Legend tells us that after Hercules finished his 12th labour (dragging Cerberus, the dread dog of the Underworld, up to the surface), he founded the city of Herculaneum. Perhaps it may not have been Hercules personally but, in any case, the city was established by ancient Greeks sometime in the fourth century BCE.
When Vesuvius erupted in 79, Pompeii was scorched by red-hot ash and burning chunks of pumice stone, but Herculaneum was submerged by a river of volcanic mud.
It’s just plain eerie at Herculaneum
The feeling here is different from Pompeii. In the Scavi at Pompeii you’re surrounded by a lost beauty, a magical place that’s miraculously resurrected from the past. But it’s gone, mate, she’s history.
Herculaneum is real. It’s like looking at a town after a bushfire has gone through. I felt like an intruder, some sort of ambulance-chaser gawking at yesterday’s disaster.
The nature of the ash and debris, plus the extreme heat, left Herculaneum in a remarkable state of preservation. Plants, fabric, furniture and structural parts of wooden buildings were left.
It’s a much smaller town than Pompeii, and much easier to walk around.
You get the feel of the place as a little suburb with its public spaces, houses, shops, baths and theatre.
Here’s one of the small open spaces, a forum, near the ancient baths with a statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus, town benefactor and dignitary.
I loved the little food shops. The one in the photo below is, I reckon, the equivalent of a pub. It had marble covered counters with big jars of foods inserted, and staggered shelves behind to store the cups, bowls and cutlery for serving.
The houses are tiny to my eyes, did they even have a kitchen? What would you do in these rooms? Apart from gazing at the walls, there doesn’t seem enough space to sleep, although the room below offers entertainment space.
Perhaps people sat outside their doors instead of inside. I’ve seen plenty of women in Southern Italy sitting on steps chatting to neighbours. The streets are just the right size for a friendly atmosphere.
Herculaneum was built on a sheer cliff overlooking the sea at the foot of Vesuvius. The streets went up in terraces and every part of town would have been looking out over that stunning Bay of Naples. Some of the houses, bigger ones for the more affluent citizens, had a magnificent view worth an arm and a leg.
A view to die for.
Like more than 300 of the poor buggers did. They ran down to the shore to shelter in these boathouses.
The heat got them there – one huge pyroclastic blast that killed them instantly.
An almost intact boat was found here, along with those 300 plus skeletons.
Anyone who believes in ghosts would be right at home in Herculaneum. I don’t, but my skin was tingling and I kept looking quickly over my shoulder.
The dead are watching me, I thought, and at any moment they’ll come walking back to reclaim their town.
I hurried back up the path to modern Ercolano, and lunch.