previous next

HERCULANEUM (Ercolano, formerly Resina) Italy.

The ancient city, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, lies a short distance from the sea, not far from Neapolis (Naples) and from Pompeii. The earliest ancient writer to mention the city is Theophrastos (6th c. B.C.).

The Roman historian Sisenna in the 1st c. B.C. described Herculaneum as an inhabited center located in an elevated position near the sea between two watercourses. Archaeological excavation substantially confirms the description, even though the site underwent several transformations during the eruption of A.D. 79.

Legend says that the city was founded by Herakles, and it is probable that the origins of Herculaneum go back to the remote past. According to Strabo the city was inhabited by Oscans, Tyrrhenians, and Pelasgians. We may presume that in the archaic and Classical ages the city, like nearby Pompeii, greatly increased in population owing to an influx both from the Greek colonies in the area, especially from Cumae, and from Etruscan Capua. Toward the end of the 5th c. B.C. when Campania was occupied by the Samnites, Herculaneum also became Samnite and afterwards was probably involved in the wars between the Samnites and the Romans. Later the city participated in the social war. It was conquered by T. Didius, legate of Sulla, and in 89 B.C. became a Roman municipium. Herculaneum suffered serious damage in the earthquake of A.D. 62; and soon thereafter, like Pompeii, Stabiae, and Oplontis, was a victim of the Vesuvian eruption of A.D. 79. It is still not known whether Christianity spread to Herculaneum: a mark on the wall plaster in the Casa del Bicentenaio has sometimes been interpreted as the outline of a Christian cross.

The eruption of Vesuvius inundated the city with a torrent of mud, which covered it completely and solidified into a compact layer with a consistency similar to that of tufa. The average ground level was raised by ca. 15 m. While the buildings were badly damaged, organic material, especially wood, was preserved so that the excavations at Herculaneum are unique in this respect.

Casual discoveries that served to fix the site of the ancient city were made at the beginning of the 18th c., after which more or less systematic excavation began. In the first phase of research ancient Herculaneum was explored by means of digging wells and underground tunnels and carrying to the surface paintings, mosaics, sculpture, and various other objects that were collected in a Herculanean Museum prepared in the royal palace in nearby Portici. At the same time, the excavators succeeded in delineating the plan of the city and of its principal buildings. The discoveries aroused intense interest for their exceptional historic, antiquarian, and artistic value.

In the following century the research was resumed, adopting more up-to-date and scientific criteria. With an open excavation and with the attentive recovery of all the buried elements, the excavations are continuing at present, employing methods always more modern and precise.

The approximate plan of Herculaneum is known from what has been brought to light, which is about a quarter of the urban area, and from the outlines traced by the excavators in the Bourbon age. The city, which must have been enclosed by walls for at least a part of its circumference, developed over an area of ca. 370 by 320 m and was regular in plan. Streets meet at right angles (decumani in an E-W direction and cardines leading N-S) forming insulae that contain one or more buildings. Usually the houses are entered from the cardines. In the last period of the city's life it developed further. On the S section of the enclosing wall, which by then was no longer functional or necessary after the peace established by Augustus, were built luxurious and panoramic houses. Outside the walls a sacred area was constructed, as well as a large bath. In addition, the countryside around the city must have become populated by suburban and rural villas. In one of these, the famous Villa of the Pisoni, was found a library and a collection of sculpture.

The center of the city's life is constituted by the decumanus maximus, a wide street closed to vehicular traffic, from which there is access to many public buildings. Thus it appears that the decumanus had the function that in other cities is usually served by a forum. On the N side of the decumanus rose a large public building, probably the basilica, which is known only through the accounts and drawings made at the time of the Bourbon excavations. Several remains of its pictorial decoration are in the National Museum in Naples.

Recent excavations have revealed that in front of this building extended a portico faced with marble and with stucco. At the extremities of the portico arose two foursided arches with decorations in stucco and honorific bronze statues, of which there remain the bases, and traces of the statues themselves. In the part excavated to the N of the decumanus there extends another portico with shops and with at least two upper stories. To the E of the street is a palaestra, with rooms on several levels and with a large peristyle, at the center of which is a large pool. The pool was fed by a bronze fountain that represents the Lernaian Hydra twisted around the trunk of a tree, evidently an allusion to Herakles, and thus to the name of the city. To the S of the decumanus is a chapel dedicated to Herakles, which perhaps also fulfilled the functions of the seat of civic administration; and another monumental building of unknown use, only partly excavated.

The theater is in the NW sector of the inhabited area. Beside it were other public buildings. Along the decumanus inferior are the baths, of the usual type, with separate sections for men and women. Outside the S wall of the city is a sacred area and another large bath that is notable for the development of its plan and for its decorations in stucco and marble. Here the division into two sections does not exist; the building seems to date to the last years of the city.

The private dwellings of Herculaneum vary widely in plan. There is a rare example of a house containing small rental apartments, each independent and with a small central courtyard. The Casa del bel cortile has a central courtyard from which a flight of steps leads to the upper stories.

There are notable examples of houses built around an atrium, Italic in type, several of which go back to relatively ancient times. They include the Casa sannitica with beautiful decoration in the first style, the Casa del tramezzo di legno and the Casa di Neptuno and the Casa di Anfitrite. Other houses recall the Italic scheme but are amplified in plan. The villas built along the S edge of the city are distinctive in plan. In these houses the traditional plan is modified. An axial arrangement is abandoned, and while the typical rooms such as the atrium are oriented by the fact of their facing the cardines; the peristyles, the gardens, the salons and the other annexes are oriented toward the S, in such a way as to exploit the panoramic position of the site with its view toward the sea. To the houses are annexed the shops, which reveal the various aspects of everyday life of Herculaneum and of its socio-economic environment. Worthy of mention is a shop on the cardo IV, where is preserved the wooden counter with the amphorae of the wine merchant in position on it, and the large containers of cereal grains. Also preserved are some shops on the decumanus maximus, one of which has a painted sign, and another of which must have belonged to a metal worker. In another shop on the decumanus maximus has been found a group of glass objects still enclosed in their wrappings. Very often the front of the insulae was preceded by a portico, and the houses reveal in many cases the presence of one or even two upper stories. It is not easy to calculate the population of Herculaneum, but possibly it had ca. 5000 inhabitants.

A short distance from the city is the grandiose and celebrated Villa dei Papiri (or dei Pisoni). Constructed in the middle of the 1st c. B.C., it was undergoing renovation at the time of the catastrophe in A.D. 79. The villa belonged, according to many scholars, to L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar and a politician and patron of the arts. In the villa was found a remarkable library, largely of Epicurean philosophy that appears to be the work of the philosopher Philodemos; and a notable collection of sculpture that constitutes the only surviving example of a private collection in antiquity. It contains works in marble and in bronze in the Hellenistic and neoclassical manner, and a series of portraits of philosophers, Hellenistic princes, and orators.

In public buildings and houses numerous sculpted works have also been found, for the most part portraits of emperors and of citizens of Herculaneum, and even an Egyptian statue. Painting in Herculaneum is in the Pompeian style but often more finely executed and more tastefully composed. Excellent taste is also shown in domestic furnishings such as vessels of bronze or terracotta, votive statuettes, lamps, etc.

The works of art and the furnishings found at Herculaneum were collected in the Herculanean Museum at Portici and then transported to Naples at the end of the 18th c. when the great National Museum was created. A few pieces found their way abroad during the Bourbon period. A large proportion of the wall paintings and some examples of domestic furnishings are preserved in situ.


C. Waldstein & L. Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past, Present, and Future (1908; A. Cippico, 1910); E. R. Backer, Buried Herculaneum (1908); RE 8 (Gall) 532-42; A. Maiuri, Ercolano (1932); id., “Nuovi studi e richerche intorno al seppellimento di Ercolano,” RendAccIt 7, 2 (1940); id., I nuovi Scavi di Ercolano, (1958); A. W. van Buren, A Companion to the Study of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1938, 2d ed.) with bibliography; D. Mustilli, “La Villa pseudourbana ercolanese,” RendNap (1957)


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: