Herculaneum (Ercolano)

It was about lunchtime (1pm) in Herculaneum on the 24th August 79AD that Mount Vesuvius's 19 hours of eruptions started. Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town situated at the base of Mount Vesuvius near Naples (Italy), was completed buried (and preserved) by pyroclastic mud flows. In its time a resort town for the upper class, Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1709 when a peasant was digging a well. Herculaneum is generally better preserved than the more famous and much better documented Pompeii, and its preservations offers probably the best opportunity of getting a feel for how an ancient society would have operated.

Terrace of Marco Nonio Balbo

Marco Nonio Balbo was a patron of Herculaneum and a senator of Cyrene and Crete, who was cremated and had his ashes stored in a clay container in the marble facade beneath his statue (hence the name, Terrace of Marco Nonio Balbo). To the right of the terrace are the bath houses.

terrace of Marco Nonio Balbo at Herculaneum

Herculaneum from above

Herculaneum is just as fascinating from above as from below. One of its charms is the continuity of the city, with new houses being built next to (and above) the ancient ruins.

Ercolano from above ruins of Herculaneum from above

La Palestra

La Palestra (outdoor gymnasium).

Palestra (Gymnasium) with baths to the right La Palestra

Getting to the Herculaneum excavation site

"Herculaneum" translates to "Ercolano" in Italian. Within the town of Herculaneum you'll want to find the excavation site of the ancient town - this is signposted as "scavi".

Catch the Circumvesuviana train from Naples (central train station in Piazza Garibaldi) to the Ercolano Scavi train station, and walk down Via Vittorio Veneto in a south-westerly direction.

As you pass the fountain commemorating the victims of the 79AD eruption, you continue walk ing down Via 4 Novembre.

Ercolano Scavi (Herculaneum) train station fountain in Herculaneum commemorating Vesuvius eruption

Pass the Hotel Ristorante Ercolano.

Walk through the entrance to Herculaneum (photo taken looking up Via 4 Novembre)

Hotel Ristorante Ercolano in Herculaneum (Naples, Italy) exit from Herculaneum ruins

Once you've paid for your tickets, walk through the turnstiles and enjoy!

Cross the bridge over a swampy river, and you're in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum.

entrance to Herculaneum bridge to Herculaneum

Why settle next to a Volcano?

Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii - it had about 4000 inhabitants. In Roman times people weren't aware of the danger and didn't even know the mountain was a Volcano - they liked settling near the volcano as the soil produced is rich in nutrients, minerals and retains water like a sponge; and this translates into fantastic crops. These days people settle there willing to take on the risk, hoping that the eruption wont take place during their lifetimes.

The eruption & pyroclastic flow

As Vesuvius erupted it threw a column of gas and ash high into the sky (10 miles high within minutes), which would have looked gigantic from one's perspective in Herculaneum or Pompeii. The wind carried the cloud of ash east towards Pompeii, so that those in Herculaneum could see the cloud but it didn't go dark there (like in Pompeii). Hurling ash on Pompeii for 12 hours, the eruption had the destructive force of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs. In the evening at around midnight the volcano's eruption column collapsed, and at the speed of a hurricane; molten rock, mud, ash and superheated gas hurtled towards Hurculaneum (called a hyperheated pyroclastic flow).

In some places the successive pyroclastic flows ultimately (after 12 to 24 hours) covered Herculaneum as deep as a 4 storey building.


In 79AD Herculaneum part of a Roman Empire stretching from Jerusalem to Britain.

Death in Herculaneum

For a long time it had been believed that everybody in Herculaneum had escaped the eruption, as only a few dozen skeletons were found. It wasn't until they went right down to the level of the ancient see that some 200 skeletons were discovered (the shoreline changed as a result of the debris from the eruption), and it has been discovered that the end was even more horric than in Pompeii.


The baths are probably the most beautiful surviving baths from the Roman world - not as big as the baths in Rome, but much better preserved.

Differences with Pompeii

Herculaneum is better preserved with upper storeys and organic material (wood, cloth, bread, wicker baskets) surviving. The wood could survive as the hyperheated pyroclastic flow first carbonated and drove moisture out before covering it.

Empty spaces in the ashes at Pompeii, were filled with plaster of paris, which when dug out formed the shape of humans.

Remaining excavations

Not all of the ancient city of Herculaneum has been excavated, as above it lies modern Herculaneum (making it very dangerous to excavate).


The excavations are closed on the 1st May, Christmas day and New Year's day.

Blog postings

29 May 2009
House of the Grand Portal

J visits The "House of the Grand Portal" in Herculaneum. This is also known as "Casa del Gran Portale" in Italian or "House of the Great Portal". The house gets its name from the brick columns topped with Corinthian columns depicting winged Victories.

Casa del Gran Portale

DVDs about Herculaneum

Secrets of the Dead
Herculaneum Uncovered

Starring Liev Schreiber and Joann Fletcher, Secrets of the Dead sets out what life was like in Herculaneum before the 79AD eruption, and tells the story of the pyroclastic flows which caused horrific damage to those it encountered in Herculaneum.

Books about Herculaneum

The Night Villa
by Carol Goodman

A University of Texas Classic Professor and her student are drawn to Herculaneum by the story of a slave girl, Iusta, told on 18 wax tablets found in a Villa in Herculaneum.

Other sites of interest near Naples

Castel dell Ovo just outside Naples.


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