Ancient History and

Exploring the Ancient Past

Herculaneum-An Overview

By Natasha Sheldon

Archaeology has revealed the character of Herculaneum through its streets, houses and public buildings. It has also solved the mystery of the fate of its people.

Herculaneum was a small, refined seaside town, not a busy commercial centre like Pompeii. Only a fraction of it has been excavated but it was a modern town of the AD 70’s with houses built in the latest style and refined civic and entertainment areas. The fate of its inhabitants has also been revealed.


Roman Herculaneum.


Herculaneum was a coastal town on the Bay of Naples, situated between the towns of Miseno and Pompeii.

Its neighbour Pompeii was a noisy, bustling commercial city. Herculaneum was quieter and more refined. As well as being famous for its excellent fishing and vineyards, Herculaneum was a holiday centre. Built on a steep slope jutting out from the hillside, its buildings reached right to the edge of the sea.


Many of these buildings were high status holiday homes. Herculaneum was a favourite retreat for the rich and intellectual elite. Appius Claudius Pulcher and l Calpurnius Piso were amongst the Roman aristocrats who chose the town as a summer retreat.


The Main Street of Herculaneum.


The town of Herculaneum was based on a grid pattern of streets. Unlike Pompeii, its roads were ungrooved as there was not the constant flow of heavy carts through its streets.


Despite not being a commercial centre, Herculaneum had plenty of shops. The main street was lined with premises selling fruit, vegetables and meat. Shops have also been discovered dealing with hardware and luxury goods. A metal workers shop with half mended decorative bronzes on the premises probably repaired luxury goods as well as selling everyday items. Nearby, a glass merchants shop was excavated   with bottles still packed in straw in a crate.


At one end of the main street was the town’s gym. At the other was its forum, the administrative centre of the city.


The Forum of Herculaneum.


Herculaneum’s forum was an open wide square housing the basilica, the town’s administrative centre.  One notable feature of forum was the marble plates that edged the walls of the square. They were inscribed with the names of all the male citizens. Whenever a citizen died, his name was removed, giving us an accurate record of the men of the city at the time of the eruption. It has been estimated that in 79AD, there were about 2000 male citizens.


Relaxation and Entertainment in Herculaneum.


Herculaneum’s most splendid entertainment feature was its theatre, situated near to the forum. This feature remains underground but has been explored and recorded. As in Pompeii, the theatre retained a portico, a large open area. Whereas Pompeii’s portico became the gladiator’s barracks, Herculaneum’s remained a type of public park, a place to walk and enjoy the views of the outlying countryside.


Herculaneum was believed to have an amphitheatre but this is remains buried under the modern town.


City Baths.


Two major sets of public bath houses have been fully excavated in Herculaneum: the Forum baths and the Suburban baths in the south west of the town.


The forum baths were the first public buildings excavated.. Although smaller than many of the bathhouses in Pompeii, they are clearly divided into male and female bathing areas.


The Suburban Baths date to the early 70’s AD. Their luxurious design included a large heated swimming pool in the tepidarium and elegant decoration. They may well have been intended for elite clients rather than the general public.


Houses of Herculaneum.


House in Herculaneum were well appointed with most middle class houses as well as high status villas built facing the sea. They were built using the latest building techniques fashionable in the AD 70s; the most popular building technique identified was opus reticulatum.


Unlike Pompeii, many of Herculaneum’s houses survive with their second stories intact. This is because the city was destroyed by Vesuvius’s eruption in a different way. Volcanic ash did not fall on the town, causing its roofs to collapse. Instead, the town was hit by a pyroclastic blast of such high temperatures that it carbonised items in the city. This is why so much wood and furniture survives in Herculaneum.


The People of Herculaneum.


Very few bodies have been found in the streets and buildings of Herculaneum. Until the 1980s, it was assumed that the majority of population had managed to escape by sea. In 1982, excavation of the dock area revealed the truth.

The city was linked to the port by a series of arched tunnels. Inside these tunnels were found the skeletons of large numbers of people. People from every sector of the population were found: pregnant women, mothers protecting their children, soldiers, even a fisherman, identified as such by the grooves in his teeth cut by pulling nets.


Large numbers of items were found. Lamps, house keys, wax tablets, jewellery, coins, even a set of doctor’s instruments were discovered. The people of Herculaneum were clearly attempting to escape by sea, taking their possessions with them. The remains of a capsized boat were found suggesting some were leaving the city. Their escape was prevented by the impact of the gas cloud which was so hot it killed them instantly.



Journey to Pompeii (2005) Gaetano Capasso. Capware cultural technologies

Herculaneum: the excavations, local history and surroundings. Maria Emma Antoinetta Pirozzi. Electra Naples.

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