Vesuvius devastated Pompeii and Herculaneum (8th century BCE) in the eruption of 79 CE. Pompeii’s 11,000 residents suffered the most. Even so most escaped, salvaging some of their belongings as pumice blanketed the town for the first 18 hours. By the end of the first day it was covered with three meters of ash, pumice and other materials. The next morning the 20 mile/33km column of ash collapsed, sending 250C/400F air and pyroclastic material through the town at high speeds, killing everyone who remained.

Amazingly we have eye witness reports. Pliny the Younger wrote two letters in response  to an inquiry from the historian Tacitus. Tacticus had asked about the death of Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet at Misenum. Pliny the Elder went to help people and to get a closer view of the eruption, and ordered the fleet to assist in evacuations.

The forum in Herculaneum, Vesuvius in the background
Vesuvius looms over Pompeii, both ancient and modern.

Vesuvius has erupted many times since: 172, 203, 222, possibly in 303, 379, 472, 512, 536, 685, 787, around 860, around 900, 968, 991, 999, 1006, 1037, 1049, around 1073, 1139, 1150, and there may have been eruptions in 1270, 1347, and 1500, 1631, six times in the 18th century, eight times in the 19th century , 1906, 1929 and 1944, the last one. None have been of the scale of that of 79, one of the most powerful of all known volcanic eruptions. It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last 100 years. It is the most densely populated volcanic zone in the world, with 3 million in the area and 600,000 in the danger zone. It is one of a number of volcanoes in the zone. See Vesuvius on Wikipedia

Excavations began in the 16th century, well before modern methods allowed for better preservation of the discoveries and extraction of information. Of course with more modern methods we have learned more about the times.

The artwork and its state of preservation are impressive, whether in the form of frescoes, statues or mosaics andhave had tremendous influence. “Artists, architects, potters, and even furniture makers drew much inspiration from Pompeii… The stucco work popularized in England by the 18th-century architects James and Robert Adam used the same motifs. In France, the in Louis XVI style incorporated Pompeian motifs, and the apartment of Louis’s queen, Marie Antoinette, at Fontainebleau was decorated in this style, which became popular throughout Europe. Jacques-Louis David and his student Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres drew inspiration for their paintings from the excavations. Indeed, the Neoclassic style stimulated by the discoveries at Pompeii completely replaced the Rococo and became the artistic style of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic period.” See Britannica

male etc wall paint

child statue
The metal rim and the metal hub are orginal, and there were spoke stubs

Achaeologists found bakeries with grinding stones and kneading machines. They found some ovens still with loaves of bread inside. Bread at that time contained bits of stone from the grinding process. This caused teeth to wear excessively. One fast food joint, called thermopolia, where hungry ancients grabbed quick meals. See the Smithsonian. From sewage pipes we’ve learned what was in the diet. See NBC News report The pipes are in such good shape that they could still be used.

The House of the Vettii is the largeset house in Pompeii. It reopened to the public after 20 years in 2015. Once again visitors can enjoy the stunning beauty of its art and admire the skills of the artists.

House of the Vettii
fresco in House of the Vettii
house of vetti
fresco in House of the Vettii, Wiki photo

The House of Mysteries (2nd century BCE) is newly open to the public.  There are exquisite frecoes in room 5 showing the initiation of a bride into a mystery cult. These are now the most famous of the frescoes in Pompeii.

House of Mystery, photos by Peg
House of Mystery, , photos by Peg
Freco from the House of Mysteries, Pompeii
House of Mystery, photos by Peg


Herculaneum was buried on the second day of the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 CE. Most of its inhabitants escaped death by leaving on the first day, as of its 4000 residents only some 350 skeletons have been recovered and few are likely to remain. In addition, because it was spared much of the damage caused by falling stone and then covered to a depth of 20 meters from six flows, we have much more of the perishable material: lintels, furniture, doors, carts and even papyrus writings survived the volcano’s wrath. Most of these are in the The National Archaeological Museum of Naples As a result of this preservation we learned a great deal about the daily life of its residents. For more information see What Was Normal Life Like In Pompeii Before Its Destruction? | Pompeii with Mary Beard

Herculaneum was named after Hercules. The town was home to wealthy residents seeking a summer beach venue. It dates from the 7thc BCE, when it was founded by the Oscans. The Etruscans took over until the the rise Greeks took over, and then came the Romans.

Herculaneum-  view fom above
View from the top of the ash that covered Herculaneum. Quite the heap!
Herculaneum, two figures
Superbly preserved fresco in Herculaneum
male etc wall paint
Another great fresco in Herculaneum
Herculaneum statute
Proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus

skeletons in Herculaneum
Remains at what was then the beach

The Villa of the Papyri is the luxurious dwelling on the seashore. It may have belonged to consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The library that survived nearly intact, and has been digitized.

Herculaneum, one of 1800 paprus books found, Tesoro_letterario_di_Ercolano_p27
One of the papyrus from the library.

Herculaneum (Ercolano)

Herculaneum- Lyre and Cupids

Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) is an archaeological site on the Italian coast a bit south of Rome.  The town, inhabited since the 6th century BCE, was destroyed in 79 CE, by the same eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii.  Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic rock and ash – 15- 20 meters/65 feet  – and was struck by extremely high temperatures, killing all the remaining residents instantly.  As a result the site offers a far greater insight into the life and death of the residents of populations destroyed by the eruption than Pompeii, and because of its greater state of preservation, is a more interesting place to visit.

Where in Pompeii there were no skeletons, just the area hollowed out in the ash by the skeleton (filled in with plaster of Paris), in Herculaneum they found some 300 intact skeletons.  Analysis showed us their occupation, health, diet – we can even distinguish those who ate meat from those who did not.  Some had lead poisoning, perhaps from lead pipes Romans sometimes used.    

These individuals died from exposure to intense heat, in the range of 500C, close 1,000F.  They were in structures built to protect inhabitants from falling debris, as the area was highly prone to earthquakes.  Those in the shelter were women and children.  Just outside the arched shelters on the beach – which as a result of the eruption is now some 400 meters/yards further west – they found the skeletons of a few men.  A boat was nearby, so they were planning an escape.  

The archaeologists found food intact, e.g. olives and flour, as well as furniture and fabrics.  The relatively light weight of the fallout meant that roofs remain intact, as do other wooden elements such as doors, lintels and trim.  They found wooden furniture, sculptures and frescoes with bright colors.    

Herculaneum- Lyre and Cupids
Herculaneum- Lyre and Cupids

Herculaneum fresco
Herculaneum fresco

Herculaneum fresco
Herculaneum fresco


Herculaneum - wooden chest
Herculaneum – wooden chest

Herculaneum - bed
Herculaneum – bed

Herculaneum – sculpture


Here’s an excellent BBC video about the site: