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date: 18 April 2024



  • Andrew Wallace-Hadrill


Herculaneum was a small settlement situated on a tufaceous spur of Vesuvius on the coastal road between Neapolis (8 km, 5 miles) and Pompeii (14 km, 9 miles). Its name was attributed in legend to the visit of Hercules, who was supposed to have moored in its safe haven. Strabo (5.4.8) gives it the same history as Pompeii, passing from the Oscans to the Tyrrheni (Etruscans) and Pelasgi, then the Samnites, and finally the Romans. While Pompeii has produced many traces of occupation in the Archaic period, Herculaneum to date has revealed none, and archaeological evidence before the third century is extremely scarce. Its name and the orthogonal grid of its layout point to close contact with Greek Neapolis, but there is no evidence of a direct connection or of a language other than Oscan before Roman occupation. Together with other members of the Samnite league centered on Nuceria, it joined the rebellion against Rome in the Social War, and like Pompeii was captured after a siege by Sulla’s troops under Titus Didius in 89 bce: a fragment of the historian Sisenna mentioning the siege calls Herculaneum a small town between two rivers, neither of which has been located, though indeed the steep slopes of Vesuvius are riven by many gullies in this area. The precise size of the urban area within the walls is not known, but is unlikely to have exceeded 15 ha, which would make it one quarter the extent of Pompeii. After the Roman conquest, it became a municipium, an independent body of Roman citizens with an elected council of decuriones and annually elected magistrates, duumviri and aediles. Unlike Pompeii, there are no election advertisements preserved to document this activity.


  • Ancient Geography
  • Roman Material Culture

Updated in this version

Text rewritten to reflect current scholarship.


Much of its history is shared with Pompeii, including serious damage in the earthquake of 62/63 ce described by Seneca (QNat. 6.1.2), and destruction in the eruption of 79 described by Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16.20). Nevertheless, there are significant local differences, and its location west of the crater, rather than to the south like Pompeii, meant that Herculaneum was not covered by lapilli (tiny pebbles) of pumice in the earlier stages of eruption, but took the full force of the pyroclastic surges of the second stage at up to 400 degrees centigrade which covered it with ash hardening to rock (tufo) up to a depth of around 30 metres at the seafront. In consequence, Herculaneum is preserved to a greater depth than Pompeii, including numerous cases of upper floors, and preserves organic materials through carbonization, including wooden structural elements, furniture, foodstuffs, and important examples of writing, both documents on wooden tablets and papyri preserving extensive examples of Epicurean philosophy, especially by Philodemus of Gadara, found in the Villa of the Papyri, famous also for its collection of statuary.

History of Excavation

Extensive excavations started in the eighteenth century, commissioned by the Bourbon kings of Naples, Charles and his son Ferdinand, though it is clear that informal explorations started long before, thanks to the sinking of local wells, culminating in the exploration of the Theatre by the Austrian general, Prince d’Elboeuf. Bourbon excavation by tunnelling antedates that of Pompeii by ten years (1738), and continued into the 1760s, generating many of the finds displayed in the Regia di Portici, and later the Museo Nazionale di Napoli.1 Thereafter, the focus of attention was Pompeii, despite limited attempts to return to Herculaneum with open-air excavations, which had become standard in Pompeii, in the 1830s and the 1870s under Giuseppe Fiorelli. The lack of activity at Herculaneum induced the Cambridge archaeologist Charles Waldstein to orchestrate a plan for an international campaign of excavation in the first decade of the 20th century; blocked by the Italian parliament, this initiative was explicitly resumed in the 1920s by Amedeo Maiuri, to whom, in major excavations between 1927 and 1961, we owe the greater part of the visible excavations of the site.2 A later campaign under Giuseppe Maggi revealed the seashore and the vaults in which were fond the skeletal remains of over 300 victims of the eruption, many carrying bags of jewellery and money. In the 1990s a large trench was opened to the west of the main site with the aim of exploring the Villa of the Papyri; while only part of the atrium area was exposed, tunnelling reached the room where the majority of the papyri had been found as carbonized rolls in 1750, showing that the area had been entirely emptied of finds. The excavations importantly revealed a second level of rooms beneath the atrium area, and a third level with richly decorated rooms opening towards the shore. It also exposed an effective continuum of buildings between the villa and the city walls, including a bath complex and an exceptional large town house. In 2001 the Packard Humanities Institute initiated a project, the Herculaneum Conservation Project, to address the conservation crisis of the site; in addition to urgent conservation work on roofs and drains, it made significant new finds, including a major deposit of human waste beneath the Insula Orientalis I, casting new light on diet, and the roof of the House of the Telephus Relief, collapsed on the seashore, with elements of a painted ceiling.3 It also succeeded in demonstrating a long history of bradyseism causing dramatic changes in sea level in the decades before the eruption.

Domestic and Commercial Spaces

In comparison to Pompeii, though much smaller, Herculaneum shows numerous signs of prosperity, including extensive use of polychrome marble flooring (an exception in Pompeii, but common in Rome).4 The wall decoration, while comparable to that of Pompeii, is distinctive and in some ways more sophisticated.5 The houses along the south-west-facing seawall are of large size with lavish decoration (Houses of the Telephus Relief, Stags, Mosaic Atrium, Albergo, Argus) and form an effective continuum with the largest (but only partially explored) house at the south-west edge of the town, and beyond it the Villa of the Papyri. This chimes with the words of Strabo (5.4.9) describing the bay as a continuum of luxurious houses and villas. But there are also numerous examples of more modest dwellings, including a house divided into apartments (Graticcio), and a block of apartments and shops (Insula Orientalis I); and there is much evidence of commercial activity within the town.6 For Maiuri, the important revelation about the town was the mix of rich and poor, bringing to life the whole social spectrum.7

Public Spaces

In addition to private domestic and commercial spaces, a significant number of public buildings have been explored. These include a temple of Venus on the terrace beneath the sea wall, known from an inscription to have been originally dedicated to the Oscan goddess Herentas; three sets of public baths (the Suburban Baths the best preserved; the separated men’s and women’s baths in the centre; and the large ‘samovar’ heated pool in the new excavations to the west); what has long been taken for the Palaestra on the eastern edge (the alternative identification with a temple of Isis has yet to gain acceptance); and the complex of three large public buildings at the junction of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo III mapped by the Bourbon explorers, of which one, fully excavated by Maiuri, has been taken to be the College of the Augustales, but might rather be the Curia; a second partially excavated by Maiuri can now with confidence be identified as the Basilica Noniana, built by Nonius Balbus and decorated with statues of members of his family (his tomb is outside the Suburban Baths); and the third, of which only the end has been exposed, variously identified as a Basilica (now universally rejected), as an Augusteum, or as the Forum (its entrances marked by triumphal arches).8 The earliest excavations explored the Theatre, which can still be seen subterraneously; near it is visible the podium of another temple. Not all the public buildings are known, but those that are visible suggest a level of magnificence of public life disproportionate to the small footprint of the town.

Inscriptions and Documents

A rich harvest of inscriptions, documents, and graffiti make possible the reconstruction of many aspects of society in the imperial period. An album containing on a series of fragmentary marble plaques over 500 names must have originally contained some 2,000 names, all male and free, probably adult citizens (all have the standard Roman name pattern of three names, tria nomina, though some may have been Junian Latins, or more probably former Junians). The inscription reveals much about the demography of the inhabitants, and especially the high proportion of former slaves in the citizen body. It is impossible to envisage all of these living within the city walls at the same time (there is room for scarcely more than 3,000 inhabitants of all ages and sexes, including slaves); but the inscription was cumulative over a period of years, and it is likely that they represent the inhabitants of the territory as a whole.9 There is significant overlap between these names and the important series of legal documents, in triplicate, inked on the outside, and written with a stylus on wax on the inside; first published at the time of Maiuri’s excavations in the 1930s, they have been restudied by Giuseppe Camodeca, and important new readings have frequently been produced.10 They illuminate many aspects of legal proceedings, on matters of legal and social standing, purchase of property and slaves, disputes between neighbours, and agricultural as well as urban business. Frequent lists of witnesses, in combination with the Album, make it possible to identify a broad swathe of society. In addition to these, numerous graffiti illustrate both high and low culture, with a significant proportion (8%) in Greek, and detailed records of amorous encounters.11

Future Studies

Ongoing projects will further illuminate a society which, in the decades before the eruption, can be studied in exceptional detail thanks to the convergence of different sources of information; these include the restudy of the legal documents and the scientific examination of the skeletons, particularly through the isotopic record contained in teeth. Present excavations cover only between a third and a quarter of the ancient city; and though the position of the modern town of Ercolano excludes complete excavation, it is to be expected that ongoing projects will generate new results.


  • Camardo, Domenico. “A Roof and Suspended Ceiling of the Marble Room of the House of the Telephus Relief at Herculaneum.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 28 (2015): 39–70.
  • Camardo, Domenico and Domenico Esposito (eds). Ercolano: 1927-1961. L’impresa archeologica di Amedeo Maiuri e l’esperimento della città museo. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2017.
  • Camodeca, Giuseppe. Tabulae Herculanenses. Edizione e commento Vol. 1. Rome: Quasar, 2017.
  • Esposito, Domenico. La pittura di Ercolano. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2014.
  • Guidobaldi, Federico, Monica Grandi, Maria Stella Pisapia et al. Mosaici antichi in Italia: Regione Prima, Ercolano. Pisa, Rome: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2014.
  • Guidobaldi, Maria Paola (ed). Ercolano. Tre secoli di scoperte. Milan: Electa, 2008.
  • Maiuri, Amedeo. Ercolano. I nuovi scavi (1927-1958), 2 vols. Rome: Ist. Poligrafico dello Stato, 1958.
  • Mattusch, Carol C. The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005.
  • Monteix, Nicolas. Les Lieux de métier. Boutiques et ateliers d’Herculanum. Rome : École française de Rome, 2010.
  • Parslow, Christopher C. Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Rowan, Erica. “Sewers, Archaeobotany, and Diet at Pompeii and Herculaneum.” In The Economy of Pompeii, edited by Miko Flohr& Andrew Wilson, 111–134. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.