Once buried underneath the same lava that devoured Pompeii as a whole, Herculaneum was a thriving Roman city that was a luxury spot for the rich. Today, the city, after being buried for hundreds of years underneath volcanic ash, serves as a memory of how the rich Roman empire and its people once ruled the lands.
From an archeological standpoint, Herculaneum is also one of the best-preserved ancient Roman structures out there with most of the houses, buildings, roofs, and even organic food still intact.
The Herculaneum Archeological Site is also an underrated and lesser-known spot than the popular Pompeii ruins which means crowds here are also really less, giving you plenty of space to walk around and avoid bumping into people. It’s also a comparatively smaller site, only needing a day to walk around and fully explore for those who are pressed for time.
But for those who are looking forward to exploring a huge metropolis complete with ancient amphitheaters, brothels, and large structures, head to Pompeii to witness the grandeur of it all.
Whichever site you choose, there is no doubt that these famous Roman structures are definitely the must-see places in Italy that should not be missed.
Herculaneum History and The Eruption of Vesuvius
Built in the 7th century BC according to historical analysis, Herculaneum was a thriving coastal city in ancient Rome, named after the mythical Greek god Hercules. With grand frescos and mosaics decorating the walls and floors of the buildings, it’s safe to conclude that Herculaneum was rich in its government and its people. In fact, it was also a popular luxury holiday spot for the rich.
Herculaneum is smaller, but was more glamorous and better organized than Pompeii, with sophisticated underground sewage pipes and public baths equipped with modern (for their time) and better-equipped heating systems. It’s clear that people who lived here lead a completely different and satisfying lifestyle than the huge network of Pompeii.
But the town met an unfortunate end when the nearby Mt Vesuvius roared to life and erupted in flames, burying the whole town, its people, and nearby Pompeii in 16 meters of ash, rock, and lava.
The pyroclastic flow of volcanic gas hit the town at a temperature of 400 degrees. This instantly killed the townspeople but the temperature was perfect for carbonizing organic material from clothes to food, explaining the town’s near-perfect state of preservation from the floors to the rooftops.
Herculaneum vs Pompeii – What makes Herculaneum ruins different?
Now, here is the main question that people ask when planning to make a visit to the coastal town “is Herculaneum better than Pompeii?” and the answer is, in its state of preservation, – yes.
Though Mt Vesuvius destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the levels of destruction are vastly different. The structures of Pompeii were destroyed and crushed by the first barge of oncoming rocks and debris but Herculaneum was away from this onslaught, which is why the buildings with their intricate architecture, marble floors, colored walls, and complete rooftops still stand unharmed today, unlike Pompeii.
You can also see jewelry, wooden partitions, and even food materials completely preserved, getting a very clear glimpse of what living in a 7th-century Roman city was like.
Things to See in Herculaneum
While walking around the city itself offers some great and respectful sightseeing, here are the structures that are a must-explore for any travelers that chance upon this place.
Roman Bath House
Dating from the 1st century BC, the roman baths known as The Terme Centrali (Central Baths) can be found in this ancient Roman city with beautiful mosaics that depicts Triton surrounded by dolphins, octopi, and squids. Like today’s baths, they are divided into areas for men and for women.
You can walk through and explore the apodyterium (changing rooms) that has wall niches where the people used to keep clothing before entering the three bathing areas: the frigidarium (cold room), the caldarium absidato (hot room), and the tepidarium,
House of Neptune and Amphitrite
Here is where you see the beautiful mosaics of Neptune and his wife Amphitrite as they were painted when Herculaneum was still alive with its inhabitants. This richly decorated house was believed to be owned by nobles or someone of a very rich status.
The House of Julius Caesar’s Father-in-Law
The most popular site in the city, this villa known as “Villa de Papiri”, belonged to the famous Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, and much of this palace remains unexcavated.
The villa’s name comes from the ancient papyrus rolls that were discovered in the library inside the villa when it was excavated. These 1800 papyri rolls, preserved by the volcanic ash just like all the other structures, contain Greek Philosophical texts that have been kept unrolled and unread even though it is still very much eligible.
House of the Relief of Telephus
This 23 BC 3-story building still intact from the floor to the roof is decorated with sculptures from the Neo-Attic school and has the Relief of Telephus or Rilievo di Telefo, the son of the founder of the city, per Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Hercules.
Hall of the Augustals
Filled with magnificent frescos of Greek gods on the walls, this structure was the meeting place for the College of the Augustales, a cult of free men devoted to Emperor Augustus. The skeleton of the building’s custodian was discovered on his bed, believed to be waiting for his last moments as Mt Vesuvius erupted.
One of the oldest houses in Herculaneum, the Samnite House comes with a rainwater pool and a Greek-style atrium. A sculpture of venus putting on her sandals was found here during the excavation. The Samnite House is also known for its delicately carved tufa capitals.
Shops & Bakeries
Since Herculaneum was a city, it came with its shops, food street full of stalls, and bakeries. Today, you can walk past this series of shops which includes a weaver’s shop with looms; a dye shop with dye pots; and a bakery with ovens placed outside. There were also bronze baking pans, and containers filled with walnuts and chickpeas found in this area.
The Palaestra, a large area of a public field for games and other events, was found behind these shops.