Located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Herculaneum (Italian: Ercolano) was an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD. Its ruins are located in the commune of Ercolano, Campania, Italy. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous as one of the few ancient cities that can now be seen in much of its original splendour, as well as for having been lost, along with Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Boscoreale, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that buried it. Unlike Pompeii, the deep pyroclastic material which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors, food and even some 300 skeletons which were surprisingly discovered in recent years along the seashore as it was thought until then that the town had been evacuated by the inhabitants.
Herculaneum was a wealthier town than Pompeii, possessing an extraordinary density of fine houses with, for example, far more lavish use of coloured marble cladding.
Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology), an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In fact, it seems that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. The Greeks named the city Ἡράκλειον, Heraklion. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War (“war of the allies” against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla.
After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 metres (50–60 feet) of ash. It lay hidden and largely intact until discoveries from wells and underground tunnels became gradually more widely known, and notably following the Prince d’Elbeuf’s explorations in the early 1700s. Excavations continued sporadically up to the present and today many streets and buildings are visible, although over 75% of the town remains buried. Today, the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of Herculaneum. Until 1969 the town of Ercolano was called Resina. It changed its name to Ercolano, the Italian modernization of the ancient name in honour of the old city. The inhabitants worshipped above all Hercules, who was believed to be the founder of both the town and Mount Vesuvius. Other important deities worshipped include Venus and Apollo.
After earlier clandestine tunnelling, major excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. The elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano (“The Antiquities of Herculaneum”) under the patronage of the King of the Two Sicilies had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings, from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered, which was significantly easier to excavate because of the thinner layer of debris covering the site (four meters as opposed to Herculaneum’s twenty meters).
In the twentieth century, excavation once again resumed in the town. However, many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.