Charles Dickens’ historical novel traces life in London and Paris during the French Revolution. If you want to examine how Italians lived B.C., then you must visit the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum.
From our hotel in Bomerano on the Amalfi Coast, it is a one-hour drive complete with hairpin turns to the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum which lies in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. On 24 August in 79 A.D., the first recorded eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occurred. It devastated the nearby hillside cities of Herculaneum and Pompei but in strikingly different ways. Instead of volcanic ashes spewing over Pompei’s buildings and burying the city, the eruption resulted in lava and ash raining down on Herculaneum. It is blanketed in compose that carbonized and preserved the wood structures as well as artifacts of regular day life, such as food, beds and doors. This ancient city—located in Ercolano in Campania, Italy—represents a “sealed” city. Its name is derived from the Greek god Hercules which townsfolk worshipped.
When I enter the city gates, I feel like Herculaneum is merely asleep, not destroyed. The UNESCO World Heritage site may represent ruins but they are remarkably well maintained. Only one-third of Herculaneum has been excavated since it was discovered in 1709 by a farmer digging a well. The rest of this ancient city is buried beneath the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici. Thus the shadow of modern apartment buildings—with laundry hanging from the balconies—falls over the ancient ruins. It feels discordant to see this juxtaposition of ancient and modern day Italy. I wonder if housewives drink their espresso in the morning while looking down at the cobblestone streets. Only three of the five routes into Herculaneum have been excavated. The city had less problems with as it was built on an slope that emptied into the sea. One of the more recent discoveries was a wooden boat found lying upside down on its ancient shore line in August 1982.
Herculaneum was a wealthy city as evidenced by the intricate Roman villas as well as lavish frescoes. It was not a center of commerce, like Pompei. This is an ancient Roman city where I can see the public bath (Terre Femmini) where women gathered daily for therapeutic and social reasons. (They did not bathe at home.) Household gods were worshipped at shrines located inside private residences. I examine a typical wealthy merchant’s home starting in the atrium. This is the public space which is always seen on entry to a house. Beyond it lies the “office” where the pateras familias worked. And work was a 6-hour morning job that ran from 6 am to 12 noon. Afternoons were reserved for exercise followed by time spent at the public baths. Deeper in the house lies the gardens that are a private courtyard where the family can gather for relaxation. They connect to private rooms for rest. Herculaneum provides an intimate and up close view of the life of a Roman family.
In contrast, Pompei was a bustling trading town that included shops, bakeries, restaurants and homes. This is a vast archaeological site. It is believed that 20,000 lived in Pompei in 79 A.D. It was a bigger city than Herculaneum. I feel like I am visiting a small city when I enter the gates. There are nine separate sections in the “Plan of the Excavations of Pompeii.” For example, Regio I is “La Citta Commerciale.” Houses are individually named as “Casa di …” There are also villas, temples, schools and shops. Plays were performed in the expansive amphitheatre. A smaller outdoor theater hosted concerts. You can roam down the streets and walk into the houses and shops freely.
Unlike the people who did not escape the eruption in Herculaneum (and died from extreme heat which caused their brains to explode), the residents of Pompei died from suffocation or were crushed when their roofs collapsed. There was no temple in Herculaneum. In Pompei, its oldest temple—built in 6th century BC—is dedicated to Apollo. You can also see statue of Diana (his sister).
In Roman times, the streets did not have names. So residents provided directions on the location of their homes by public landmarks. For instance, there are over 40 fountains in Pompei and each is distinctive. Over 1,150 bodies have been excavated in Pompei. Among the most haunting are the plaster casts of people (and a dog) who perished including one I dub “The Thinker” who is sitting down with his knees raised to his chest at the time of death.