Herculaneum provides a fascinating look into Roman society, and while Pompeii is more well-known, it is well worth visiting both. As a result of Herculaneum being buried by slower-falling pyroclastic ash, a significantly greater number of private homes and artifacts of daily life have been preserved. Carbon dating and protein analysis of skeletons, for instance, both revealed that the people who lived in Herculaneum consumed a wide variety of foods. The remains also shed light on the religious practices that were common in Roman homes.
Few sources give such a detailed impression of Roman life as the houses preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum. By examining them, Wallace-Hadrill shows how the worlds of work and play, family and outsiders, private and public came to intertwine at these sites.
The upper class lived in private single-family residences (domus), or tenement block housing with numerous families (insulae). The middle class earned wealth through the operation of shops, banking, manufacturing, and land ownership. The lower class consisted of poor freeborn citizens, slaves, and freedmen.
Herculaneum’s wealthy residents lived in villas on the outskirts of town, such as the one known as the Villa of the Papyri after it yielded an entire library of carbonized scrolls written on philosophical subjects. However, the status of a person was determined by birth and it was hard for people to change social class. The Aediles promoted great public games (ludi public) and distributed free grain to maintain social stability.
The markets at Herculaneum are an eloquent testimony to the link between economic and cultural life in Roman culture. They reveal the range of items bought by local citizens, from foodstuffs to wooden furniture, as well as the presence of exotic animals imported for shows such as venationes or damnation ad bestias (beating with wild beasts) and used in various forms of entertainment or for execution as a form of public humiliation.
Herculaneum was more sheltered than Pompeii by the pyroclastic material that buried it, which preserved its upper floors, and its ruins are better conserved in general, with remarkable preservation of food remains and other everyday objects. Carbonization was also common, allowing archaeologists to recover ancient documents such as the only library to survive from antiquity, located at Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri.
The richer residents of Herculaneum lived in impressive 1st-century CE residences, built on the Domus model, but adapted to Hellenistic influences, and with spacious rooms incorporating panoramic sea views. These buildings, such as the House of the Faun and the Villa of the Papyri, also included private gardens.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried beneath a compact mass of tufaceous material and this unusual condition helped to preserve the site. It also prevented tampering and looting. The special ground humidity made it possible to conserve wooden frameworks of houses, wooden furniture, the hull of a sizable boat, and even carbonized loaves of bread (one of which bears an imprint of ‘Made by Celer’).
Herculaneum has fewer public buildings than Pompeii but those that remain are remarkable for their quality. Among them are the spacious palaestra accessed by a monumental gateway and two sets of baths, one of which has all the usual luxuries such as steam rooms and gender-separate areas.
Unfortunately, after Maiuri’s death the large workforce that had looked after Herculaneum dwindled and the site was neglected. Inevitably, roofs began to collapse and parts of the building fabric deteriorated. It was only after the end of World War II that conservation works started to improve matters and since then there has been a gradual improvement in the overall state of the site.
The comparatively slow-falling ash from Vesuvius’ eruption saved many houses from destruction. For the first time, the interiors of these dwellings have been reconstructed, revealing that they were multi-purpose structures with shops and workspaces on their ground floors and residential living space above. Preserved wooden shelving and pottery amphorae indicate the kinds of goods sold.
In addition, carbonized papyrus scrolls give clues as to what everyday life was like in Roman Herculaneum. Wall paintings, both lost and recovered, record daily activities and mythological scenes.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum seems to have been more exclusive, catering to an upper class of Roman citizens. This is evidenced by the presence of luxurious 1st-century CE villas such as the Villa of the Papyri. These are based on the Domus model but with extras such as terraced gardens and sea views. In addition, it is easy to see that the wealthy Herculaneum residents worshipped gods at home in miniature representations of temples. Lares (god of hearth and household), Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules were all popular deities.
To appreciate Roman Herculaneum’s enormous impact on civilization, read “6 Reasons to Invest in a Roman Herculaneum.” This engaging piece explains the compelling reasons to invest in this historical jewel. By following the links to this article in “The Impact of Roman Herculaneum on Society,” readers can learn about the many ways Herculaneum has changed civilization. The backlink explores Roman Herculaneum’s history, preservation, culture, and economic potential.