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Herculaneum: Pompeii’s Less Famous Neighbor


In late August 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius blew its top off and for three days death rained down upon towns, villas and farms surrounding the volcano. One of the most famous casualties of the eruption was the Roman town of Pompeii, known for its wealthy inhabitants and lavishly decorated homes. The other was Herculaneum, an equally wealthy but smaller seaside resort and trading port. The larger Pompeii, glamourized with its brothels, bars, and amphitheatre, has completely overshadow Herculaneum and many other towns that suffered the same fate. Herculaneum, in particular, is worth visiting because its ruins are far better preserved than Pompeii’s.
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The ruins of Herculaneum. Notice the depth the city is buried. These are boat houses that once lined the ancient shore. Photo credit: Dave & Margie Hill/Flickr
Herculaneum was located much closer to the crater, than Pompeii was. Despite this, Herculaneum escaped the initial onslaught of raining tephra because it was situated in the opposite direction the wind was blowing. So while the wind was carrying the deadly cloud of gas and ash towards the neighboring town of Pompeii, where it slowly suffocated the hapless citizens, many of Herculaneum’s residents were gathering their belongings and preparing to flee.
The following night, Vesuvius unleashed its fury on the now mostly evacuated town of Herculaneum. A succession of six pyroclastic flows and surges buried the city's buildings, knocking down walls, tearing away columns and other large objects. Other areas were simply engulfed by ash and hot gases and saw little damage. These areas had the best preserved structures. When Herculaneum was partially excavated in the early 18th century, archeologists discovered intact buildings, wooden furniture and carbonized organic matter such as fruit, bread and even the contents of sewer. They also unearthed some 300 skeletons establishing that the town was not completely evacuated as previously thought. Unlike Pompeii, most of the town of Herculaneum is yet to be excavated.
Herculaneum is much easier to explore than Pompeii because it is smaller in size and there are far less tourists in Herculaneum than in Pompeii. The most noteworthy building in Herculaneum is a luxurious villa called the "Villa of the Papyri." The villa is thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law, although later research have thrown some doubt on the identity of the villa’s owner. The villa stretches down towards the sea in four terraces, and has a fine library, the only one to survive intact from antiquity.
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A map showing the cities and towns affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The general shape of the ash and cinder fall is shown by the dark area to the southeast of Mt Vesuvius. Image credit: MapMaster/Wikimedia
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Photo credit: Rita Willaert/Flickr
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Photo credit: Greg Willis/Flickr
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Photo credit: Greg Willis/Flickr
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Photo credit: Greg Willis/Flickr
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Photo credit: Andrea Hale/Flickr
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Photo credit: Rita Willaert/Flickr
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Photo credit: Simon/Flickr
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Photo credit: Mark Garth/Flickr
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Photo credit: Xtreambar/Wikimedia
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