25 Jan,2018 By Jagabond
Herculaneum and Pompeii shared the same fate, though not in the same manner. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD is one of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in European history. Ash from the eruption covered Pompeii, causing mass asphyxiation. Herculaneum was closer to the Vesuvius crater. Volcanic gases and material of extremely high temperature rained down on Herculaneum causing death by thermal shock. Choking or burning to death, which would you pick? You can never forget the fury Vesuvius brought that day, as even now it looms in the background over the nearly 2,000 year old ruins.
When writing previously about Pompeii, I focused on the human element. Although both destroyed towns will forever exist as tourist attractions, it’s important to remember that real lives were lost here. What you see at the Herculaneum ruins is a chilling reminder of that. As Vesuvius unleashed its deadly innards, residents panicked and escaped to the shoreline. They hid inside a row of buildings thought now to be boat houses. These became their tombs. Scientists researched the skeletal remains and gained insight to the people of Herculaneum. Gender differences in height were less extreme than they are now, and the teeth revealed a very healthy diet.
In an age of corrupt politicians with approval ratings in the gutter, it’s hard to remember a time when this profession wasn’t vilified. Introducing Marcus Nonius Balbus, a senator in Herculaneum who championed the restoration of several buildings in town, earning him a statue. The inscription touts his “parental disposition of extraordinary generosity to individuals and the community.” Do any of our current politicians deserve statues?
Herculaneum was for rich people, which is clear when looking at the spacious, adorned homes. Most had at least one large atrium, often with a bath in the middle. The one below was presumably a house that the previously mentioned Balbus owned.
Also in this house was a depiction of a legend involving Achilles and Telephus, the son of Hercules. Hercules was the legendary ‘founder’ of the city, so there were more than a few references to him in the ruins. As the story goes, Achilles accidentally wounded Telephus during a battle, spearing his chest. When the wound wouldn’t heal, he consulted an Oracle for advice (shown on the left). The Oracle tells Achilles ‘he that wounded shall heal.’ Taking this to mean that something can wound and cure at the same time, Achilles is shown on the right scraping rust from his spear onto the wound, healing it.
Across the street was the ‘house of the deer,’ named for a statue found inside showing a deer being attacked by four dogs. There was also a quirky statue of a drunk Hercules.
There appears to have been a foodie culture here. In Herculaneum it was common to have lunch away from home. Shown below is a counter with multiple pots for serving of both hot and cold food. Graffiti scrawled on the wall inside the restaurant translated to ‘let one misfortune be taken away by another misfortune.’ Seems a bit pessimistic.
One of the characteristics of Herculaneum that differentiates it from Pompeii is the preservation of organic materials. This pot was found in what was likely a tavern, and upon discovery had walnuts in it.
A Pistrinum was a bakery, and there weren’t many in town since most residents had manual millstones in their homes. The two stones shown here acted as a milling machine when put on top of each other, with a mule pulling on a wooden beam to turn them and convert grain into flour.
There were also ‘take-out’ restaurants like the one pictured below, that had no obvious seating area. Look at how close the yellow house is to the ruins. I could actually hear a guy talking loudly on the phone from the upstairs window. The area surrounding the archaeological site definitely isn’t pretty, even by Naples standards. Given a choice, I’d probably prefer renting a place in the ruins.
The religion here was interesting. The Temple of the Four Gods was one of two temples in Herculaneum. The deities honored were those connected to production, trade and craftsmanship, which is how the town made its money. Shown on these marble plates are Minerva, goddess of wisdom, Mercury, messenger of the gods, Vulcan, blacksmith of the gods, and Neptune, god of the sea.
There was also a weird cult that worshiped the emperor Augustus, and called themselves Augustales. The members were all freed slaves who attended a college that happened to be located in Herculaneum. This school is now home to a fairly large pigeon nest, but does have a nice fresco detailing Hercules and his first trip to Mount Olympus.
Finally, I saw the famous cat of Herculaneum. During 19th century excavations of the site, this cat emerged from one of the homes. Years passed by and she never aged. Scientists discovered that her meows and purrs could predict seismic activity in the region. Locals tell a story of how this cat was solely responsible for the downfall of Mussolini. Yes, everything I just said was a lie.
How to get there: Herculaneum is located significantly closer to downtown Naples than is Pompeii. The Ercolano Scavi train stop on the Circumvesuviana line lets you off ten minutes from the archaeological site. If driving, there is an underground parking garage next to the entrance.