Pompeii and Herculaneum

Pompeii ruins
Pompeii ruins

Pompeii and Herculaneum were two Roman towns destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 c.e. A community had existed at Pompeii, near present-day Naples, in proximity of the Sarnus River and the Bay of Naples since the eighth century b.c.e. Initially the Etruscans, then the Samnites, and finally the Romans controlled the prosperous trading town that was colonized and known as Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum by 80 b.c.e. Mount Vesuvius, which had formed at least 17,000 years earlier, was one mile away.

Pompeii endured numerous landslides due to extensive rains. A series of earthquakes, some minor, but one particularly strong one, wreaked havoc on Pompeii in 62 c.e. and caused massive structural damage to the town and its buildings. The citizens began an extensive rebuilding process in Pompeii and used richer materials for their houses and their art.

Despite some volcanic rumblings and the wells drying up, the Pompeiani had no inkling of the calamitous event to follow because Mount Vesuvius had been idle for centuries. Although a few people left the city on August 24, 79 c.e., the majority of people went about their daily business.


Around one o’clock in the afternoon Mount Vesuvius erupted and spewed 18–20 feet of ash and cinders that buried the town and asphyxiated and mummified most of the 20,000 people in Pompeii. The intense ash clouded the Sun for several days and created a tsunami in the Bay of Naples.

The volcanic debris had a temperature of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. As it flowed for two days toward Pompeii, its temperature fell to 660ºF. The town, which had been a vacation resort for Rome’s nobility, was completely covered by ash, although not destroyed.

Some survivors claimed their possessions, but there was no thought of restoration. Pompeii remained buried for the next 16 centuries. An excellent description of the event is found in The Letters of Pliny the Younger.

Although some excavations were undertaken in the 16th century, the fi rst serious excavations at Pompeii took place under the patronage of King Charles VII of the Two Sicilies (r. 1735–59). His team withdrew numerous artifacts that were displayed in the National Museum in Naples.

Then, from 1863 to 1875 more scientifically acceptable excavations under Giuseppi Fiorelli (1823–96) took place. His meticulous note taking, recording, and preservation revealed a fascinating glimpse at a Roman town. He innovated and made plaster casts of the 2,000 skeletons found in Pompeii indicating how and where they died.

Some of the buildings still stand: the forum, the houses, villas, stores, bakery, baths, a huge hotel, the theaters, and amphitheater indicate a prosperous town. Numerous other excavation directors have worked on Pompeii, which was around 66 percent uncovered in 2006.

Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited by thousands of tourists every year. Although the Italian government has offered financial incentives to the nearly 1 million citizens in the area to relocate in case Mount Vesuvius erupts again, many modern-day Pompeiani refuse to leave.

Herculaneum, a small town between Pompeii and Naples, known as Ercolano since 1969, was decimated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 c.e. The luxury town of approximately 5,000 inhabitants had suffered an earthquake in 63 c.e.

After considerable rebuilding Herculaneum enjoyed a booming economy and was comprised of vacation villas, a number of restaurants, a market, and a mill. On August 24, 79 c.e., the town was obliterated by 75 feet of disastrous poisonous air, gases, lava ashes, small stones, and pumice that spewed from Mount Vesuvius and suffocated the inhabitants.

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 after a huge stash of impressive statues was found there. Excavations were carried on from 1738 to 1780, and tunnels were built to access the ruins. Major excavation occurred when some 1,500 workers uncovered Herculaneum from 1805 to 1815. Some 300 bodies were found during one excavation.

More excavations occurred during the 19th century and revealed magnificent paintings and 1,803 rolls of papyri from a library that contained the works of Demetrius, Epicuris, and other famous authors. After lengthy painstaking labor some 194 of the unrolled papyri were publicized.

Although some modern chemical solutions allowed for revealing the scrolls, some unfortunately could not be interpreted. During excavations in the 1990s more than 200 skeletons were found on the beach. The exquisite buildings, mosaics, paintings, and art indicate that Herculaneum was materially and culturally superior to Pompeii.