Herculaneum is a wonder in its own right, despite the fact that Pompeii is the more well-known of the two. This eerie ghost town has been kept so well that it gives visitors a look into Roman life, complete with plunge pools, beautiful mosaics, carbonized furniture, and even skeletons that appear to be in a state of dread. Even if some of the buildings could be locked up at particular hours, it is possible to see everything at Herculaneum in just a half day. Here are some highlights that you simply must not overlook.
1. The Barrel Arches
The first thing to do when visiting Herculaneum is to leave your large backpack at the ticket office as large bags are not allowed in the ruins. Once you’ve done this, you can begin your self-guided tour of Herculaneum.
The site is famous for its incredibly well-preserved wall paintings, mosaics, and marble statues. The climactic moment in Herculaneum’s excavation, however, came when a man who was digging a canal accidentally uncovered a number of wall paintings and inscriptions that had been covered for centuries.
The House of Neptune and Amphitrite is notable for its remarkably well-preserved glass paste wall mosaics, which depict the ancient god Neptune and his nymph wife Amphitrite. The other major highlight of the house is its barrel vault, which was a feat of engineering that set the standard for Roman architecture for a century.
2. The House of Neptune and Amphitrite
One of Herculaneum’s best-known attractions is the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, a flamboyant example of a triclinium (Romans’ dining room). This aristocratic home takes its name from a mosaic depicting Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite.
Glass paste wall mosaics, shell decorations, and a nymphaeum with theatrical masks are just some of the many treasures that demonstrate how daily life was preserved here. You’ll also be able to see Herculaneum’s waterworks, including an artificial grotto with a sea god statue.
A visit to Herculaneum is a privileged insight into ancient Roman daily life, as it was before the volcanic mudslide. The free handbook you’ll get at the entrance gives a list of houses and other landmarks to be visited in a sequence that is generally followed.
3. The Palestra
The Palestra is the most important building in Herculaneum. It reveals the daily life of Roman citizens. Ivory carvings of dancers and offerings to the goddess Priapus adorn the walls. Bronze fittings adorned other furniture. This house also contains a marvelous barrel-shaped ceiling that allows condensation to follow its natural curve instead of dropping onto the bathers below.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum’s upper floors were preserved, allowing us to see everyday household utensils in their proper places. This includes wooden beams and doors. Even papyrus has been preserved by the Herculaneum’s bed of solidified mud.
It was once thought that the inhabitants of Herculaneum managed to escape the pyroclastic flow of the eruption of Vesuvius. But hundreds of skeletons found huddled in oven-like boathouses proved otherwise.
4. The Baths of Diocletian
The Baths of Diocletian are a must-see when you visit Herculaneum. These massive bathing complexes were constructed with techniques designed to amplify a sense of space. They had high vaulted ceilings and a series of alcoves to promote a sense of openness. You can still see some of the beautiful frescoes from the upper reaches of the ceilings. The central part of the Baths contained separate sections for men and women. Enter through the apodyterium (changing room) into the caldarium and tepidarium.
These are huge rooms where patrons would perform light exercises before taking a bath. They were an important social hub in the Herculaneans’ lives and showed their civic pride, as evidenced by various inscriptions. Sadly, many Christian slaves died during the construction of these magnificent baths.
5. The Port of Herculaneum
It’s easy to see that Herculaneum is a little different from Pompeii and a visit here should be treated as a real learning experience. Don’t just tick it off your bucket list or get a photo because you feel obliged to do so.
Urbanistically, Herculaneum connects Pompeii with the typical domus-type houses and Ostia as a seaport city with its large apartment buildings. The House of Neptune and Amphitrite is a good example as it exemplifies Roman nymphean themes.
The central bath complex is another one of the highlights. It’s possible to enter the men’s area which houses the apodyterium (changing room) and the frigidarium with its red walls. It’s also worth checking out the graffiti – some of it obscene, others instructional and written by the residents.
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