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Herculaneum, Ancient City South of Naples

Pat Savu (dragonpat)

In Febrary 2006 we visted Herculaneum (Erculano) for one full day. It is better preserved and displayed than Pompeii.

In general I was very impressed with the state of preservation at Herculaneum. Although the site is smaller than Pompeii, it seemed that one could get closer to the artifacts than one could in many houses in Pompeii. Some of the best information that I got on Herculaneum came from the book "Herculaneum Italy's Buried Treasure" by John Jay Deiss, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angelos, 1986/2006.

Slow Photos - Herculaneum Album: This page refers to photos in this album.

Herculaneum Map and Panorama

Herculaneum Map and Panorama

We arrived at Erculano via the Circumvesuviana train from our hotel in Pompei. We got off the train and headed south towards the sea. The Lonely Planet guide to Naples and the Amalfi coast recommended a bakery, Italia Caffe & Pastericcera, at Corso Italia 17. Corso Italia intersected the street we were walking down so we turned left and went there before we went to the ruins. The Lonely Planet guide warned that there was no food inside Herculaneum, so we ate there and tanked up on savories, pastries, and water. I ate some heavenly flakey orange ricotta pastry from the refrigerated section while I was there. You can see in the picture in my photo album (Her0013), that the place even sported a chandelier. So Italian! My Italian mother and grandmother would have loved it!

On the map above (Herculaneum House Map), the houses and sites that we (my daughter and I) visited are numbered in the order that we visited them.

Herculaneum was buried in over 60 feet of pyroclastic flow that hardened into solid rock. Pompeii was buried in 18 feet of ash, pumice and pyroclastic blow, which was a lot softer. Because Herculaneum was so deeply buried, when you approach the ruins, they are in a deep hole. I took the first picture (Her0020) on the bridge before you begin the descent into the ruins. One thing that you really notice is how close you are to Vesuvius. You are a lot closer than when you are in Pompeii. The crater takes up about 1/4 of the horizon. In this picture the little gabled pavilion is part of the House of the Deer that used to face the ocean. You can see the Terrace of Nonius Balbus, the town Rockefeller and his Monumental altar on it. Some of the boathouses are under the Terrace. This is where hundreds of skeletons were discovered in the 1980s.

1 & 2: House of Mosaic Atrium and House of the Bronze Herm

House of Mosaic Atriun

The first house that we passed by was the House of the Mosaic Atrium (Her0023). It was being restored so we couldn't go inside. You could see that it looked like someone was actually working on the site. There was a beautiful black and white geometric patterned mosaic in the hallway leading to the atrium. A mosaic of patterned rectangles surrounds the atrium. The really interesting thing about the atrium that I hope you can see in the picture is how the mosaic floor in the atrium is buckled into waves. The floor was buckled by the weight of the pyroclastic flow that fell on it and filled up the room. I hope they don't "fix" the waves as part of the restoration.

Along Cardo IV is the House of the Bronze Herm (House 2 on the map). This is actually a very small house. You can see the bronze herm of the owner after whom the house is named (Her0026). The next picture at House of the Bronze Herm is the view out the tiny skylight in the atrium (Her0027).

3 & 4: House of Opus Craticum and House of the Alcove

Upstairs house of Opus Craticum

They were restoring the House of Opus Craticum (House 3) so we couldn't go inside. I read that an ancient architect, Vitruvius, wrote that this type of construction had numerous disadvantages: lack of permanence, dampness, and danger of fire. This type of construction is a wooden skeleton of square frames that is then filled in with stones and thinly plastered. Old Vitruvius would be shocked if could have known that one of these houses were to last almost two thousand years under ANY circumstances. Survival of structures in Herculaneum evidentially depended a lot on where they were and what direction they faced. This house got off lightly, evidentially. The House of the Relief of Telephus, which was the rich pro-consul Nonius Balbus's house, got blasted with the pyroclastic flow and surges.

Back to the House of Opus Craticum, you can see the door and some of the upper floor and balcony in Her0032. Evidentially much of the organic matter in this house was carbonized and left in place so that it is a treasure trove on the life of the poor plebs of 79AD. In Her0029 you can see the rope (only slightly scorched) that archeologists recovered from inside of this structure that one family used to lower containers into their well inside.

Across the street from the House of Opus Craticum is the House of the Alcove (House 4). I don't have a picture of the outside of the house (a lot of Roman houses were unimpressive form the outside at least). This house had some nice frescoed walls inside. An of course it has a nice frescoed alcove with a window in the center of it (Her0037). One of the frescoes had two peacocks facing each other across a triangular area (Her0033). Her0038 shows another red and white fresco.

5, 6 & 7: House of the Wooden Partition, Forum Bath, and House of Neptume and Amphritrete

House of the Wooden Partition

House 5 is the House of the Wooden Partition named after the sliding wooden doors that separate off the atrium from the next room. Her0043 shows the atrium and the impluvium. You can see the black wooden doors at the top of the photo. They are black because they are the original wood and they were carbonized by the pyroclastic surge that whipped through there before burying them in the flow. These doors actually still slide on their original bronze tracks. Her0044 is a close-up of the surface of the carbonized wood door. Her0042 is a picture of the skylight (compluvium) in the atrium lined with terra cotta flashing and the downspouts are in the form of dogs' heads.

The next house we visited was the Forum Baths (House 6). These were not as luxurious as the Suburban baths off the Terrace of Nonius Balbus, but the Forum baths were open while the Suburban ones were not. Her0058 is a picture of one of the changing rooms. Check out the sea monster themed mosaic on the floor. Her0055 shows one of bathing rooms. Her0059 shows the womens' baths with beautiful black and white mosaics everywhere.

Further down Cardo IV from the Baths is the House of Neptune and Amphitrete (House 7). You can see from the map that this was not a very big house. The owner must have been only a member of the middle class. There was a door leading from that house with the glittering courtyard into a wine and cereal shop that fronted it. Presumably, the owner of the shop was the owner of the house in back of it since there was a door connecting them. Even the pictures cannot convey how beautiful the mosaics in this room are. The fountain and the mosaic were in a summer dining room. Her0067 shows the frescoed wall with the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrete in/on it. Her0071 is a close-up up of the Neptune and Amphitrete Mosaic.

Ninety degrees from that luminous mosaic there is a totally mosaic covered fountain (nymphaem). There is an apsidal niche in the fountain that probably had a statue in it that probably some Neapolitan tunneler carried off with. Even the sides of the fountain are covered with mosaics. Her0072 shows one side of the fountain covered with dogs chasing deer and peacocks. Even the legs of the fountain are covered with flower mosaics. Her0075 shows theatrical masks decorating the top of the fountain. That such a glorious objects of art were found in just a middle class person's house says something about Roman living standards of the time

8 & 9: House of the Beautiful Courtyard and House of the Black Salon

Upstairs House of the Beautiful; Courtyard

House of the Beautiful Courtyard which is entered from Cardo IV (House 8) is my favorite house. I could imagine living there. From the outside the upstairs bedroom looks like a house that survived a bombing. Her0079 shows the beautiful mosaic hallway and courtyard. Her0088 shows a close-up of the mosaic in the atrium and one of the drainage holes.

This atrium did not have an impluvium (pool) to drain and store rainwater in. Rain fell on the mosaic courtyard, and drained into these holes to be carried away to wherever. You can see this more clearly in Her0080, which shows the atrium, stairs to the upper level and the balcony on the upper level facing the atrium.

House of the Black Salon (House 9) is next door across Cardo IV. The House of the Black Salon is entered on the Decumus Maximus that ran along one side it Herculaneum's Forum. Maybe someday they will free the Forum from the volcanic matrix. In Her0092 you can see the original door frame of the house in it's current carbonized state. The people who had this house decorated must have been kind of severe in their tastes or they must have been the progenitor to today's Goth culture. Her0095 shows the Black Salon with shiny black panels edged in red, but no figures painted in the middle of the panels. I like black, but this room is a little too dark for me. Maybe red panels edged in black would have been lighter. Maybe this black room was just to scare the clients and people they leant money to?

Her0099 and Her0102 show two frescoes from another room. They are much lighter being on a white ground. Note the Sphinx in the upper right corner of Her0102. This room must have been the one that they let the baby play in.

10 & 11: Hall of the Augustals and House of the Corinthian Atrium

Inscription on House of the Augustals

House 10 on the map is the Hall of the Augustals. This group of men was dedicated to the worship of Augustus and the later Emperors. This is where they help their meetings and had cult statues of the Emperors. The priests of Augustus were involved in all kinds of civic and political functions. Getting elected/appointed to this post was the equivalent of arriving in real society.

Her0113 shows one side of the large room. Her0110 shows a nice detail of a detail of a painting of Victory driving her chariot. Her0114 shows the remains of the stuccoed ceiling with beautiful stucco flowers on it.

We walked east along the Decumus and went down Cardo V to the House of the Corinthium Atrium (House 11). Her0117 shows the Corinthian Atrium. These columns look Ionic to me. Maybe all the stucco Corinthian leafy thingies fell off the tops and bottoms of the columns? Doesn't look that to me at the bottom of the columns. Her0116 shows a beautiful mosaic floor in one of the rooms. The square in the center looked like a piece of marble.

12: Palaestra and House of the Relief of Telephus

Snake heads Fountain Palaestra

Then we walked further south on Cardo V along the outside of the Palaestra (House 12). You can see the columns that lined the edge of it in Her0119. This huge building was used for sporting activities. On that last day in Herculaneum they had gotten the stones out for a stone-throwing competition. They were found by archeologists laid out in the Great Hall (Her0120).

Neapolitan tunnelers burrowed out enough of the volcanic matrix out of this room looking for salable art (without removing the stuff on top of the roof) that the roof in the great hall collapsed in the 19th century. The Palaestra is only partially freed form the volcanic medium.

There was a cross-shaped fountain/pool in this big room that you can peer into. The center of this pool was a five-headed snake that sprayed water into the air in the pool. Her0121 shows the snake from further away. You can see the volcanic medium as the wall in back of the snake. In Her0123 you can see that these are no ordinary snakes. See the crests on top of the snakes' head and the beard-like crest on the lower jaw. These were supernatural snakes called agathodemons. They were the servants of Bona Dea an important pre-Greek, Roman hearth and home goddess.

We walked down Cardo V to the House of the Relief of Telephus (House 13). This is the biggest house in Herculaneum found to date. It was probably the house of Nonius Balbus proconsul and local hotshot. It had a prime location on the edge of Herculaneum so that it overlooked the sea. Just as quirky physical forces due to location and placement preserved the House of Opus Craticum (a poor dwelling put up with spit and polish), the same factors caused the volcanic hot gas surges to blast this rich, well-built house. Evidentially a lot of the stuff that was inside (like furniture) was blasted all the way out one side of the house and even sweeping away part of the roof and walls before it was buried in the volcanic flows.

Her0132 shows the atrium with the marble relief that give the house its name. Her0128 is a close-up of the Relief of Telephus. The story it tells is from the Trojan War. The Oracle of Delphi tells Achilles that he needs Telephus's advice if Troy is to be taken. Unfortunately Achilles wounded Telephus in a little misunderstanding before they got to Troy. Telephus' wound had persistently refused to heal. The oracle tells Achilles that only he that wounded can cure. So Achilles goes and scrapes iron off his pike/javelin into Telephus's wound and he gets better (? iron therapy?).

14: House of the Deer

Front of the House of the Deer

Across the street from the House of the Relief of Telephus is the sumptuous House of the Deer (House 14). This is a big house that looked out onto the sea. You can see the pavilion that is 180 degrees from this door to the house in the first picture directly above the Terrace of Nonius Balbus. The person who lived in this House (Q. Granius Verus or one of his ancestors) liked deer.

Two statues of deer were found in the garden. You can see them in the picture above on either side of the door. One of the deer (Her0145) is shown in profile. Unfortunately being Roman, the patron that commissioned these statues couldn't have the sculptor portray some beautiful, placid deer that would have made a restful composition. These deer are being graphically torn apart by dogs. The fear in the eyes of the deer shown in profile in Her0145 is palpable. The other deer in Her0146 has twisted his neck to get away from the dogs. You can't see the deer's face as well so it is not as disturbing, and makes it more interesting to regard it as an object of art and appreciate the anatomical detail. These are both male deer, so how come they don't have antlers? The owner liked deer so much that that there are small deer painted on the walls inside (Her0154).

This house also has all kinds of yummy food painted on the walls. Her0152 shows a plate of dates and berries with a container (of dip?).

15: Terrace of Nonius Balbus

Inscription on Monument of Nonius Balbus

From here we went to the Terrace of Proconsul Nonius Balbus (House 15) which is right outside the Suburban Baths. Not surprisingly Nonius Balbus was the donor of the Suburban Baths to the community.

The monumental altar on the Terrace is a funeral monument to Nonius Balbus (Her0157). You can see the inscription in Her0160 that describes all the good stuff that Nonius Balbus did for the community before he died. I wonder if his ashes are buried in the cemetery here or maybe at Rome? The cemetery at Herculaneum has not been uncovered.

16 & 17: Sacred Area and House of thr Grand Portal

Athena/Minerva Sacred Area

After the terrace we walked up and over to the Sacred Area (House 16). You can see the walled edge of the Sacred area in the photo of the Terrace of Nonius Balbus to the left of the Terrace separated by a stairway. One of the Temples in the sacred area is the temple of the Four Gods: Athena/Minerva (Her0166), Mercury (Her0167), Neptune, and Volcano (?Vesuvius?). Athena has the best expression on her face of the four. The others are serene. Athena has this come-and-try-take-me look on her face.

Her0169 shows my daughter standing in the Sacred Area looking out to what used to the sea. The area below the Sacred Area is the ancient beach. One of the skeletons that they found on the beach in the 1980s, the bone expert postulated was a priestess/worshipper that was pushed by the pyroclastic surge (hot gas flowing at 60 miles/hr) off the edge of the Sacred Area onto the beach before she was buried in the volcanic flow (not lava, hot gas with pumice and ash). The skeleton found shows perimortem injuries consistent with falling from a height with great force.

At this point we looked at the map and decided to go back and check anything we had not already seen. We decided to go to the House of the Grand Portal (House 17). They're a number of interesting frescoes inside this house. Her0175 shows a partridge picking up a crabapple and there is a hint of another bird below it.

18 & 19: House of the Skeleton and House of the Argus

Fountain House of the Skeleton

We went next to the House of the Skeleton (House 18). This house was initially excavated in the 19th century. In one of the upstairs bedrooms a skeleton was found. That whole level of the house eventually collapsed when the excavations were abandoned. I wasn't expecting much, but I was surprised at the art in this house.

The mosaic Nyphaeum (fountain) was exquisite (Her0179). This fountain was imbedded in a wall there was a frescos and more mosaics over this mosaic niche. Her0180 is a close-up of one the mosaics at the top of the wall. It shows a nymph with a deer. Then there was this gorgeous mosaic lararium (Her0187 and Her0189). A lararium was an altar to the ancient Roman gods of the household. One supposed that it held a statue. Her0190 shows a close-up of what looks like the moons face as she hovers over the ocean waves. Her0193 shows the hallway into the house with my daughter standing at the door.

The last house we went to was the House of the Argus (House 19). This house takes it name from a painting that used to be in the house that showed the Argus (a hundred eyed monster) that Jupiter set to guard Io (transformed into a heifer) after he kidnapped her. There are some nice frescoes in the house. Her0198 shows one landscape painting. Kind of wispy 4th style stuff.

The last picture shows long shadows on Herculaneum as we leave on the bridge with Vesuvius in the background (Her0200).

Resources

Slow Photos - Herculaneum 2006: Pat's photos.

"Herculaneum Italy's Buried Treasure" by John Jay Deiss, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angelos, 1986/2006


I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I am half Sicilian. I studied Latin in high school and developed a love for the classics and ancient civilizations. I went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for my bachelor's degree and met my husband there. I did graduate work at the University of Illinois in Chemisty and got my Ph.D there. After I graduated, my husband and I went to work at 3M company in St Paul, MN, and we have both worked for 3M ever since (27 years). I work as a Research and Development Chemist. I have two daughters 16 and 20.

Lately, I have been feeling like life is passing me by. I have been spending more time with my family and I have been feeling like I would like to spend more time traveling and seeing all the places that I have only read about in books. I went to Italy/Rome with my daughter for spring break in 2005 for the first time and loved it. Since then I have been to Rome several more times and to the cities around the Bay of Naples.

© P.M. Savu, 2006

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