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Herculaneum (It. Ercolano), is located about 8 kilometers (5 miles) east of Naples. It had been a Greek colony, named after Hercules to honor one of his many exploits – in this case, unfortunately, a killing of a cow rustler. It, too, fell to Rome, in 89 B.C.E., but after it had fallen into Samnite hands in the 4th century B.C.E. The city was covered by a pyroclastic flow during the same eruption of Vesuvius that covered Pompeii, but here timber, although charred, survived, and there is much more structure intact. The resultant preservaion of the city offers a lot more to see, as far as detail, interiors, and furniture, than Pompeii.

Looking down on Herculaneum from the East, with the House of the Gem in the foreground.

The final approach into the city is over a bridge. The entrance road is quite high, because the city lies beneath 50 to 60 feet of material. It was only discovered because someone dug a well down to the city level in the early 18th century. The ever-present robbers entered through tunnels. But between 1749 and 1765, there was relatively scientific recovery for the Bourbon Kings of Naples and the Two Sicilies.

The uncovered area is small because half of the ancient city has been covered by two modern cities known as Resina and Portici, and it cannot be fully excavated.

The city seems to have been a seaside community for the wealthy, with about 5,000 residents, in what we would today call a resort city. The homes appear to have been richly decorated. The shops and taverns are small, but in abundance, so the economy seems to have been quite good. Discovered items have included fine bronze and marble sculptures, as well as a lot of fresco work inside homes. There was also an extensive library.

The inhabitants were able to escape the city to some extent. Being closer to the sea than Pompeii, some fled in boats, while others sought refuge in caves by the water’s edge. The entrances to those caves, unfortunately, were sealed by over 23 to 30 meters of volcanic ash (75' - 100'). Their bodies have been found intact, and forensic specialists have determined quality of lifestyle, and nutritional background through the nature of the growth of teeth found in the victims.

Recent discovery of 48 victims has led archaeologists to believe that many died as a direct and instantaneous result of the blast from Vesuvius, estimated at 400 degrees Celsius (750 Fahrenheit).

A wall mosaic from the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, a name obviously taken from this representation of the king and queen of the sea. This was the outdoor dining room, and we are looking at the north wall of what is actually an open air atrium.

Wall adjacent to the Neptune and Amphitrite mosaic, the east wall, featuring a nymphaeum (a simulated grotto effect here). A tank above the niche provided water for the fountain, which apparently was situated in the center of the room. The wall is covered with mosaics, shells, and lava foam, topped with marble theatrical masks. There are images of peacocks and deer being chased by dogs. All of this was intended to substitute for the fact that there is no garden in this atrium, or courtyard, just an open skylight.

The floor is a triclinium, or three-part dining bed. Apparently, it had become a custom to dine in a reclined position, resting upon mattresses, bedspreads, and cushions. This eating arrangement gave rise to the descriptive term of this particular design: the summer triclinium. There were also winter tricliniums in luxurious houses, and solar orientation was taken into account.

Hall or College of the Augustales with frescoed walls representing the stories of Hercules. The Imperial Cult of the Augustals was established in 12 B.C.E.. These were colleges composed of six of the richest freed slaves, and their descendants became members of a city council, thus ensuring success in their lives.

A fresco representing Hercules, in the College.

Hercules with his lion skin and club, also in the College. .

Women’s Bath area: mosaic floor. It was quite common to picture sea creatures or images of ocean life in Roman baths. Remember our comments in Knossos about depicting surrounding nature: there it was also the sea, with Crete, of course, being an island.

Women’s Bath area: a barrel vault ceiling, with the end wall. It was fairly common to have such construction in the baths.

Women’s Bath area: a bench for sitting – possibly a steam room.

The side of the barrel vault in the Men’s Bath, similar in construction to the Women’s.

The full end wall in the Men’s Bath..

The opposite end of the Men’s Bath.

Basically a bakery. Technically, a “pistrina” from the Latin”pistor” which originally meant “one who pounds or crushes,” a term we would apply to a miller. These bakeries have been identified by the actual mills, an example shown here. The bell-shaped lower section (meta) in the foreground, and the hour glass-shaped upper stone (catillus) atop a lower section in the background, are each made of lava. The upper part moved (supposedly by animal power) in a circle, and crushed grain feed from a hopper into the narrow space between the upper and lower sections. Resultant flour fell onto the ledge supporting the stones.


An oven adjacent to the millstones shown above. These two photos above are part of a complex known as the Taverna Priapo. Apparently, there was dining in an area adjacent to the baking.

One historian suggests that ancient Romans were as ignorant of the technological process as we are today: more concerned with purchasing a finished product, as to how it was created. This could be argued, especially if the stones we see here were actually in the shop producing bread; their creation of flour would have been made known to anyone entering the shop.

But a problem exists when historians purposefully put down consumers, for instance, in such a manner. Actually, if we had to know the process for everything we consume, we would not have time to do the consuming. My point is to beware of supercilious comments such as this.

The House With The Telephus Relief (Casa del Rilievo di Telefo), one of the richest houses in Herculaneum, featuring the atrium shown above. The house derives its name from a neo-Attic relief depicting the myth of Telephus, which was found in the atrium. Telephus was the son of Hercules and Princess Auge from Arcadia, and after some mad happenings, wound up being suckled by a hind (deer), which when translated from the Greek is spelled “elephus.”

Notice the applied fluting to the columns, but notice also the rich color. Ancient peoples – the Romans as well as the Greeks – applied color to many pieces and parts of their architecture, adding to the richness of their creations.

This is the marble relief that gave the house its name. Achilles is pictured on the left, receiving advice from the Oracle of Delphi concerning his planned attack on Troy. Her advice is to seek out Telephus. Problem was that Achilles has wounded Telephus, and the wound refused to heal. The Oracle tells Achilles that only he can treat the wound. Achilles then scrapes iron rust from his spear (the one that did the damage) and rubs that iron into the wound, with success (to the right of the sculpture). Telephus then guides Achilles to Troy.

This particular myth is probably the one referred to by Goethe in his poem Torquato Tasso: the writer tells us of a spear “which yet might cure the wound that it itself had dealt if friendly hand were but to place it there.”

One more bit of historical connection: Wagner used a spear to heal a wound it had caused in his opera Parsifal.

Interestingly, the neo-Attic was a forerunner of the mid eighteenth century neo-Classicism, in that reliefs and statues of the Archaic (6th c. B.C.E.) and Classical (5th and 4th c. B.C.E.) periods of ancient Greece were copied in Athens and sold to Romans. Sometimes it seems as if nothing is ever new.

A thermopolium. Some historians have discussed the point that these were not “bars” as we know them today, simply because the configuration of the construction did not allow for seating – no place for your knees. So these scholars have claimed that these holes in the counter were meant for storing grains, not liquids, further claiming that amphoras were not used. But we have seen a cutaway (broken) section of one such thermopolium in Pompeii, and there was definitely an amphora, or urn.

House of the Deer

Marble furniture in the House of the Deer.

A white marble basin.

A tile floor.

What we have been a witness to in Pompeii and Herculaneum is but a microcosm of what existed in Roman civilization. The attention to detail, the colors, delicateness, in addition to precision of execution. Perspective in the frescoes, fine carving in sculptural forms, detailed architectural pieces and parts – all coalescing into an integration of art with architecture.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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