Herculaneum was a prosperous Roman settlement that flourished in the stretch of land situated between Mt. Vesuvius and the Gulf of Naples. The town housed an estimated population of 5,000-10,000, only around half of what it’s nearby rival of Pompeii could supposedly tout, but Herculaneum had more than its fair share of luxuries and public structures. The town offered something for everyone. For athletes and players of sports, a palaestra was available for training and competition. There were also extravagant pools for both swimming and bathing, as well as a theatre for viewing performances. If scrolls and writings were your thing, at least one of the town’s villas, known now as the Villa of the Papyri, had a veritable library. And, of course, there was a marketplace for buying commodities, as well as brothels for purchasing pleasure. To top it off, the town and its establishments were decorated with numerous sculptures of marble and bronze, as well as painted works of art.
On August 24, 79 CE, a man named Pliny the Elder, as well as his nephew, Pliny the Younger, lived to the west of Herculaneum in a town called Misenum, located where the larger Gulf of Naples feeds into the smaller Gulf of Pozzuoli. In the early afternoon, both uncle and nephew were shocked by the sight of a huge column of sooty smoke that was climbing into the sky in the distance, near Mt. Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder, as commander of the local fleet, boarded a ship to go investigate and provide any help that was needed—it would be a one-way trip; he died of respiratory problems near the town of Stabiae, just south of Pompeii. Pliny the Younger, however, stayed behind in Misenum to read from the works of Livy, and only fled after some encouragement from his mother and a glance at the darkening, ash-filled sky. In the end, Pliny the Younger wrote at least two letters to the historian, Tacitus, in which he told of his experiences during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
The gigantic column of ash, as well as the pyroclastic flow, that spewed from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE completely buried the large towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. It also destroyed other nearby settlements, such as Torre Annuziata and Stabiae.
Herculaneum was only rediscovered around 1709, when workers who were digging a well fortuitously struck their shovels against an ancient Roman wall belonging to the city’s amphitheater. As archaeologists began to unearth the center of the millennia-old town, they thankfully found a very small amount of human remains, leading them to believe that the city had been successfully evacuated. Nevertheless, during the 1980s, excavations of the Herculaneum docks revealed at least 300 skeletons in or around the empty boathouses near the beach. As far as archaeologists have discovered, all the viable ships of Herculaneum had already departed, leaving these victims stranded on the beach with only a broken and unusable vessel at their disposal.
The ruins of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Torre Annuziata were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997. The excavation of Herculaneum, just like Pompeii, is still ongoing.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, by John Martin (1789–1854), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).