the visitor the possibility to observe the urban fabric, the distribution of houses, the magnificent baths complex, the sumptuous palaestra and the monumental basilica. The perfect state of preservation of wood elements, bronze artefacts and, especially, of the facades of houses, offers a complete picture of residential housing, and the various styles of Vesuvian painting.
All this allows us to immerse ourselves fully in everyday life and the way of living of the ancient Romans: an extraordinary dive into the past!