The devastating history of Pompeii is so bewitching that even today the name evokes an immediate emotional response. However, Pompeii wasn’t the only Ancient Roman town to be preserved by Mount Vesuvius’s eruption. Halfway between Naples and Pompeii lies the smaller, wealthier town of Herculaneum, which followed a slightly different fate.
In 79 CE, the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded—sending a 10-mile cloud of ash and pumice into the stratosphere and marking the start of the cataclysmic eruption. Pompeii was immediately besieged by volcanic ash and pumice stones, but due to a westerly wind, Herculaneum was spared from the first stage of the eruption. The result is an ancient town whose ruins are better preserved, and which offers another glimpse into Ancient Roman life.
Herculaneum in Ancient Rome
According to ancient tradition, Herculaneum’s name—based off of the Greek hero Heracles (or Hercules)—suggests that it was of Greek origin. However, like its sister Pompeii, the two settlements passed through a parade of different powers, including the Osci people of central Italy, the Etruscans, and the Samnites, until both finally converted to Roman rule at the culmination of the Social War in 89 BCE.
Before the eruption, the towns surrounding the base of Mount Vesuvius were thriving Roman settlements. Pompeii was formerly a town of 20,000, including numerous merchants and manufacturers who benefited from the proximity to the Mediterranean basin and Roman roads. Outside the city center, Pompeii also had successful vineyards and orchards, which benefited from the rich soil near the volcano.
By contrast, its sister city Herculaneum was less a place of commerce and more a place of leisure. Its population was smaller at about 5,000 inhabitants, but it expanded in the summertime when wealthy Roman families retreated to their seaside villas. Herculaneum’s remaining architecture includes all of the hallmarks of prosperous Roman settlements: opulent villas, a complex water system to supply water to the community, and luxurious public bath houses.
According to records, the area surrounding Mount Vesuvius was shaken by a chain of small earthquakes directly leading up to the volcanic eruption. However, the inhabitants had already acclimatized to random seismic activity—and there had been no indication that the ancient Romans even knew Mount Vesuvius was a volcano.
On August 24, 79 CE, just after noon, no one at the time could have predicted the catastrophe that took place. The peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded and sent a mushroom cloud of ash and pumice stone into the sky. Pliny the Younger wrote in a letter to historian Tacitus: “A dark and horrible cloud charged with combustible matter suddenly broke and set forth. Some bewailed their own fate. Others prayed to die.”
Pompeii and its inhabitants were immediately pummeled by debris. Those who were able fled Pompeii in terror, but some 2,000 people stayed in the town—hoping to wait out the eruption.
Due to a westerly wind, Herculaneum was spared the first stage of the eruption, allowing precious time for inhabitants to flee and minimizing the damage to the town’s infrastructure. Eventually however, Herculaneum and Pompeii succumbed to the same cloud of ash that buried everything and everyone in its path. Except…
The ash that covered Herculaneum carbonized, thereby preserving the wood of roofs, beds, and doors, as well as keeping organic material like food.