1902 Encyclopedia > Herculaneum


HERCULANEUM. The ruins of the buried city of Herculaneum are situated about two-thirds of a mile from the Portici station of the railway from Naples to Pompeii. They are less frequently visited than the ruins of the latter city, not only because they are smaller in extent and of less obvious interest, but also because they are more difficult of access. The history of their discovery and exploration, and the artistic and literary relics which they have yielded, are worthy, however, of particular notice. The small part of the city which has been restored to the light of day in the spot called Gli scavi nuovi (the new excavations) was discovered in the present century [19th century]. But the more important works were executed in the last century [18th century]; and of the buildings then explored at a great depth, by means of tunnels, none are visible except the theatre, the orchestra of which lies 85 feet below the surface of the soil.

Herculaneum excavations in 2005 (image)

Archaeological excavations of Herculaneum taking place in 2005

The brief notices of the classical writers inform us that Herculaneum was a small city of Campania between Neapolis and Pompeii, that it was situated between two streams at the foot of Vesuvius on a hill overlooking the sea, and that its harbor was at all seasons safe. With regard to its earlier history nothing is known. The account given by Dionysius repeats a tradition which was most natural for a city bearing the name of Hercules. Strabo follows up the topographical data with a few brief historical statements: Oskoi eikhon kai tauten kai ten ephexes Pompenian ... eita Turrenoi kai Pelasgoi, meta tauta Saunitai [Gk.].

But leaving the questions suggested by these names, such as that of the domination of the Etruscans in Campania, as well as the other questions recently discussed in regard to the origin of Pompeii, which might have an intimate relation with our subject, it is sufficient here to say that the first historical record about Herculaneum has been handed down by Livy (viii. 25), where he relates in what manner the city fell under the power of Rome during the samnite wars. It remained faithful to Rome for a long time, but it joined the Italian allies in the Social War. Having submitted anew in June of the year 665 (88 B.C.) it appears to have been less severely treated than Pompeii, and to have escaped the imposition of a colony of Sulla’s veterans, although Zumpt has suspected the contrary (Comm. Epigr., i. 259). It afterwards became a municipium, and enjoyed great prosperity towards the close of the republic and in the earlier times of the empire, since many noble families of Rome selected this pleasant spot for the construction of splendid villas, one of which indeed belonged to the imperial house (Seneca, De Ira, iii.). By means of the Via Campana it had easy communication north westward with Neapolis, Puteoli, and Capua, and thence by the Via Appia with Rome; and southwards with Pompeii and Nuceria, and thence with Lucania and the Bruttii. In the year 63 A.D. it suffered terribly from the earthquake which, according to Seneca,. "Campanian nunquam securam hujus mali, indemnem tamen, et toties defunctam metu magna strage vastvit. Nam et Herculanensis oppidi pars ruit dubieque stant etiam quae relicta sunt" (Nat. Quaest., vi. l). Hardly had Herculaneum completed the restoration of some of its principal buildings (cf. Mommsen, I.N., n 2384; Catalogo del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, n. 1151) when it fell beneath the great eruption of the year 79, described by Pliny the younger (Ep. vi. 16, 20), in which Pompeii also was destroyed with other flourishing cities of Campania. According to the commonest account, on the 23d August of that year Pliny the elder, who had command of the Roman fleet at Misenum, set out to render assistance to the soldiers stationed at Retina, near Herculaneum, as there was no escape except by sea, but, the little harbor having been on a sudden filled up so as to be inaccessible, he was obliged to abandon to their fate those people of Herculaneum and Retina who had managed to flee from their houses, overwhelmed in a moment by the material poured forth by Vesuvius. But the text of Pliny the younger, where this account is given, has been subjected to various interpretations; and from the comparison of other classical testimonies and the study of the excavation it has been concluded that it is impossible to determine the date of the catastrophe, though there are satisfactory arguments to justify the statement that the even took place in the autumn. The opinion that immediately after the first outbreak of Vesuvius a torrent of lava was ejected over Herculaneum was refuted by the scholars of the last century, and their refutation has been recently confirmed by Beule (Le Drame du Vésuve, p. 240 sq.). and if the last recensions of the passage quoted from Pliny are to be accepted, Retina is not the name of the harbor described by Beule (ib., p. 122, 247), but the name of a lady who had implored succour, the wife of Caesius Bassus, or rather Tascius (cf. Pliny, ed. Keil, Leipsic, 1870; Aulus Persius, ed. Jahn, Sat. vi.). The shore, moreover, according to the new and accurate studies of the engineer Michele Ruggiero, director of the excavations, was not altered by the causes adducted by Beule (p. 125), but by a simpler event. "It is certain," he says (Pompeii e la Regione Sotterrata dal Vesuvio l’anno 79, Naples, 1879, p. 21 sq.), "that the districts between the south and west, and those between the south and east, were overwhelmed in two quite different modes. From Torre Annunziata (which is believed to be the site of the ancient Oplontii) to San Giovanni a Teduccio, for a distance of about 9 miles, there flowed a muddy eruption which in Herculaneum and the neighboring places, where it was most abundant, raised the level of the country more than 65 feet. The matter transported consistedof soil of various kinds, - sand, ashes, fragments of lava, pozzolana, and whitish pumice, enclosing grains of uncalcined lime, similar in every respect to those of Pompeii. In the part of Herculaneum already excavated, the corridors in the upper portions of the theatre are compactly filled, up to the head of the arches, with pozzolana and pumice transformed into tuff (which proves that the formation of this stone may take place in a comparatively short time). Tuff is also found in the lowest part of the city towards the sea in front of the new houses that have been discovered; and in the very high banks that surround them, as also in the lowest part of the theatre, there are plainly to be seen earth, sand, ashes, fragments of lava and pumice, with little distinction of strata, almost always confused and mingled together, and varying from spot to spot in degree of compactness. It is clear that this immense congeries of earth and stones could not flow in a dry state over those 5 miles of country (in the beginning very steep, and at intervals almost level), where certainly it would have been arrested and all accumulated in a mound; but it must have been borne along by a great quantity of water, the effects of which may be distinctly recognized, not only in the filling and choking up even of the most narrow, intricade, and remote parts of the buildings, but also in the formation of the tuff, in which water has so great a share; for it cannot be supposed that enough of it has filtered through so great a depth of earth. The torrent ran in a few hours to the sea, and formed that shallow or lagoon called by Pliny Subitum Vadum, which prevented the ships approaching the shores." Hence it is that, while many made their escape from Pompeii (which was overwhelmed by the fall of the small stones and afterwards by the rain of ashes), comparatively few can have managed to escape from Herculaneum, and these, according to the interpretation given to the inscription preserved in the National Museum (Mommsen, I.N., n. 2455), found shelter in the neighboring city of Neapolis, where they inhabited a quarter called that of the buried city (Suetonius, Titus, 8). The name of Herculaneum, which for some time remained attached to the site of the disaster, is mentioned in the later itineraries; but in the course of the Middle Ages all recollection of it perished.

Villa Ercolanese, Herculaneum image

Plan of Villa Ercolanese, Herculaneum, Italy

In 1709, while Prince Elbeuf of the house of Lorraine, in command of the armies of Charles VI., was seeking crushed marble to make plaster for his new villa near Portici, he learned from the peasants that there were in the civinity some pits from which they not only quarried excellent marble, but had extracted many statues in the course of years (see Jorio, Notizia degli scavi d’Ercolano, Naples, 1827). In 1738, while Colonel D. Rocco de Alcubierre was directing the works for the construction of the "Reali Delizie" at Portici, he received orders from Charles III. to begin excavations on the spot where it had been reported to the king that the Elbeuf statues had been found. At first it was believed that a temple was being explored, but afterwards the inscriptions proved that the building was a theatre. This discovery excited the greatest commotion among the scholars of all nations; and many of them hastened to Naples to see the marvelous statues of the Balbi and the paintings on the walls. But everything was kept private, as the Government wished to reserve to itself the right of illustrating the monuments. First of all Monsignor Bayardi was brought from Rome and commissioned to write anbout the antiquities which were being collected in the museum at Portici under the care of Camillo Paderni, and when it was recognized that the prelate had not sufficient learning, and by the progress of the excavation other most abundant material was accumulated, about which at once scholars and courtiers were anxious to be informed, Bernardo Tanucci, having become secretary of state in 1755, founded the Accademia Ercolanese, which published the principal works onHerculaneum (Le Pitture ed I Bronzi d’Ercolano 8 vols., 1757, 1792; Dissertationis Isagogicoe ad Herculanensium voluminum explanationem pars prima, 1797). The criterion which guided the studies of the academicians was far from being worthy of unqualified praise, and consequently their work did not always meet the approval of the best scholars who had the opportunity of seeing the monuments. Among these was Winckelmann, who in his letters gave ample notices of the exacavtions and the antiquities which he was able to visit on several occasions. Other notices were furnished by Gori, Symbolae litterariae Florentinae, 1748, 1751, by Marcello Venuti, Descriozione delle prime scoperte d’Ercolano, Rome, 1748, and Scipione Maffei, Tre lettere intorno alle scoperte d’Ercolano, Verona, 1748. The exacavtions, which continued for more than forty years (1738-1780), were executed at first under the immediate direction of Alcubierre (1738-1741), and then with the assistance of the engineers Rorro and Bardet (1741-1745), Carl Weber (1750-1764), and Francesco La Vega. After the death of Alcubierre (1780), the last-named was appointed director-in-chief of the excavations; but from that time the investigation at Herculaneum were intermitted, and the researches at Pompeii were vigorously carried on. Resumed in 1827, the exacavtions at Herculaneum were shortly after suspended, nor were the new attempts made in 1866 with the money bestowed by King Victor Emmanuel attended with success, being impeded by the many dangers arising from the houses built overhead. The meagerness of the results obtained by the occasional works executed in the present century, and the fact that the investigators were unfortunate enough to strike upon places already explored, gave rise to the opinion that the whole area of the city had been crossed by tunnels in the time of Charles III. and in the beginning of the reign of Ferdinand IV. And although it is recognized that the works had not been prosecuted with the caution that they required, yet in view of the serious difficulties that would attend the collection of the little that had been left by the first excavators, every proposal for new investigations had been abandoned. But in a memoir which Professor Barnabei read in the Reale Accademia dei Lincei (Atti della R. Ac., series iii., vol. ii. p. 751), he undertook to prove that the researches made by the Government in the last century did not cover any great area. The antiquities exacated at Herculaneum in the last century form a collection of the highest scientific and artistic value. There are marble statues of astonishing art and perfect preservation, of which it is sufficient to mention the two equestrian statues of the balbi (Museo Borbonico, vol. ii. pl. xxxviii.-ix) and the so-called statue of Aristides. With the exception of a few pieces nearly all the great bronzes of the museum belong to Herculaneum. It is thence that we have obtained the reposing Hermes, the drunken Silenus, the sleeping Faunus, the dancing girls, the bust called Plato’s that believed to be Seneca’s, the two quoit-throwers or discoboli, and so many master-pieces more, figured by the academicians in their volume on the bronzes. Mural paintings of extraordinary beauty were also discovered, such as those that represen Theseus after the slaughter of the Minotaur (Helbig, Wandgemälde, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1878, No. 1214) and Chiron teaching Achilles the art of playing on the lyre (ibid., No. 1291). Notwithstanding the recent discoveries of the stupendous paintings in the gardens of the Villa Farnesina on the banks of the Tiber, the monochromes of Herculaneum remain among our finest specimens of the exquisite taste and consummate skill displayed by the ancient artists. Among the best prese4rved is Leto and Niobe, which has been the subject of so many studies and so many publications (ibid., No. 1706). There is also a considerable number f lapidary inscriptions edited in vol. ii. of the epigraphic collection of the Cat. del Mus. Naz. Di Napoli.

But all these antiquities do not seem to afford adequate support for the opinion of those who, pointing out that those marvels were found for the most part in two or three buildings, conclude that similar riches would be found in other houses if the excavations were resume. For their contention is that Herculaneum was not only a much greater city than Pompeii, but had attained a more exquisite Greek culture, because a large body of the Greek culture, because a large body of the Greek colonists expelled from the cities of Southern Italy had settled there either through their own numerical strength or through the favor of the Samnite confederation, whose conquests had placed it above all alarm at the advance of an already vanquished race. but in support of these assertions, more proof seems to be required than the fact that only two Samnite inscriptions have been found in Herculaneum (cf. Fabretti, Glossarium Italicum, No. 2784, 2784 bis), whilst at Pompeii they have been met with in great numbers; since, if it is borne in mind that in a later age Herculaneum was a municipium as well as Pompeii, and had the same political life, we must seek another explanation of the circumstance that in Pompeii there are so many inscriptions relative to municipal affairs, while in Herculaneum there are none. on the other hand, the classical tradition does not force us to believe that the city was so small as the academicians held it to be. He plan published in the Dissertatio Isagogica represents nine insuloe or blocks, each having the proportions of the sides of the Villa Suburbana or Villa Ercolanese discovered in the place called the wood of St Agostino. It was believed that this place was in the suburb, because it was divided from the rest of the inhabited area by a narrow valley formed by the washing of the rain (Diss. Isag., p. 30). If this was correctly determined, the same cannot be said of the circuit of the city, was the walls have not been discovered. Nor are the investigations sufficient to fix precisely the ancient shore line. The discovery of the Villa Suburbana contributed to magnify the greatness of Herculaneum; within its walls were collected statues of marble and of bronze, and the famous library, of which, counting both entire and fragmentary volumes, 1803 papyri have been preserved. Among the nations which took the greatest interest in the discovery of the Herculaneum library, the most honorable rank belongs to England, which sent Bishop Hayter and other scholars to Naples to solicit the publication of the volumes. Of the 341 papyri which have been unrolled, 195 have been published (Herculanensium voluminum quoe supersunt, Naples, 1793-1809; Collectio altera, 1862-1876). They contain works by Epicurus, Demetrius, Polistratus, Colotes, Chrysippus, Carniscus, and Philodemus. The names of the authors are in themselves sufficient to show that the library belonged to a person whose principal study was the Epicurean philosophy. But of the great master of this school only a few works have been found. Of his treatise Peri phuseos [Gk.] divide into 37 books, it is known that there were three copies in the library (Coll. Alt., vi). Quite recently Professor Comparetti, studying the first fasciculus of volume xi. Of the same new collection, recognized most important fragments of the Ethics of Epicurus, and these he published in 1879 in Nos. ix. And xi. Of the Rivista di Filologia ed Instruzione classica, Turin. Even the other authors above mentioned are but poorly represented, with the exception of Philodemus, of whom 26 different treatises have been recognized. But all these philosophic discussions, belonging for the most part to an author less than secondary among the Epicureans, fall short of the high expectations excited by the first discovery of the library. Among the many volumes unrolled only a few are of historical importance, -- that edited by Bucheler, which treats of the philosophers of the academy (Acad. Phil. index, Hercul., Griefswald, 1859), and that edited by Comparetti, which deals with the Stoics ("Papiro ercolanese inedito," in Rivista di Fil. Ed Ist. class. Anno iii., fasc. X-xii). To appreciate the value of the volumes unrolled but not yet published (for 146 vols. were only copied and not printed), the student must await the appearance of Comparetti’s paper, "Relazione sui papyri ercolanesi," read in the Reale Accad. Dei Lincei, which will appear in the "Proceedings" of the academy for 1879. contributions of some value have been made to the study of Herculaneum fragments by Spengel ("Die Hercul. Rollen" in Philologus, 1863 suppl. Vol.) and Gompertz (Hercul. Studien, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1865-66, cf. Zeithschr. f. österr. Gymn., 1867-1872). There are in the library some volumes written in Latin, which, according to Booth (Notice sur les manuscripts trouves à Herculaneum, Amsterdam, 1845), but they are all so damaged that hardly any of them can be deciphered. One with verses relating to the battle of Actium is belived to belong to a poem of Rabirius. The numerical preponderance of the works of Philodemus led some people to believe that this had been the library of that philosopher. But quite recently Professor Compartti has come to the conclusion that the library was collected by Lucius Piso Caesoninus (see Pompei e la Regione Sotterrata dal Vesuvio, Naples, 1879, p. 159 sq.) . A new support to the theory of Professor Comparetti is furnished by the epigraphic fragment edited by De Petra (ib., p. 251 sq.) ; but Dr Mau takes up a counter positon, - he is the first to do so,- and shows that the fragment must have another interpretation (Bull. Inst. di Corr. Arch., 1880). Professor De Petra has also published the official notices upon the antiquities unearthed in the sumptuous villa, giving the plan executed by Weber and recovered by chance by the director of excavation, Michele ruggiero. This plan, which is here reproduced from De Petra’s monograph, is the only satisfactory document for the topography of Herculaneum; for the plan of the theatre published in the Bullettino archeologico-italiano (Naples, 1861, i. p. 53, tab iii.) was executed in 1747, when the excavations were not completed. And even for the history of the "finds" made in the Villa Suburbana he necessity for further studied makes itself felt, since there is a lack of agreement between the accounts given by Alcubierre and Weber and those communicated to the Philosophical Transactions (London, vol. x.) by Camillo Paderni, conservator of the Portici Museumn. It is hoped, therefore, that among the papers recovered by Ruggiero there may be others which will shed light on what remains dark in the topography of the buried city.

Among the older works relating to Herculaneum, in addition to those already quoted, may be mentioned De Brosses, Lettre sur l’état actuel de la ville souterraine d’Heracléa, Paris, 1750; Seigneux de Correvon, Lettre sur la découverte de l’ancienne ville d’Herculane, Yverdon, 1770; David, Les antiquités d’Herculaneum, Paris, 1780; D’Ancora Gaetano, Prospetto storico-fisico degli scavi d’Ercolano e di Pompei, Naples, 1803; Venuti, Prime Scovette di Ercolano, Rome, 1748; and Romanelli, Viaggio ad Ercolano, Naples, 1811. A full list will be found in vol. i. of Museo Borbonico, Naples, 1824, pp. 1-11. ( F.B.)

The article above was written by Prof. F. Barnabei, Litt.D., Director of Museum of Antiquities at Rome; author of archaeological papers in Italian reviews and in the Athenaeum.

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