Buried Alive – The Ruins of Herculaneum
Skeletal remains at Herculaneum

Skeletal remains at Herculaneum

“The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to he driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth … On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger. We were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us… (When) the real day returned … every object that presented itself to our eyes seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow.”

Pliny the Younger on his first-hand observation of the eruption of Vesuvius from Misenum

Getting to Herculaneum

Herculaneum is an easy half-day trip out of Naples.  To get there by train, take the escalator to the Circumvesuviana kiosk inside Naples’ Garibaldi Station (Stazione Centrale) and buy a ticket to Ercolano Scavi.  The trip takes approximately 25 minutes.

Here’s a link to Circumvesuviana’s website.  The “Hours” menu will give you timetable and fare information.


On exiting the station, cross the small square and exit to the right.  Walk down Via IV Novembre and through the large arch to the ticket office.  One-day tickets are € 11.  (A five-site pass costs € 20, and includes Pompeii; if you’re visiting that site as well, the pass is the more economical way to go.)  Be sure to pick up a map at the entrance, as well as a booklet describing the site.  Audio guides are available for € 6.50 (€10 for two): ID is required.  Open Apr-Oct 8:30 to 7:30; Nov-Mar 8:30 to 5.

Herculaneum – The Death and Resurrection of a Town

Herculaneum was buried in the same volcanic event that covered nearby Pompeii in 79 AD.  The ash and stone of the initial explosion was carried to Pompeii by a prevailing southeast wind.  Roofs there collapsed, but in Herculaneum, which lay to the west of Vesuvius, only a few centimeters of ash fell.  The following pyroclastic surge, formed by a mixture of ash and hot gases, engulfed the town that night.  That, and the five subsequent flows, buried the town from the bottom up – and preserved it almost intact.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

While clandestine antiquity hunters had been tunneling into the site for years, the earliest major excavations began in 1738.  Work ceased with the discovery of Pompeii just ten years later (1748).  Excavations at Herculaneum resumed in the 20th century and are still on-going.  Only a small section of the Roman town has been excavated along three north-south streets and two running east-west.  The buildings of the site are grouped in blocks (Insulae II through VII) and are numbered counter-clockwise; there are also two insulae on the eastern edge of the site (Insulae Orientalis I and II) and a “Suburban Quarter” on the south side, overlooking the former harbour.  Each building has its own number, which also indicates on which insula it is located.  (For instance, the House of the Deer is labeled “IV, 25”.)

This is a link to a virtual tour of the site.  Information here gives you panoramic views of the site and a look at the floor plans of some of the buildings:


Highlights of Herculaneum

Restoration is on-going at Herculaneum, which means some of the buildings may not be accessible when you visit.

Pear orchard in the garden of the House of the Inn

Pear orchard in the garden of the House of the Inn

The House of the Inn (III, 4)  This large building, with a terrace overlooking the sea, occupies the southern end of Insula III.  The carbonized remains of a pear tree were found in the garden of the peristyle during restoration; several pear trees have since been planted there as a reminder of what once was.   Although the house is in poor repair, one sign of its former glory is to be found in the nymphaeum and bath suite, which are accessed by a flight of stairs off the atrium.  These are  the only private baths found in Herculaneum.


House of the Wooden Partition (III, 8)  This is the best preserved of any house in Herculaneum or Pompeii.  The original house probably extended the length of the block along the Decumanus Inferior.  Following the 62 AD earthquake, rooms along the street fronts were turned into shops and living quarters for the artisans, and another story was added.  The atrium and tablinum of the remaining residence were separated by the three wooden doors, which give the house its name.  A small room on the right of the atrium has a lovely mosaic floor and a single-legged table of rare marble, while one of two small rooms on the left holds the remains of an ancient bed.

House of the Mosaic Atrium (IV, 24)  This house is notable for the black and white mosaic “checkerboard” floor in the atrium.  The original tablinum was converted into an oecus Aegyptius (Egyptian-style dining hall).  This room, divided into three naves by columns, is the only one of its kind unearthed thus far in Herculaneum.  An opening in the atrium leads to the peristyle and its surrounding rooms, all richly decorated with frescoes.  The triclinium, which opens off the south of the peristyle, leads to a loggia with views of the bay.

House of the Deer

House of the Deer

House of the Deer (IV, 25)  This luxurious, two-story, waterfront villa, is named for the garden statues of deer being hunted by hounds.  A modest atrium serves as a gateway to the rest of the house, most notably the triclinium in the southwest corner.  This black-paneled room has a direct view through the peristyle and tablinum to a terrace pergola and the bay beyond. The atrium and triclinium both open onto a cryptoporticus (covered passage) decorated with more than 60 scenic panels (some now removed).

House of the Relief of Telephus (O-I, 28)  Possibly the house of Marcus Nonius Balbus, and one of the largest houses excavated thus far.  The atrium has red-painted stuccoed columns on two sides; oscilla (marble discs) are hung between them.  The south side of the atrium holds a relief of the myth of Telephus, a Mysian king healed by Achilles.  The rest of the house is on a lower level, and is reached by a corridor to the left of the tablinum; it is comprised of a peristyle, a terrace, and several smaller rooms.  To the south of the terrace is a large room with marble floors and wall panels.  This is the third floor of an extension, which runs along the eastern side of the Suburban Baths.  The house also has a private staircase leading to the Baths.

Palaestra (O-II)  The Palaestra (Public Gymnasium) extends the length of Insula Orientale II, and has only been partially excavated.   The open area of the palaestra is surrounded by a portico on three sides and a cryptoporticus on the north.  In the middle of this open area was a cruciform pool, which still remains buried, although its center – and the statue of a five-headed snake encircling a tree – can be reached via a rough-hewn tunnel .

The Nymphaeum

The Nymphaeum

House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite (V, 17)  Named for a stunning mosaic of Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite, in the nymphaeum.  The other nymphaeum walls are covered with floral designs, which surround two panels of deer being chased by hounds.  The painted marble panels near the lararium (signed “Alexander”) and mosaics of the open dining room hint at the house’s former magnificence, as do the bronzes of Hercules and Jupiter in the atrium.

Mosaic floor - Thermae Fe

Mosaic floor – Thermae Femminili

Central Thermae (VI, 10)  These public baths date to the 1st century AD, with separate facilities for men and women. The Terme Maschili (Male Baths) has entrances leading to the central palaestrum (gymnasium) on both Cardo III and IV.  To the north side of the palaestrum are the baths, which are entered via the apodyterium (changing room).  To the right are the tepidarium, which features a fine mosaic of a Triton surrounded by dolphins and the caldarium, which holds a large rectangular tank for bathing.  The circular tank of the frigidarium is to the left of the apodyterium.  The entrance to the Terme Femminili (Female Bath) is on Cardo IV.  Though much small than the Male Baths, these baths – especially the mosaic floors – are much better preserved.


College of the Augustales (VI, 12)  This building was dedicated to the cult of Augustus, but, judging from the frescoes, it may have originally been dedicated to Hercules.  The main entrance is from the Decumanus Maximus by means of a long corridor; the entrance from Cardo III opens directly into a single room, lit by means of a skylight.  The room against the back wall probably housed a shrine to the “divine” Augustus.

Suburban Quarter

The Suburban Quarter is actually the first and last thing you’ll see at Herculaneum, since the best views – and access – are from the walkway that leads from the ticket counter to the entrance to the ruins.

Terrace of Nonius Balbus - The Suburban Baths are on the right

Terrace of Nonius Balbus – The Suburban Baths are on the right

Suburban Baths (SQ, 26)  One of the best-preserved bath complexes in existence, with deep pools, stucco friezes and bas-reliefs looking down upon marble seats and floors.  The main entrance is via a flight of stairs, which lead down to the vestibule.  Situated on a mezzanine level of the Suburban Quarter, these baths are only sporadically open to the public.

The Beach and Boathouses (SQ, 31)  In 1980, while digging a drainage trench, public works employees uncovered human remains in one of the twelve boathouses that fronted the ancient beach.  Eventually, the skeletons of 300 men, women and children who had sheltered there were uncovered, along with the possessions they carried.

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