The archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum are the closest image you can get of how a town belonging to the Roman Empire worked and looked like. The devastating eruption of 79AD of Mount Vesuvius buried these cities under molten rock and ashes preserving them from the unavoidable spell cast by the course of time. Check this article in which I explain how and why you should plan a visit in these incredible time capsules.
As an Italian, I grew up with the myth of Pompeii: starting from primary school, history teachers made sure to mention to us, little kids, this archaeological site in the Campania region as the closest example of how “regular people” lived during Roman times, that had such details not even the Capital, Rome, was able to display.
What we were quite unaware of, was that the entire Vesuvian area was hit by the devastating eruption of 79AD and that other Pompeiis were present. With time I became familiar with names such as Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis, and with a tragedy that put an end to the life of thousands of people, allowing, at the same time, to us, future generations, the opportunity to jump into the past and return back to “the future” with the nonchalance of a regular Marty McFly. When you explore these archaeological sites, this is exactly how you feel.
Being used to historical landmarks like Rome, where we have ruins embedded in the contemporary urban fabric, coming into contact with such realities where ruins are preserved in their timeframe, gives life to a full and more emotionally-charged experience. You almost expect to see the former inhabitants turning the corner and crossing path with you.
But let’s give some historical context and see how these towns ended up being buried for so many centuries.
What happened in 79 AD
Mount Somma-Vesuvius had been dormant for around 300 years before the devastating eruption of 79AD, having caused the population to forget about its true nature and to be clueless about its dangerousness. At their time Somma-Vesuvius was more like a hill and, as shown in a wall-painting found in the House of Centenary in Pompeii, it had an idyllic aspect, being covered with gardens and vineyards.
The infamous eruption was preceded by seismic phenomena, with a major earthquake in 62AD and smaller ones during the four days before the disaster. These warning signs were, obviously, not recognized as the “awakening” of the volcano.
According to the latest discoveries, the eruption started on October 24th at midday and lasted for two days, with ejections of lava and the rise of a column of ash and pumice that collapsed five times on the surrounding towns, and that was able to reach an height of 33 kilometres (21mi).
Scientists estimated that, in that occasion, Vesuvius ejected 50,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima bombing in Japan. A true apocalypse.
The area invested by the eruption was quite vast and the towns that were covered by the pyroclastic material for centuries (and nowadays part of the archaeological park) are Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale.
In the following paragraphs, I will delve more into the first two, given that they’re the most famous. I’ll start from the differences between them in order for you to understand what to expect from a visit.
6 DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SITES OF POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM
- Herculaneum is known for being better preserved than Pompeii, even though it is the closest to the volcano. This is mainly due to the different way the eruption hit the towns. The column of ashes and pumice travelled south in the direction of Pompeii due to the wind, and a pumice rain hit the town really hard. As a result, roofs and walls were severely damaged and it’s very hard to find buildings where the second floor resisted to the assault of the volcano. Herculaneum, on the other hand, before being covered by 25 meters (82 ft) of ashes and molten rock, didn’t experience this phenomenon, but it was destroyed by the first flow that carbonized everything and everyone instantly. As a consequence we can still see the second floors in buildings and fossilized organic material like wood and food;
- The archaeological site of Pompeii is way bigger than the Herculaneum’s one. Pompeii was a bigger city to begin with (170 acres for 11,000 inhabitants), but the location and the different kind of damage experienced, surely influenced the dimensions of the archaeological park. Pompeii was an easier site to unearth, given that it was covered by “only” 6 meters (19,7 ft) of pyroclastic material versus the 25 metres (82 ft) that buried Herculaneum. It is also far from the modern city, differently to the ancient Herculaneum, which is basically embedded in the current residential area. What we see today of the ancient city is a minimum part ( 7 streets and few “quarters”) and there’s still a lot buried under there;
- Given that Herculaneum, differently to Pompeii, has to coexist with the modern city, it allows you to witness to the true dichotomy between present and past, so typical of the “Italian experience”. The modern town sort of hangs on the archaeological site and it’s not unusual to see people in their balcony, watching over you exploring the 2000 years old town. In Italy the “past” is never truly something that stays behind;
- Pompeii is the ideal place to visit to understand how a city of the Roman Empire looked like, whereas Herculaneum is able to show us how people truly lived. As explained in point nr.1, Herculaneum was destroyed by the first surge that carbonized everything it found in its way, fossilizing the organic material like wood and food. The wave didn’t reach the fusion point of the gold and silver, allowing jewellery and silverware to be preserved as they formerly were. As a consequence we are in the very unique situation to witness to elements of the everyday life of first century’s people. We can understand what their diet consisted of and see wooden elements like doors, casings and beds. Pompeii, on the other hand, being excavated for almost its entirety, allows us to truly understand how a city was planned and organized;
- The famed “pedestrian crossings”, the big blocks of stone placed in the middle of the roads at a higher level in comparison with them, are to be found only in Pompeii, not in Herculaneum. This kind of zebra crossings were useful in order not to walk on the road, which, other than a carriageway, it was also used to dump garbage and sewage. In Herculaneum they were not necessary since the town was served by a plumbing system (original pipes are still visible nowadays);
- The famous casts of the victims are to be found only in Pompeii; in Herculaneum there are skeletons. For a long period of time, it was believed that people in Pompeii and Herculaneum died for different causes, but the latest scientific discoveries proved the contrary. Both peoples died for the heat wave cast by the volcano (Herculaneum during the first surge, Pompeii during the fifth), yet under different conditions. Herculaneum, being closer to the volcano, was hit by a heat wave of 500°C (932°F) able to evaporate the human flesh in an instant, whereas Pompeii, being 5 kilometres away from Herculaneum was reached by a surge of 300°C (572°F). Such a temperature makes people die fast, but it’s unable to dissolve bodies. The corpses were later covered by ashes that, once solidified, encased them in some sort of hard shell. When decomposed, the bodies left space to cavities that were later filled by the archaeologists with plaster that created the now famed “Pompeii casts”. Hence, the casts are not statues, but the perfect impression of Vesuvius’s victims in the exact moment of their death. The skeletons of Herculaneum, on the other hand, are mainly to be found in the area of the ancient beach, as people were probably trying to escape via sea. Sadly the seismic shocks had also caused a seaquake, so the population basically died trapped in an inferno of fire and water.
- For those asking themselves which site they should visit, I obviously recommend to visit them both for the reasons I shared in the previous paragraph. For those who have trouble walking for long periods of time, I suggest to opt directly for Herculaneum, because it’s way smaller than Pompeii, which is gigantic;
- Pompeii would probably need almost a week to be visited in its entirety, Herculaneum can be managed in half a day. If you don’t want to spend the entire day inside one of the sites, choose to visit in the afternoon. The crowds, especially in Pompeii, are oceanic in the morning (at least before covid );
- Pompeii doesn’t have spots in the shatter, so it’s highly recommended to bring sunscreen (and an umbrella in case of rain). I would also suggest to avoid August, as it’s way too hot;
- Definitely invest in a tour guide. Try to organize a small group of people that will allow you to split the expenses.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT THESE SITES
As previously mentioned, Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best opportunity we have to experience something similar to time-travelling. Differently to the other historical landmarks that we have, which are usually mingled with the modern buildings, these two ancient towns appear to be like frozen in time and their exceptional level of conservation grants us the opportunity to see them preserved in their original era and context. This surely allows an experience which is fulfilling, captivating and emotionally-charged.
Comparing ourselves with our ancestors
When you’ll have the opportunity to visit these sites, one of the things that will impress you the most will be realizing how little the human being has changed during the course of time.
Pompeii and Herculaneum are really unique archaeological sites gifting us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how “regular people” used to go on with their daily life. You’ll see the remains of tons of shops selling street food, electoral propaganda on the walls, countless of graffiti where people insulted each other, mocked their rivals, bragged about their sexual encounters or declared their undying love for their other half.
We might believe that we have dramatically changed and evolved during the course of the centuries, but the core, the most fundamental things, are always the same. When I watch the marks left by these ancestors of ours, I see our same emotions, ambitions, hopes and desires and this is, somehow, kind of reassuring. It’s a sign there’s still something profoundly human inside of us, people of the XXI century.
Learn a Life Lesson
The most important lesson we learn from Pompeii and Herculaneum is the one which the victims of the tragedy and the unsettling silhouette of a dormant Vesuvius in the background teach us. Life is transitory.
In Italy even our monuments constantly remind us that death is behind the corner: the relics of the Saints are often out there for all to see and places like the Catacombs of the Cappuccini in Sicily display mummies like objects in a museum with the clear intent to remind us the unbreakable relationship between life and death. Additionally, the casts of Pompeii put us in front of what it means dying of a violent death.
There’s probably no other place in the world able to show us such a precise impression of how a person acts and reacts when dying in a catastrophe: we see people crouching or lying on the floor, overwhelmed by the impending doom, couples sticking together and even a fallen man frozen in the act of trying to stand up again, as if he was just not giving up yet. Someone might call all of this a macabre show. What I call it, though, is a very humbling life lesson.
There’s no doubt Pompeii and Herculaneum are destinations you should immediately add in your bucket list.