See Herculaneum after Pompeii

By: Stephen Addison
This item appears on page 13 of the May 2018 issue.

Street and houses with contemporary town above — Herculaneum. Photos by Stephen Addison
If you’ve already visited Italy’s Pompeii, you should definitely visit nearby Herculaneum if you have the opportunity. Herculaneum is located about halfway between Pompeii and Naples. From Naples, it’s roughly a half-hour to Herculaneum by public transit versus about an hour to Pompeii.

Herculaneum was an upper-class seafront Roman town that, like Pompeii, was destroyed by the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in the year AD 79. Unlike at Pompeii (which was buried in ash), a pyroclastic flow (hot ash and mud) entombed Herculaneum and preserved it from total destruction. Due to this difference, in Herculaneum you’ll find skeletons instead of casts of the volcano’s victims. 

Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, more than a century after Pompeii. Only about a fifth of the city has been excavated. It’s buried below the contemporary town of Ercolano. Archaeologists have explored some of the buried city by using tunnels, which are not open to the public. As you gaze upon the excavated portion of Herculaneum, it’s frustrating to think about what wonders might be concealed below ordinary Ercolano.

Herculaneum’s official website (in Italian only) is ercolano.beniculturali.it. There’s a comprehensive Herculaneum guide and map located on Pompeii’s official website at www.pompeiisites.org/Sezione.jsp?titolo=MAPPE%20E%20GUIDE&idSezione=6844. Oddly, it does not appear to be available on Herculaneum’s website. 

Admission to Herculaneum costs €11 (near $13.50). The site is closed New Year’s Day, May 1 and Christmas. The ticket office, a small museum, a gift shop and WCs share a modern building at the entrance. As you walk to the ruins, you’ll have great views of the site, the modern town and Mt. Vesuvius.

Glass paste mosaic flanked by frescoes in Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite — Herculaneum.

Along the way is a new structure that contains a recently discovered Roman boat. Just before you enter the ruins, there is a small commercial area with cafés, shops and WCs. No services are offered inside the Herculaneum excavation area.   

Herculaneum has several grand houses, public buildings, restaurants, shops, etc. Its buildings are often two or three floors high, while Pompeii’s structures tend to be shorter. Herculaneum is more compact than Pompeii’s sprawling layout. Almost all walking in the excavations is on somewhat uneven stones, but this shouldn’t be too challenging for most people.

Many mosaics and several frescoes are still in place, but others have been relocated to museums, most notably the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. One house — Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite (House of Neptune and Amphitrite) — still has an amazing glass paste mosaic on one of its walls, along with frescoes. 

Pompeii is clearly the superior site, but both should be visited if time permits. Herculaneum is underrated. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My wife, Paula Owens, and I visited Pompeii in February 2008 and Herculaneum in January 2018. These months can be a good time to visit due to the paucity of tourists and Campania’s mild winters.

STEPHEN ADDISON
Charlotte, NC


Mount Vesuvius over ancient and modern towns.

Room in the College of the Augustales — Herculaneum.