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Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Glimpse Of Life During The Roman Empire At Its Height

Herculaneum excavations in Ercolano

The excavated Roman towns of Pompeii and the less well known Herculaneum, give travelers a glimpse of Roman life, at the height of the Roman Empire. These ancient coastal resorts, at the base of Mt. Vesuvius in southern Italy, were partially demolished and then subsequently buried over 1,900 years ago. The cause of their destruction was a volcanic eruption in the year 79 C.E. (Common Era). It is our 11th stop in the series Journeys to Discovery.

Pompeii and the less well known Herculaneum, have been popular tourist destinations for well over 250 years. It comprised part of what used to be known as the Grand Tour, that the upper class Europeans and some Americans, were sure to follow sometime in their lives.

Via dell’Abbondanza, the main street in Pompeii.

By the beginning of the 21st century Pompeii alone, was attracting some 2.6 million visitors on an annual basis. This makes it one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy.

It is now part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.

Pompeii was inhabited by many wealthy Romans, who lavishly spent their financial resources, on their homes.

This fact can be seen in the construction and adornments in both the public and perhaps more importantly, the private buildings. It is the latter, that provides a fuller view of daily life, in the early days of the Empire.

At the time of its destruction, Pompeii had been in existence for nearly 700 years.

Ruins of Pompeii from above, with Vesuvius in the background.

Located in Campania near modern day Naples, the Mediterranean style climate, was ideal for the cultivation of both grapes and olives.

The fertile volcanic soil of the land surrounding Mt. Vesuvius, encouraged the establishment of numerous villas and helped to increase, the general prosperity of the town.

The town of Pompeii had a number of imposing temples, a beautiful forum, an amphitheater, a gymnasium and a stadium for public events. Over the years, a complex water system had been created along with a port, at the edge of town.

The Temple of Jupiter with Vesuvius in the distance from Pompeii.

Pompeii had been founded by the Oscans, but had later fallen under the dominion of Rome in the 4th century BCE (Before The Common Era).

By 80 BCE, it had become a Roman colony, after the town had joined an unsuccessful rebellion, against the Roman Republic.

In the first century BCE, Pompeii had a population that had swelled to some 11,000 residents.

Cupids playing with a lyre, Roman fresco from Herculaneum

Herculaneum located further to the northwest, was a wealthier town than Pompeii. It possessed an exceptional density of fine houses, with a more extensive use of architectural enhancements.

The town would also be lost to the Mt. Vesuvius eruption, along with Boscoreale, Oplontis and Stabiae.

The seaside resort of Herculaneum, was estimated to have near 5,000 inhabitants.

The residents all worshiped Hercules, who was thought to have been the founder of the town, as well as nearby Mount Vesuvius.

This indicates that a community of Greek colonists had arrived in the area, possibly in the 6th century BCE.

The actual founders of the town, were most likely Samnite tribes who settled the area, just before the arrival of the Greeks.

The close proximity to the Gulf of Naples, was likely the reason that Greek settlers, made the town a trading post.

By the 4th century BCE Herculaneum once again, came under control of the Samnites and remained so, until the Roman conquest in 89 BCE.

Today, Herculaneum is located inland and is actually surmounted, by the modern town of Ercolano.

Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as other cities affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The black cloud represents the general distribution of ash, pumice and cinders. Modern coast lines are shown; Pliny the Younger was at Misenum.

Herculaneum stretching over a smaller area than Pompeii, was immediately destroyed by an incredible hot cloud of steam and mud. It was only later covered by flows of lava.

Therefore, the archaeological artifacts and relics are in far better shape, than in Pompeii. There are also many more everyday items to be observed.

At the time of the eruption, Mount Vesuvius had not been fully active in 800 years.

The initial explosion took place on August 24th in the early afternoon. We know the exact date and time, due to the historical documentation that was left behind.

Due to the archeological excavations and the eyewitness account, left to us in the form of two letters, by Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus, the progress of the eruption can be reconstructed rather well.

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c. 1821) by John Martin.

At around 1:00 pm local time, Mount Vesuvius began spewing stones and volcanic ash thousands of feet into the air.

The prevailing winds at the time, were blowing to the southeast, causing much of the volcanic material to fall on Pompeii and the surrounding area. The town is only 6.4 miles or 10.3 kilometers, from Mt. Vesuvius.

This first phase of the eruption was described by Pliny, as resembling a stone pine tree.

This was when the cloud of material had reached the boundary, between the troposphere and the stratosphere. It was at this point, that it flattened at the top of the plume.

Inside the crater of Vesuvius

Roofs in Pompeii soon collapsed, under the weight of the volcanic material, trapping those who had sought shelter in their homes, from the initial phase of the destruction.

Herculaneum lying 4.4 miles (7.1km) west of Vesuvius, was only mildly effected by the initial phase of the eruption. The couple of inches of ash that fell however, did prompt the majority of the citizenry to begin an evacuation.

The following night, the column of debris in the higher elevations of the atmosphere, finally collapsed onto Vesuvius and the surrounding area.

The first pyroclastic surge made up of hot gases and ash went through the town of Herculaneum at 100 miles (160km) per hour.

“Garden of the Fugitives”. Plaster casts of victims still in situ; many casts are in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

In a succession of six surges and flows, the buildings in most of Herculaneum were buried. In a number of areas structures as well as numerous objects and even victims, were covered intact.

In other portions of the town, significant damage was wrought, by the aftermath of the eruption.

In Pompeii, the buildings and people were covered in 12 different layers of volcanic material, known as tephra. After nearly 6 hours of tephra raining down, the town was covered in total by some 82 feet or 25 meters.

Recent research has now indicated that the majority of people either trapped or remaining within the blast site, died because of massive heat, rather than ash suffocation. Temperatures were estimated to have reached at least 482 degrees Fahrenheit or 250 degrees Celsius.

There has always been the argument, that the blast actually occurred on November 23, supported by another version of the Pliny letter.

Archaeological evidence of the clothes worn by the victims, the fruits and vegetables found in the market and even coins, all point to the later date.

A fresco depicting Theseus, from Herculaneum (Ercolano), Italy, 45–79 AD

The thick layers of ash that now covered Pompeii and Herculaneum and other nearby sites, were soon abandoned and over time, their locations and even names would be forgotten.

The first unearthing came in 1599, when the digging of an underground channel, to divert the river Sarno, ran into some ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions.

An architect by the name of Domenico Fontana, came to the site of Pompeii. He did unearth a few more frescoes, but then decided to cover them back up.

He most likely had decided that the content of the paintings, given the values of the time, were inappropriate.

Nothing more came of the discovery, during this era, known as the Counter Reformation.

Roman fresco from the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii

Pompeii would finally be rediscovered, as a result of intentional excavations by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre,in 1748. Karl Weber would later continue the work with real intensive excavations.

Herculaneum would be rediscovered a decade earlier in 1738, by workmen removing ground for the foundations of a summer palace. The residence was to be for Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples.

Small Herculaneum Woman in Dresden Germany, among the first statuary found on the site.

However, some impressive statuary had already been removed in 1709, during the digging of a well. It was later revealed, the site was over the former ancient theater of Herculaneum.

Excavation work at Herculaneum largely ceased, when Pompeii was rediscovered. This was because Pompeii was covered with only 13 feet (4 meters) of debris, and the former some 65 feet (20 meters).

Excavation in Herculaneum would continue again in 1828 and again in 1868 which would continue until 1875. The streets of Vico di Mare and Vico Ferrara would be unearthed during this period.

In the 20th century, work would resume in 1927 and continue to 1942, under the direction Amedeo Maiuri.

He uncovered about 10 acres or 4 hectares of Herculaneum, that comprises a large portion of the ancient city, that travelers are able to view today.

“Boat houses” where skeletons were found in Herculaneum.

Excavations began again in the period from 1980 to 1981. These were conducted along the ancient shoreline, which led to the discovery of the skeletons and the boathouses.

Work would resume from 1996 to 1999, exposing a large area to the northwest. Part of the Villa of the Papyri, the northwest baths, the House of the Dionysian Reliefs and a large collapsed monument.

Conservation of this new area, was continued from 2000 to 2007.

Many of the Herculaneum buildings both public and private, remain buried, including the Forum Complex.

The skeleton called the “Ring Lady” unearthed in Herculaneum.

Recently a number of academics, have called for more excavations around the library in Herculaneum. Ancient texts were already unearthed in the 1700’s and numerous scholars are hopeful, hundreds more remain buried.

There is a fear among many of them, that these ancient writings may become lost forever, if excavations are not completed soon.

In Pompeii, excavations would continue throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1863. He was the first to realize that the voids in the ash, were actually left by the decomposed bodies of the victims of the town.

He devised the technique of injecting plaster into them, to recreate the body forms of the people, that failed to leave Pompeii in time.

The procedure is still used today, with a clear resin used instead. This method is more durable and allows further analysis, because it does not destroy the bones.

Fresco from the Casa del Centenario bedroom in Pompeii.

The discovery of the erotic art in both Pompeii and Herculaneum. left archeologists of the times with a dilemma, between the open displays of sexuality from ancient Rome, versus the more modern day sexual inhibitions.

This led to an unknown number of discoveries, that ended up being hidden once again. A wall fresco depicting the ancient god of sex and fertility known as Priapus for example, was covered with a new layer of plaster.

In 1819, King Francis of the Two Sicilies visited with his wife and daughter, to see the numerous artifacts from the buried cities, at the Naples National Archeological Museum. He was so disturbed by some of the erotic artifacts, that he caused them to be locked away from the general public.

Entrance to the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples,known as the Secret Museum.

These relics soon formed what became known as the Naples Secret Museum. It was finally re-opened for ongoing public viewing, only in the year 2000. Minors even today, must still be accompanied by an adult, to this section of the museum.

To combat problems associated with the heavy load of tourists, new tickets have been issued, that allow tourists to visit many of the available sites, within the Vesuvius National Park, outside of Pompeii. This helps to better manage, the heavy flow of visitors.

House of Gladiators after the collapse in 2010.

Excavations in Pompeii have generally ceased, due to a moratorium imposed by the superintendent of the site, who is more worried about conservation than in more diggings.

The 2,000 year old Schola Armatorum (House of Gladiators) collapsed in 2010. Although not open to the general public, the outside was still visible to tourists.

Although it is still not clear what caused the mishap, it clearly indicates that conservation has become a major issue, in the preservation of the site.

Additionally, the site is now far less accessible to tourists, with less than one third of the buildings now open, as compared to the 1960’s. However, there is more than enough of the ancient city to observe, to fully engage any traveler, from one to three days.

How To Get There

Tourists have a number of options to gain access to Pompeii and Herculaneum. The closest major city to these excavated Roman towns is from Naples, which is a total of 16.5 miles (26.5km) and 7 miles (11.2km) respectively.

Portrait of Terentius Neo with his wife found on the wall of a Pompeii house.

By car the distance to Pompeii, will take about 28 minutes along the A3. To Herculaneum the time needed will be 19 minutes from Naples. The two alternate routes to Herculaneum will take 22 minutes each. They are the E45 and the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Visitors can also choose to take the bus, train or taxi. To Pompeii the bus will cost anywhere from $4 to $26 USD (United States Dollar). The average time will be about 41 minutes.

The train to Pompeii will cost from $2 to $7 USD and will take about 49 minutes. A taxi will cost between $35 and $45 USD and will take near 22 minutes.

The train to the town of Ercolano where Herculaneum is located, will take about 27 minutes, at a cost between $1 and $4 USD. A taxi will cost between $17 and $21 USD and will take about 11 minutes.

From Naples to Ercolano one also has the option to take the subway, at a cost of $1 to $2 USD and will take an average time of 16 minutes.

Pompeii and Herculaneum are about 9 miles or 14.4 kilometers apart.

Hours of Operation

Pompeii and Herculaneum are open every day of the week from 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM local time, from April 01 to October 31st. The rest of the year it is from 8:30 AM to 5:00 P.M.

Admission And Entrance Fees

General admission for adults for Pompeii and Herculaneum are each 11 Euros ($13.08 USD). It is therefore highly recommended, you purchase the combined ticket for both locations plus Oplontis, Stabiae and the Antiquarium of Boscoreale, for 20 Euros ($23.76 USD). That is if time permits, you to visit more than one location.

EU (European Union) citizens aged 18 to 25, are charged 5.50 Euros ($6.54 USD) ( for either Herculaneum or Pompeii.

EU Citizens under 18 or over 65, are provided free admission.

EU citizens ages 18 to 25 buying the combination ticket, will be charged 10 Euros ($11.89 USD).

Guided tours are provided in a number of languages. It includes hotel pickups, transports there and back, admission tickets and food. From Rome, the price to one of the sites is 122 Euros ($145 USD), from Naples it will obviously cost less. These are usually around $70 USD.

Helpful Hints For All Travelers

You will need at least between 6 to 8 hours to tour Pompeii, so plan to spend most of the day there.

It might be a good idea to bring your own lunch along. There are numerous places to simply stop and have a bite to eat, with food you have brought.

Wear good walking shoes. The distance that covered and the cobblestone streets will be difficult to traverse for hours, if you do not have proper footwear.

Organized tours certainly have their purpose and utility, but more time will be spent with detailed explanations and questions from tour members, that need to be answered.

Time also needs to be spent for group members, to have their picture taken at various points. Groups can easily become strung out in length and be intertwined with other ones.

It might be better for you to take a self guided tour, if time is an issue.

The audio guide, will provide more than enough information for you. However, at times the audio guide does not seem to match up exactly, to the places you are actually observing.

In Herculaneum, there is less ground to cover, but will still take most of the day to fully tour.

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