History of Herculaneum


Herculaneum was found by Samnites in the 6th century, but soon thereafter became a Greek colony. Greeks named the city Ἡράκλειον after mythical hero Hercules or Herakles. Greek philosopher and historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (circa 60 BC- after 7 BC) writes that Heracles was the founder of both Herculaneum and mount Vesuvius. Whatever might be the case the first time we see the name Herculaneum mentioned in the ancient texts is that of the Ancient Greek philosopher Theoprhrastus (circa 371 BC- 287 BC) who calls this city Heracleon.



The city served as a trading post that was visited by ships from all over the Mediterranean. In the 4th century Herculaneum was retaken by the Samnites. Finally it was sacked and captured by the Romans who captured the city in 89 BC under leadership of Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla. Under Roman rule Herculaneum underwent large expansion. Many private residencies and public buildings were constructed around the time. One of the main benefactors was proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus who lived in the late first century BC. Originally born in Nuceria Alfaterna town of Campania he became a close friend and an ally of the first Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus. He donated large sums of money to construct beautiful buildings in Herculaneum. Here he spent last years of his life and eventually died here. Thankful residents honored their benefactor by erecting marble statues in his honor. Herculaneum continued to grow in size and population. By the time the city was destroyed it was home to 4,000- 5,000 inhabitants.


Roman rule and influence was not entirely positive however. We can see that in a types of residents that existed in Herculaneum,. Houses from the period of Samnites is very different from later residences constructed during reign of the Romans. They are fairly modest and equal in design and size. That is people before becoming part of the Roman Empire did not have resources and will to stand out with their wealth. Even rich people's houses were not much different from their neighbors. Once the Romans appear on the scene we see a different trend. Empire certainly makes some citizens rich and incredibly powerful, while predominant part of the society sinks to the bottom. Peasants couldn't compete with large farming businesses that employ work of slaves. Many families had to relocate to cities including Pompeii and Herculaneum and become servants or even slaves. Residents of the city are in a similar position. They sell their houses or simply loose them. A small minority of residents on the other hand enjoyed an opulent lifestyle. This is particularly notable in a design of houses they erected in the city. They grew in size and splendor. New area of this expansion was provided by demolishing houses of less fortunate neighbors who were forced to work for meager payment or even become slaves.


On a fateful summer day of August 24th, 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted covering Herculaneum in 20 metres (60 feet) of ash and volcanic mud. Initially eruption started to spew ash from its crater which was blown in the South- East direction toward Pompeii, Oplontis and Stabiae. Herculaneum that was situated to the West of the mountain was initially spared. Only few inches of ash covered Herculaneum in light grey blanket. However subsequent pyroclastic flow caught the city and residents off guard. A huge mixture of hot gases and ash descended from a mountain with a speed of 100 mph or 160 km per hour. Many managed to escape Herculaneum across the bay. In fact for a long it was thought that everyone escaped the eruption. Only later did archaeologists realized that many of the city's residents were simply cornered along a sea shore. By the end of the day Herculaneum disappeared.


Location of Herculaneum was largely forgotten over centuries of human history. Eventually two cities of Portici and Resina (today renamed Ercalono after a city) was constructed on top of the ancient ruins. Only in the 18th century it was rediscovered at a depth of 50- 60 feet below surface under supervision of Rocco Gioacchino Alcubierre (or Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre) and his personal assistant Carlo Weber. They dug extensive underground tunnels through remains of Roman homes and businesses often causing great damage to old buildings. They were also the first to compile a map of ancient structures, which they described in a publication of Le Antichita di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum).

Archaeological digs on a site of old Herculaneum continue to this day. The main problem that modern scientists face today is preservation of the site. Many of the previous foundlings were lost to collapse due to natural elements and erosion. Discovery of new insulas, residences and chops often take back seat to proper support and preservation of already discovered structures. One of the most disappointing parts of visiting Herculaneum is closure of some parts of the city for general public.