Although Phoenician and Greek sailors and colonists settled all along the shores of the Mediterranean, Herculaneum and Pompeii were probably founded by settlers coming down out of the mountains around 600 B.C. to farm the rich volcanic soils. At various points Carthaginians, descendants of Phoenician settlers, and others moved through the area, but the Romans established final control in 80 B.C.
They and their predecessors had never known Vesuvius to erupt. To them it was just another tall mountain about six thousand feet high. The Romans established Pompeii as a trading city, and it grew to a population of about twenty thousand individuals. On the other hand, they kept Herculaneum as a resort town for the rich with a population of never more than five thousand.
An earthquake in 62 A.D. damaged both towns, but most people just rebuilt. Then in 79 A.D., Vesuvius exploded. The entire top, some one-third of the mountain, was blown into the air. Winds coming from the north blew ash, pumice and gas for the next twenty hours burying Pompeii and destroying its buildings under the weight.
Herculaneum, just six miles to the east of the volcano but upwind, was spared this initial assault. Then the lava began to flow down the mountain. The hot lava mixed with water making a lahar of mud the consistency of concrete. It overwhelmed the city in approximately fifty minutes. The “mud” flowed into the buildings and filled them, preserving walls, contents and sometimes even roofs. Although five hundred degrees hot, there was no oxygen, and wood doors and beams often were spared.
The mud cooled into rock. There were 29 further eruptions over the centuries, the most recent in 1944. People stayed away, and the cities were forgotten until discovered again in the late 18th century. Pompeii’s ash filled streets were more easily dug out, and gradually many public buildings were revealed. But the technology of the time only permitted tunnels to be carved through Herculaneum’s stone. The size of the town was underestimated, and new buildings were built on top of the old.
Our guide announced workers at Herculaneum would be on strike until 10:30, so we would have some time to see Naples first. Later, he had a phone call and was told the strike would only last an hour – it truly felt like we were in Italy.
Modern excavation of Herculaneum did not begin until the early twentieth century. Indeed, warehouses by the harbor, now some 150 to 200 yards from the sea, were not uncovered until 1982. The “cooked” bones of some five hundred people, their flesh melted away, were found on the old shore where they had fled trying to escape the lahar.
It was a seaside resort. There was a hotel near the harbor. It had a swimming pool. Its best rooms had water views. Similarly, homes of the rich and shops to serve them were closer to the water.
We visited the women’s public bath. Rich Romans bathed daily. There is a well-preserved changing room, a tepid room, and a hot room with a large bath at one end. A fountain at the other end provided cool drinks. Steam and hot water flowed under the floor and through the walls to heat the room and pool. Had it been a men’s bath, there also would have been a cold room.
There are several wine shops and bars. On one wall, there is a price list for the different quality wines. I was interested to learn that sangria, the adding of fruit and honey, was developed to hide the flavor of wine spoiled by poor storage in the summer.
When we visited Pompeii a few years ago, we saw stepping stones so that one could cross the streets without walking in the free-flowing sewage. Herculaneum was a resort for the rich. There are no stepping stones; instead, there are underground sewers.
We went into the home of a really rich person which had public rooms to the front and a garden and private rooms to the rear. The home of a lesser person had the owner’s office off the front atrium, but only paintings or mosaics on the walls suggested more rooms above and to the rear. Many fine marble mosaic floors were preserved including one with a “swastika,” a Hindu symbol, on the floor. One house has mosaics on the walls made of colorful glass, easily the most beautiful in the city uncovered thus far.
An aqueduct brought water from the mountains. Most home stored rain water in cisterns, but some had water piped directly to their homes and showed off this wealth off with a fountain in their atrium. A fountain on “Main Street” was connected to a reservoir to control water pressure.
Marble had to be imported, so the arch on Main Street only had marble near the bottom and a plaster replica above. Main Street is also believed to divide the city in half. But the inland half of the city, with its theater and other public buildings, still lies buried under stone and the homes of modern residents.
One wonders what future generations will find. A new cone has grown inside the older larger crater. Together from a distance, Vesuvius resembles a curved letter M. Our guide says it is the only volcano sponsored by McDonalds. However, I wonder if the rest of Herculaneum will be uncovered before the “McDonalds volcano” covers it again.