What is ancient Herculaneum?

Herculaneum - courtesy slightlywinded - CC-BY

Herculaneum - courtesy slightlywinded - CC-BY

Near the fabled Pompeii is Herculaneum, another city buried and frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was smaller, much wealthier, and more important to Roman high society, than the now more famous Pompeii. Herculaneum catered to the richest of the rich and the most powerful of the Empire.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Herculaneum was buried under about 50-60 feet of lava, mud and ash. It lay hidden and nearly intact for more than 1600 years. At around 1pm on August 27, Vesuvius began throwing ash and volcanic stone thousands of feet into the sky. The winds at the time blew toward the southeast, causing the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city of Pompeii. Since Herculaneum lay to the west of Vesuvius, it was only slightly affected by this first part of the eruption. Most of the destruction of Pompeii took place during this early phase. The volcano devastated Herculaneum in a very different manner than Pompeii. Later that night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back onto Vesuvius beginning a pyroclastic flow that sent a mixture of 750 degree F (400 C) gas, ash, and rock racing down at 100 mph (160 km/h) speeds toward Herculaneum. At about 1 am it reached the town, where those escaping or waiting for rescue were killed instantly by the intense heat. This flow and several more slowly filled the city’s buildings from the bottom up.

Since Herculaneum was submerged by a boiling mud slide from Vesuvius, which then solidified, the ruins are in a much better state of preservation than those of Pompeii, many buildings with upper stories still intact.

Since it is less famous than Pompeii, it can also be an easier visit during the tourist season, as one does not have to fight their way past hordes of other tourists in order to get into the buildings. Take your own food to the site, there’s only one vending machine, and that’s for drinks.

This ancient Roman city will always be associated with opulent luxury and a style of living that awed even its own people. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, visited Herculaneum several times. These visits inspired these words: “We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, or their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colors like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming pools are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare and wonderful sight in any temple; and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots.”

For more information about ancient Roman civilization

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