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Herculaneum is a Roman city, located in Campania, Italy, which was destroyed along with Pompeii and Stabiae in 79 CE, as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius. The good location – on the Gulf of Naples – meant that the city enjoyed the reputation of a great holiday resort.

This city was originally an Osci’s centre, which in the sixth century BCE came under the control of Etruscans, and then in the fifth century came under the rule of the Samnites. The Romans conquered Herculaneum, which became an ally of Rome in the year 307 BCE as a result of the Second Samnic War. In 89 BCE, Lucius Cornelius Sulla created a settlement for Her veterans at Herculaneum.

The name of the city proves that its inhabitants strongly worshipped the Roman hero Hercules, whom they considered the founder of the city and the nearby Mount Vesuvius.

Eruption, destruction and discovery of Herculaneum

On August 24, 79 CE1, there was an eruption of Vesuvius. The first phase of the eruption did not damage Herculaneum to a large extent, as the volcanic precipitation thrown from the crater was directed by the wind to the south-east. However, at night or in the early morning of the following day, a second phase of the outbreak occurred. A pyroclastic avalanche (a mixture of hot gases around 500 degrees Celsius, ashes and rock crumbs) ran down the slope of Vesuvius, which buried Pompeii under a 6 m layer of ash, and Herculaneum under 25 m. The pyroclastic stream was rushing at a speed of over 160 km/h, preventing any escape for those who chose to stay or could not escape. In this phase, Herculaneum suffered much more, and the gas cloud burned people, animals and plants along its path. On the other hand, thanks to a large amount of material, Herculaneum is in a very good condition.

Unexpectedly, the year 1709 was accidentally discovered. During excavations for the well, they came across the stage of the city theatre. Since then, excavations have been carried out in Herculaneum, and some of the discoveries have proved to be in better condition than those found in Pompeii. Herculaneum is still the workplace of scientists who are looking for more treasures. It is certain, however, that we will never discover parts of the centre because the modern cities of Ercolano and Portici arose on its remains. Researchers estimate that about 75% of the ancient city is still buried in the ground.

How was the Herculaneum built up?

Cupid playing lire. Herculaneum

Herculaneum, originally surrounded by walls, descended to the sea by terraces. In the lower part of the city, aristocracy settled in villas with peristyle, which poorer residents built their houses in the upper terraces. A typical house was of a reinforced wooden truss structure. You can also see the regularity in the growth of Roman houses, towards a more ergonomic use of space. To a large extent, the city was dominated by tenement houses (insulae).

Roman theatre was very elegant. The stage was lined with marble of various colours and types (giallo antico, cipollino), columns with marble from Africa and the whole building was decorated with bronze sculptures. Other public buildings examined thanks to underground tunnels are suburban and formal baths, and a monumental gymnasium, surrounded by porticos with a cross-shaped swimming pool, with a bronze fountain in the centre.

Human remains

In 1981, human skeletons from the 1st century CE were unearthed at Herculaneum. 55 skeletons were found together (30 adult men, 13 adult women and 12 children). The discoveries were found on the beach and in the chambers for boats on the shore. Since only a few skeletons had been found before, it was thought that almost all residents of the city managed to escape the disaster. However, the 1981 discovery changed the view of scientists.

The inhabitants of Herculaneum, waiting on the shore for rescue from the sea, suddenly died as a result of a strong heat flush – about 500°C. High temperature caused contraction of members and breaking bones or teeth.

Chambers for boats. It is here that the refugee inhabitants waiting for rescue from the sea. However, they did not wait for their help and died because of the heatwave.

It is worth noting that the find is all the more valuable because until the third century the Romans cremated the corpse and few human remains from that period have survived to our time.

The skeletons of the Romans were also examined. Dr Sara C. Bisel carried out a chemical and physical analysis of the remains and shed completely new light on the health and diet of the inhabitants of Herculaneum. The researcher noted some amounts of lead in the bones, which led to speculation about lead poisoning. Moreover, numerous traces have been recorded on the female pelvis, which may give a clue in future studies regarding the fertility of women of this period.

Some of the exposed skeletons can be admired at the Museum of Anthropology in Naples.

Destruction of monuments

Along with the extraction from under layers of ash, volcanic lava and debris, the ruins are subjected to a continuous process of destruction. It is influenced by both weather conditions and vandalism or numerous visits by tourists.

Earlier, no one was worried about the condition of the monuments and their adequate protection. With the discovery of skeletons, all the attention of specialists focused on their conservation. Currently, further extensive excavations have been abandoned to secure the city.

Most of the artefacts discovered are in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Sights of Herculaneum

In Herculaneum, many sights can be admired. The buildings are grouped into blocks (insulae) and are arranged according to the east-west (cardi) and north-south (decumani) streets. Among them are:

  • Aristide House – the entrance to the house leads to the atrium. The lower part of the villa was probably used as a pantry. However, the house is in poor condition because of the damage caused by previous excavations.
  • House of Argos – the villa owes its name to a fresco depicting a giant from Greek mythology Argos, accompanied by a nymph – Io. The painting once adorned the walls of the peristyle and unfortunately it has not survived to our time. The villa was discovered in the 1820s and apart from the fresco, wooden shelves and cabinets were also lost. According to the researchers, the house must have been one of the best in the city.
  • House of Genius – located north of the House of Argos. It has been excavated only half so far, but archaeologists consider it spacious. The building owes its name to the statue of Cupid, who co-creates the candlestick. In the middle of the peristyle, there are remains of a rectangular pool.
  • Alcove House – two connected buildings. The villa contains both simple and decorated rooms.
  • College Augustales – the temple dedicated to imperial worship. The college was established by the emperor Tiberius to maintain the worship of Augustus and Julius in 14 CE. The college consisted of 21 priests, elected from the patrician state.
  • Central Baths – created around the 1st century CE, divided into men’s and women’s zones. This place was very popular, and the walls were highly decorated, which we can see traces to this day.
  • Papyrus Villa – the most famous and most sophisticated villa in Herculaneum. It stretches towards the sea with four terraces overlooking the beach. The building also had a significant ancient library, which was the only one survived to our times intact. Researchers thought the property could have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Pison Caesoninus (consul of 58 BC), but this is currently being questioned. In 1752-1754, charred and unreadable papyrus scrolls were discovered. Scientists are currently trying to read the information on scrolls without developing them. Until now, X-rays have been tried. Despite the discovery of several letters, it turned out that the ink used by the ancient authors is based on carbon. Therefore, X-rays will not let you know the notes. In 2016, more scrolls were excavated, and scientists believe that the latest technologies will allow knowing their content.
Ruins of the Papyrus Villa from 2000. Erik_Anderson
  1. The month of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is still under discussion today. Pliny the Younger mentions the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a letter to his friend Tacitus, clearly speaking of August 24. Interestingly, however, he wrote it 20 years after the volcanic eruption. Additionally, the original copies of Pliny's letter have not survived to our times. These were translated and rewritten many times over the centuries, which could lead to a discrepancy in the determination of the month - the months from August to November appeared. Contemporary archaeological research directs us more towards October or November.
  • Beard Mary, Pompeje. Życie rzymskiego miasta, Poznań 2010
  • Castiglione Laszlo, Pompeje i Herkulanum
  • Grant Michael, Miasta Wezuwiusza: Pompeje i Herkulanum

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