How Herculaneum Disappeared

Though there is evidence of Herculaneum’s more recent past, in the years leading up to and following the explosion of Vesuvius, the history of Herculaneum itself, is rather unclear. It is widely said that the origins of the Italian people at Herculaneum were those who spoke the Indo-European language Oscan. The origins of the name of the town are likely due to the Romans worshiping of the Greek hero Hercules. Following a series of political turmoil and military conquest, Herculaneum, only a few miles south of Naples, became one of the wealthiest places in southern Rome. Historians deduced that Mount Vesuvius, a mountain known to the ancient world as anything but a volcano, had shown no signs of volcanic activity; the eruption in 79 AD was a surprise to all. The source for the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 AD is Pliny the Younger (61-c.112 AD), who describes the volcanic clouds, fear, and shrieks of people in great detail in a letter to the Roman Tacitus (c. 56-120 AD).1 

Herculaneum was closer to Vesuvius than Pompeii, lying to the west of the volcano. As a result of volcanic lava and rock at extreme temperatures, Herculaneum was essentially frozen for centuries. The eruption faded out of memory, and by the time Vesuvius erupted every other century or so between 500 and 950 AD, those who had been alive during the original eruption were gone.

A multitude of factors caused the ancient cities to be forgotten; the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD and invasions during the Middle Ages by Germans and Turks, whom the Romans referred to as “barbarians”, are perhaps the most important. By the Renaissance, which saw a revival of interest in classical antiquity, works about the eruption of Vesuvius came to light, but many believed it was a myth.2 Subsequently, cities developed above the ruins.



1. Joseph Jay, Deiss, Herculaneum: Italy's Buried Treasure. (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 14

2. Deiss, 25