As we were staying only an hour or so away, one of the main places we had hoped to visit during our stay in Caserta was the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum.
Herculaneum, or Ercolano as the modern locals call it, is situated southeast of Naples at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Vesuvius is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, due to the area around it being so densely populated.
Oh, that and the fact that it is still active.
Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and so another eruption is considered to be well overdue. There are an estimated 600,000 people living within the 9-mile radius labelled the ‘red-zone’, made up of the 18 towns at its base. Their survival would be nigh-on impossible.
The threat of Vesuvius erupting is not even a threat but a sure certainty. The question isn’t if it will erupt, but when. The Italian government are so concerned about the vast devastation and loss of life that it will cause that they have created a programme to relocate, offering people the sum of approximately €30,000 to vacate the area. Very few have taken them up on their offer.
Research is on-going into Mount Vesuvius and its activity is being closely monitored at all times. The Vesuvius Observatory monitors a number of factors from seismic activity to gas emissions 24 hours a day, and any unusual activity or signs noted through this permanent observation is reported to the authorities.
Given the massive amount of magma that Vesuvius sits on which spreads more than 400km wide, along with the fact that it hasn’t erupted for so long, it is thought that the next eruption has the potential to be overwhelmingly devastating. It would endanger more than 3 million people and would very possibly wipe out the whole of Naples.
The last time Mount Vesuvius erupted so violently was back in 79AD. We know the details of what happened thanks to the letters of Pliny the Younger, which have been preserved through time.
There were signs beforehand that something was about to happen – a small earthquake had occurred and water supplied had dried up. At 1pm on 24th August the eruption began, spewing up lava and magma and giving off noxious fumes. It had been approximately 800 years since Mount Vesuvius had last erupted and consequently, this eruption proved to be terrifyingly fierce.
Whilst many had already fled the town of Pompeii there were an estimated 2000 people left behind, meeting their fate after being buried alive by the falling ash and rocks.
Herculaneum is situated a short distance from Pompeii. Many people had attempted to flee the town from the boathouses and most of them had managed to get out onto the sea successfully. Approximately 300 of those that hadn’t made it away sought refuge in the chambers of what is thought to be the arches of the boathouses.
A pyroclastic surge formed by the hot gas and ash mixture swept over the town of Herculaneum at a rate of 100mph and with a temperature of approximately 500°C. The speed and heat at which it covered the town resulted in the instant death of anyone remaining behind.
There followed six surges and flows which pushed back anyone who had managed to sail out to sea. The people who thought they had escaped Vesuvius’s furious attack on their town were plunged back to their death.
The perfectly preserved skeletons, buildings and belongings which were uncovered almost 2000 years later was caused by the intense heat and speed at which they were covered. The speedy extraction of water, along with the 75 feet of hot ash covering which blanketed the people and buildings resulted in immediate preservation. This was then further protected by the volcanic tuff covering the town as a perfectly preserved, natural grave.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that a farmer was digging a shaft for a well and uncovered a collection of pristine marbles. Digging of the area continued, though not in any archeological sense, but by looters and thieves keen to discover valuable treasures within the land.
Excavations were soon taken over by King Charles of Bourbon who was keen to show off any precious, historical discoveries at the Royal Palace at Portici. It wasn’t until 1927 that Amadeo Maiuri and his team began the first open air excavations of the site, uncovering most of what we see now.
Whilst Maiuri was present he had introduced a method of preserving and maintaining the site, but after he left it quickly began to fall into disrepair.
In 2001 a conservation project was launched to keep the town of Herculaneum maintained and preserved so that visitors can appreciate first-hand how the Romans lived… and also died here.
Of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Herculaneum is thought to have been the more prosperous of the two, with its fancier buildings and more elaborate frescoes and decorations.
It was absolutely fascinating to take this step back in time to a town the Romans painstakingly, sturdily built. I had never realised how talented they were, nor how intelligent. Of course, I’d read books and stuff but by stepping into this whole other world you were almost living it.
We were all completely fascinated. The walls we could touch, the floors we walked on, even drainpipes were a source of deep engagement and thought.
Every minute detail was significant. The Romans overlooked nothing, it seemed. They were smart, they were practical but they loved the good things too. Decoration was a big factor in Roman life, we noticed.
We were all astonished at how well everything was preserved. We’re not talking in terms of you just being able to make out what things are, or what they are supposed to be, but of seeing at a glance what you are looking at.
There are frescoes so perfectly salvaged that you can see every detail, and tiny tiles patiently put together to form magnificent pictures and floors.
You could envision people walking along the roads, going about their day-to-day lives before Vesuvius struck.
The thermopolium stands now as it stood then. They were the Roman equivalent of your fast-food joint or bar, serving up hot food and snacks from a central place in the town. Vegetables, soups and beans would be cooked up and then stored in the huge terracotta pots to be kept warm, before serving them up to the locals at this popular meeting place.
Roman roads ran in straight lines – these guys wanted to get to where they wanted to go in the quickest, most simple way possible. The roads were wide enough to allow animals to pull carts and heavy loads, and were often humped up slightly towards the centre in order to allow water to run off into drainage ditches.
Floors of buildings bucked due to the hot ash having been swept beneath them, then setting fast into their new structure.
Even wood had been perfectly preserved due to the rapid removal of water and subsequent immersion in hot ash, keeping them from being destroyed.
The Collegial Shrine of the Augustales was the place of worship for the first Roman Emperor.
The frescoes within it are breathtaking.
The myth of Hercules is depicted in one of the frescoes. The Greek hero was the inspiration for the town’s name.
The Augustales were the order of Roman priests who Tiberius had instituted in order to maintain the worship of the emperor.
The names of the benefactors were inscribed on the wall…
These inscriptions were usually placed on the walls of collegiums such as this…
Every now and then the realisation of the sheer terror and fear that these people felt would hit us. How did they react when the volcano erupted? How did they feel when they realised there was no escape?
There is some comfort in knowing that their deaths would have been so fast that they probably wouldn’t have realised their time had come. Waiting for certain and imminent death though, must have been torturous.
You can see from some of these photographs just how deeply Herculaneum was covered. The walls rising up to where the rebuilt town above now stands towers high above where you walk as the Romans walked.
We wondered how much more lay undiscovered in perfectly preserved graves between where we stood and where Mount Vesuvius looms a short distance away. There must be a whole other world we don’t yet know about, and perhaps never will.
We left less ignorant to how much the Romans did, having learnt and experienced more than any book could ever have taught us. We had a new appreciation for the people, and a humility towards those who suffered, whose belongings we see with admiring eyes and whose talents we marvel over, that we didn’t possess before.
The realisation that history isn’t something we just learn about but is something that once happened hits home here. How must the mother cradling her baby felt as she watched debris flying in the distance, wondering – maybe even knowing – that there was no escape if it chose to make their way to their town?
How desperately did they launch their boats, hopeful to escape to safety?
The terror of how they felt was realised by us all. This was no longer something we just read about. It was real.
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