Herculaneum is a magical and reborn city

Ancient Herculaneum: life after death – p.1

During the next Italian vacation I was again attracted to the Roman history, I decided to be and take a walk in the ancient city, preserved for centuries… This time it was not Pompeii, known and trampled up and down by crowds of tourists, but its less popular fellow of misfortune – Herculaneum. Herculaneum’s smaller popularity is more due to its much smaller area, but not to the value of the excavations. Even on the contrary, if in Pompeii we see the dilapidated remains of columns and building foundations, in Herculaneum the buildings are very well preserved, some even with roofs.

Why so? Because when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, these cities were destroyed in different ways. Pompeii, to the south of the volcano, like the neighboring town of Stabia, was covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash, a powerful emission of which occurred when the volcano began to erupt.

On the other hand, Herculaneum, located to the west of Vesuvius, was to the lee of the volcano, so it was not particularly affected by the ash, and the inhabitants of the city were able to leave the city. When the second phase of the eruption began, pyroclastic flows – high-temperature (up to 400 degrees) mixture of stones, lava and volcanic gases rushed to the city at a speed of 300 kilometers per hour. Burning lava flooded the streets, reaching a depth of 20 meters in some places, and as it slowly cooled, the lava preserved the city. By the time the tons of Vesuvian ash began to fall on Herculaneum, all the buildings were already filled with this mixture. The flow so sealed and evenly filled the interiors of the houses that the city was left without air, which could cause the decomposition of organic materials (such as cloth and wood) for many centuries, and the high temperature of the avalanche ensured that the water evaporated, so that even the scrolls of papyrus were preserved.

The first excavations of Herculaneum date back to the XVIII century: in 1709 a local resident was digging a well and stumbled upon marble fragments (as it turned out later, they were the ruins of the Herculaneum Theater). What followed was a period of chaotic excavation and looting. But the excavations were interrupted because the modern city was too close. Excavations resumed only in 1927. Therefore, most of the city (about 80%) has not yet been uncovered, and since modern Ercolano actually stands on the 20-30-meter thickness that hides the ancient Herculaneum, further research is very difficult and progresses slowly.

It is easy to get to Herculaneum, and in my opinion, it is much more suitable for an independent visit than Pompeii, precisely because of its small area and clear structure. From Naples, it is best to take the local railway line Circumvesuviana (a kind of colorful and cheerful trains, running on a purely Neapolitan schedule (read “as it happens”), but with relatively short intervals). The nearest subway station is Piazza Garibaldi, but not everyone knows that there is a terminal station of the line Porta Nolana, where it is less crowded and seats are available. When we drive about 30 minutes towards Sorrento, get out on Ercolano Scavi station, walk along the main street Ercolano for 7-10 minutes and here they are, the gate to the ancient Herculaneum.

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If we believe the legend, Herculaneum was founded by Hercules. According to another, more prosaic version, the city was founded by the Greeks. Then the city was conquered by the Samnites, and in 307 BC by the Romans. In its heyday, Herculaneum, surrounded by a fortress wall around its perimeter, had a Greek layout. Several perpendicular streets, called Cardo (north-south) and Decumana (east-west), divided it into rectangular quarters (insulae).

The city had a population of about 5,000, most of whom, if historians are to be believed, managed to flee the city and escape the eruption. From the deadly volcano to the ancient Herculaneum – no more than 10 kilometers.

Below in the photo – excavations of one of the ancient districts of the city, once terraced down to the sea shore, right above them – the houses of Ercolano today, still higher – the crater of Vesuvius. In ancient times, the city stood on a rock overhanging the Mediterranean Sea, but after the eruption of the volcano the coastline receded by several hundred meters. If you start a tour of Herculaneum from the former coastline, the boat sheds, where about 300 skeletons were found, make an eerie impression. And for a long time it was thought that there were no casualties in Herculaneum… Some people apparently did not want to leave their town and hoped to survive the eruption in a shelter on the seashore, but they met an instant death from suffocation by high-temperature gases.

Preserved by a volcano

The death of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius in ’79 is probably the most famous disaster in human history. And Pompeii Archaeological Park is one of the most visited museums in Italy. But Pompeii is far from the only victim of that eruption. Volcanic eruptions covered a large area around the volcano and buried many small and large agricultural estates, luxury villas, settlements and towns under them for a long time. One of them is Herculaneum, to which our material is devoted.

A city on the coast

Herculaneum is a city with a history as long as that of Pompeii, but due to various factors it has always been in some shadow of its neighbor.

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The coast of the Gulf of Naples in the Roman Empire was considered a resort area. However, long before the Romans, the Italians (Italian tribes) and Greeks had taken a fancy to the region. It is believed that Herculaneum, on the coast, was founded by the Greeks.

The Romans told the legend of how Hercules, returning from a campaign on the west coast of Europe in fulfillment of his tenth exploit, founded the city here, giving it his name. However, the founding of Pompeii was also the work of Hercules.

In both cities there has long been a cult of Hercules, and in Pompeii Hercules was dedicated, together with Athena Minerva, to a temple which we now call the Doric temple.

The building of the Collegium of Augustals (priests of the imperial cult) at Herculaneum. The fresco in the center of the east wall depicts Hercules in the company of Juno and Minerva, the rainbow above them the embodiment of Jupiter

Like Pompeii, Herculaneum went through all the stages of the Campanian cities: the Greeks were succeeded by the Italians, the Italians by the Romans who gave Herculaneum the status of a municipality (unlike Pompeii which had the status of a colony). This meant that the inhabitants of Italian Herculaneum were granted the rights of Roman citizenship.

At the same time, the city had a local administration of the Roman type: several annually replaced magistrates at the head of the council. This happened in the 1st century BC and Herculaneum’s life was so peaceful that it is hardly ever mentioned in the antique sources of that time.

Unfortunately, the city has not been fully excavated up to now, so we know neither its real size, nor at least approximately the number of its population.

The latter, however, is a problem of all ancient Roman cities, because even in the capital, Rome, the census only covered free men-citizens, the remaining categories of the population modern scientists have to calculate by different methods.

Nevertheless, it is now considered established that Herculaneum probably occupied an area of about 15-20 hectares, much smaller than Pompeii’s 66 hectares, and was home to about 5,000 people (versus 20-30,000 in Pompeii).

It is not possible to clear Herculaneum completely from volcanic deposits – the archaeological area is right in the middle of modern Ercolano, whose inhabitants are not inclined to part with their homes.

Modern Ercolano over ancient Herculaneum

A few years ago the management of the archaeological site managed to come to an agreement with the city to jointly develop a piece of land to the northwest of the already excavated areas, but the overall situation with the city of Herculaneum, buried under modern Ercolano, will remain unchanged for a long time to come.

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Burned Alive

Another difference between Herculaneum and Pompeii is the thickness of the layer of volcanic deposits over the city and the nature of its demise. From the beginning of the eruption, Pompeii was covered with ash and lapilli, small, light pieces of pumice. And only when the city sank into this stone debris to a depth of several meters did Pompeii reach pyroclastic flows – waves of gases of high temperature and speed.

Herculaneum, on the other hand, being on the leeward side relative to the source of the eruption, escaped the rain of lapilli, but not of pyroclasts. They covered the city much earlier than the neighboring Pompeii, and this allowed organic objects to be preserved to some extent.

Thickness of volcanic layers over ancient Herculaneum

At the same time, because Herculaneum is closer to Vesuvius, the pyroclastic flows here brought with them much more eruption products than in Pompeii. Therefore, the layer of volcanic deposits above Herculaneum is 2.5 times higher.

And if digging the layers of small lapilli stones in Pompeii is burdensome because of their “fluidity”, then to penetrate 30 meters of volcanic sediments in Herculaneum (only 5 meters of them refer to the 1631 eruption) had to be done with great effort.

But pyroclastic waves with temperatures of 300-500 degrees Celsius, depriving organic objects of oxygen, did not allow them to decay and preserved for us wooden stairs and partitions inside houses, furniture, ropes on the well gates, only charring these and other objects.

Preserved steps of a wooden staircase

Very interesting are the houses built in the technique of opus craticium. We know them as half-timbered houses. Their characteristic facades with visible wooden frame elements were perfectly preserved due to the high temperatures of the pyroclastic waves.

The rope from the gates for the domestic well

Of course, due to the carbonation, the load-bearing capacity of these houses was severely weakened and they needed a thorough reconstruction before they could take their place in the modern exposition of Herculaneum.

Herculaneum half-timbered house – Casa a Graticcio

In the first centuries of excavation, it was thought that all Herculaneum inhabitants had left the city before the pyroclastic flows arrived, probably with the onset of the eruption, because very few victims’ remains were found in the city – only 32 bodies. However, when in the 1980s archaeologists got to the structures on the ancient shoreline of Herculaneum, it turned out that this was not the case.

The so-called “ellings” of Herculaneum.

Parco Archeologico di Ercolano

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It is not known what a number of these structures were intended for. It is thought that they were some kind of coastal warehouses or boathouses, although no things were found in them. There were no belongings, but there were people – more than 300 Herculans were waiting here for rescue from the sea, very densely placed inside several stone “hangars”.

In a moment of danger, neglecting their personal space, men, women and children occupied rather cramped cells, 30-40 people in each. It was here that the pyroclastic waves overtook them. We should think that death was instantaneous – the speed of these gas streams was several hundred kilometers per hour.

The high temperatures literally boiled people alive. Studies of the bones of the people from the Herculanean ellings showed that their brains practically exploded and sintered under the influence of the pyroclasts.

One of the “ellings” with the remains of the dead citizens

Parco Archeologico di Ercolano

By the way, the study of the remains of the dead residents of Herculaneum is not limited to the fugitives from the “ellings”. In January of this year the results of the study of the remains of a man who survived the eruption in a house were published. It turned out that his brain tissue vitrified, that is, literally sintered into a vitreous mass.

True, this news adds to our knowledge of the course of the volcanic eruption and the processes that took place during it, rather than the ancient Romans.

Urban Patron.

The discovered part of ancient Herculaneum is the result of the work of excavators and archaeologists of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, the excavations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were rather short-lived and limited. So the main credit for the way we now see Herculaneum undoubtedly belongs to the famous Italian archaeologist Amedeo Mailliuri.

It is thanks to the leadership of Mayuri in the XX century were excavated, reconstructed and opened to the public 4.5 hectares of the ancient city, which now make up the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum.

As has already been mentioned, it required a lot of work: the volcanic deposits over the city had to be literally pierced. Excavations were carried out by digging narrow wells and tunnels – adits. Now in the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum you can take a look at these tunnels. However, it is forbidden to walk through them.

Tunnels in the unexcavated palestra

Tunnels in the unexcavated palestra

The palaestra, the city’s sports structure, was never excavated but was partly explored by means of narrow tunnels. The palestra was a large open space with a cruciform pool in the center. On the edges of the space were arranged porticoes – galleries, the roof over which was held by columns.

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Nevertheless, in 250 years of excavations we have learned quite a lot about ancient Herculaneum. Just like Pompeii, the city was divided into insulae by intersecting streets at right angles. For entertainment there was a theater, thermae and palestra. For service to the gods and deified members of the imperial family there were temples and collegia of priests.

A rectangular square-terrace was arranged between the cult area, where the sanctuaries were located, and the Suburban Thermae. The town council erected a marble altar and a statue of its countryman, the politician and philanthropist Nonius Balba.

The terrace of Nonius Balb. Under the terrace are the so-called “boathouses”.

Marcus Nonius Balb was a very famous man in the Roman Empire, not a local celebrity at all. He came from Nuceria, a town 25 kilometers east of Herculaneum, now called Nocera.

What prompted him to move to Herculaneum is unknown. However, it was to this city, not to his small homeland, that he remained faithful all his life, becoming later the patron of Herculaneum. How important and prestigious was the honor of being the patron of his city, we have already told in the article about Pompeii.

Unlike the unknown Pompeian who refused this honor, Marcus Nonius Balb accepted the offer of the city council and did his best in this field.

Under Emperor Augustus, this native of Campania climbed the state administrative ladder to the position of proconsul of the province of Crete and Cyrenaica. He and his family did Herculaneum many favors, including building a basilica.

The basilica in ancient Roman cities was intended for judicial affairs. In contrast to Pompeii, at Herculaneum the archaeologists were able to investigate it, and not completely, only from the inside, by tunneling.

The modern street laid directly above it does not allow us to open it completely. In the 1960s only the eastern wall of the basilica was freed from the volcanic soil.

Theater underground

The theater suffered the same fate: it was found almost by accident at a distance from the central part of Herculaneum and is still not only completely underground, but also not explored even half of it.

In the XVIII century, when aristocrats excavated ancient settlements to increase their own collections, this cultural structure was subjected, one might say, to a natural robbery, though legally. An Austrian officer named d’Elbef, who served the Spanish crown in Naples, bought a plot of land and quite legally organized a search for antiquities on it.

Theaters in ancient Rome, being public and very popular places, were always richly decorated. It is not surprising, therefore, that d’Elbef’s workers pleased him almost immediately with three remarkable female statues.

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