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Overshadowed by both Vesuvius and Pompeii, Herculaneum is the forgotten seaside resort

Founded by Hercules

Herculaneum, had you ever heard of it before? I certainly had not. But instantly I was intrigued because it sounded somewhat like Hercules, that mythical hero of old. And indeed, there is a connection with the city being named for that hero.

Actually, in the way of Italian fables, the story goes that Hercules founded the city in 1243 BC. The facts, however, tell a more prosaic story. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Etruscans founded the city in the 7th Century BC. Later the Romans turned the city into a seaside retreat to escape the politics and crowds of Rome.

Statue of Hercules at rest
Hercules at rest, a copy of an earlier Greek statue, dated 4th Century BC displayed in the Naples Archaeological Museum
View of ruins

At that time, wealthy families commonly escaped to nearby locations with clean air and a good climate. The seaside location no doubt attracted them also, just as it does us today. Estimated to contain about 4,000 people, the city was densely packed with houses typical of the time. Due to the wealth of its inhabitants, the somewhat elaborate houses contained upper levels, comfortable layouts including internal courtyards, fountains and gardens.

The decorations were also elaborate with wall frescoes painted according to taste and social standing. These decorations were supplemented with classical statues and detailed mosaic floors made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of small tiles.

In the path of the volcano

In 62 AD, nearby Vesuvius spewed its contents over the city. This caused serious damage. Rebuilding of the city was in train when only 17 years later, the big one rained down on them. In the huge eruption of 79 AD, when nearby Pompeii was destroyed, Herculaneum also felt the impact. This time the devastation was complete.

This description from the director of Herculaneum archaeological park speaks of the frightening impact. “It was 1am when the pyroclastic surge produced by the volcano reached the town for the first time with a temperature of 300-400 degrees, or even, according to some studies, 500-700 degrees. A white-hot cloud that raced towards the sea at a speed of 100km [60 miles] per hour, which was so dense that it had no oxygen in it.”

Inhabitants were killed by the cloud of toxic gases emanating from the volcano. And then, the whole city was covered and effectively sealed by a wave of ash followed by a layer of volcanic rock. This covering, some 16 metres deep, preserved the city. In contrast, nearby Pompeii, was covered with ash that destroyed the buildings, killed its inhabitants and generally destroyed everything by burying.

Wall fresco from Herculaneum
Different to Pompeii

In Herculaneum, organic remains like fabric, food, vegetation, and even wooden building components were preserved. This makes the city one of the best conserved in the world and a treasure trove for archaeologists who continue to discover wonders buried beneath. These treasures include jewellery and even food.

Some even refer to the city as “The richer Pompeii”. This seems partly deserved. In 1982, a skeleton of a young lady was uncovered at Herculaneum. She has been dubbed the “Ring Lady” because of the emerald and ruby rings found with her.

Only a small proportion of the city of Herculaneum is open for viewing. However, this provides a real insight into ancient life and is very manageable to view. From private villas to communal baths, eating establishments, association houses and an elaborate street pattern, the way that Romans lived here is on display.

One of the most intriguing buildings is referred to as a pub. Apparently it was common at this time for the inhabitants to not eat their midday meal at home. There were several of these eating establishments scattered around the site. Identified by the large pots set into the benches, the patrons gathered at those marble topped benches to eat and drink wine. Then they continued their labours before returning home by sunset. You must remember that there were no street lights at this time and candles provided poor illumination and deterrents for unsavoury types.

Reminiscent of the retreat to the beach seen in the recent Australian bushfires, inhabitants of Herculaneum also sought escape at the waterline. In buildings apparently used to store boats and just on the beach itself, many bodies were uncovered. Up to 2008, some 296 skeletons were found. In contrast, in nearby Pompeii the bodies were destroyed leaving a void that was later filled with plaster to represent the person that once was.

Visit Pompeii or Herculaneum?

Visiting Pompeii a couple of days later, the similarities abound. However, several large villas on display in Pompeii, a substantial square and temple to Apollo bear witness to the size of the city and the proclivities of its inhabitants. Chief among these is the street of brothels and beer houses identified by symbols representing the activities undertaken within.

One establishment we visited was known as the House of the Bleeding Bear. I could easily imagine patrons staggering from its portico just across the cobblestones to the brothel opposite. Here they might spend some of their hard-earned wages from a sailing trip to far off ports. Bringing back trade goods to disperse through the empire, the sailors probably desired good food, plenty of drink and slaves to cater for their other tastes.

The technique of drilling underground to find the void created by the decay of the organic parts of the bodies lying where they fell was pioneered early. Pumping plaster into this void created an image of the person who lay beneath the volcanic ash. Their pose of alarm, protection and simple resignation speaks to us of the commonality we share with these people from 20 centuries ago. We recognise their pubs, their bakeries, their gardens and public squares. We sympathise with their last gestures as the ash engulfed them.

If time is short, visit only one of these cities. But a visit to both shows the differences and similarities between the two. For history buffs, visiting both locations ensures a better understanding of these unique cities. However, the most important recommendation is to first visit the Naples Archaeological Museum that holds the majority of the recovered artifacts.

Preserving these collections off-site seems wise given Vesuvius remains technically an active volcano. Locals speak in hushed tones about the gases that build up beneath the mountain. Gases that must find an exit at some point.

Live every day like it’s the last

What does a visit to Herculaneum or Pompeii tell us? How little or how much we have changed? It is a reminder of how easily and how quickly the end can come. Memento Mori – remember death. And we may add, live every day like it’s your last. Perhaps this is what these fascinating cities uncovered from their slumber remind us of.

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