(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
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
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
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
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
C. Waldstein & L. Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past, Present, and Future
(1908; A. Cippico,
1910); E. R. Backer, Buried Herculaneum
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
, (1958); A. W. van Buren, A Companion to
the Study of Pompeii and Herculaneum
(1938, 2d ed.)
with bibliography; D. Mustilli, “La Villa pseudourbana
A. DE FRANCISCIS