Herculaneum, as the myth goes, was founded by Hercules. The town does have Greek origins, the city having come into existence sometime in the 6th century B.C. The Romans had conquered Herculaneum by 89 B.C. and soon the city became a high-class resort with many wealthy Roman residences. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, however, plunged the city into a huge river of boiling mud and debris twenty meters deep. The population probably had time to reach the sea, but they perished in the first of a series of pyroclastic surges of ash and hot gases, as evidenced by the human remains found lying next to boats.
In 1709 an Austrian General, Prince d’Elboeuf, hearing of treasures being unearthed near his estate at Portici, bought the land and engaged workers to begin to dig. They discovered part of Herculaneum’s theater and in 1738 the Villa of the Papyri – an area still not open to the public – was found with a library consisting of about 2,000 papyrus scrolls. Today, the scrolls are housed in the Naples National Library and the artifacts found in the villa are located downtown at the National Archeological Museum.
After you leave the ticket office, a long bridge curves above the entire ancient city, giving a bird’s eye view of its streets and buildings. Some say that visitors who have scant time should choose Herculaneum over Pompeii because the city is better preserved, and most impressively, the structures include original wood materials that normally would have decayed if the city hadn’t been covered by volcanic ash.
Make sure to pick up a map and a small brochure at the ticket office, then follow this path.
What To See:
The Welder’s Shop with a smelting crucible and terracotta vats used to cool forged pieces of metal. Next to this house is a preserved lead pipe – evidence that the city once had a highly developed plumbing system.
The House of Nero’s Living Room.This villa shows the opulence and grandeur of villas through its large atrium and faded frescoes.
The House of the Neptune and Amphitrite. At the back of this house, a wall mosaic sparkles with blues, reds, and coral pink.
The Trellis House preserves the original wood and reed laths. This used to be a lower class multi-family dwelling.
The House of the Stags where excavators found round marble tables and sculptures of stags and dogs. This villa once had a view to the sea.
The Ancient Beach is where archeologists found the skeletons of more than three hundred people who tried to escape in boats. You can see the arches of former boathouses and, looking at the cliff above, appreciate the level to which the city was covered by volcanic debris. A nine-meter long ship was also discovered here.
The Suburban Baths, built around 40 A.D, indicate an up-market clientele for this bath complex. When the hot mud poured in, a labrum, or tub, was torn from its stand and the impression of it remains in the solidified lava.
Along the way back to the ticket office, an exhibition space houses a re-creation of a Roman ship.
Getting There: Herculaneum sits below the present day town of Ercolano. It’s fairly simple to get there using a GPS and taking the autostrada is a welcome break from the bumper to hood traffic of downtown Naples. A large paid parking lot is right outside the gates of Herculaneum. The address is Traversa Via Alveo, Ercolano. Alternatively take the Circumvesuviana train line to Ercolano Scavi station and the ruins are a ten minute walk away.
For a full day-trip, after your visit to Herculaneum walk to the Portici villas and the royal palace, then shop at the Resina Via Pugliano market in the modern-day city of Ercolano.