Greece and Rome

Research Article

The Promise of Herculaneum

H. A. B. White

Although the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 overwhelmed both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the importance of Herculaneum has today been eclipsed by the comparative ease of excavation and the size of Pompeii. Ten years ago it was estimated that for every one visitor to Herculaneum there were four to Pompeii. This was not always so: from 1709, when Prince d'Elbœuf, excavating an old well, accidentally struck a part of the theatre at Herculaneum, until 1781, when one of his successors, La Vega, was ordered to turn to Pompeii, Herculaneum was considered to be the more important find. Under Charles III of Naples, the engineers Alcubierre, Weber, and La Vega worked there.

The importance of Pompeii, as compared with Herculaneum, in the eyes of archaeologists and scholars, is reflected in the literature on the subject: while there has been much detailed and recent research on Pompeii, Herculaneum has attracted the attention of few scholars.1 Now that most of the interesting districts of Pompeii have been uncovered, archaeologists with modern equipment may concentrate on Herculaneum.

The early history of Herculaneum is obscure. Strabo sums up its first inhabitants in the sentence: ‘The Oscans used to possess both Herculaneum and her neighbour Pompeii, which lies on the river Sarno; next came the Etruscans and Pelasgians, and thereafter the Samnites; but these also were expelled from the places.’ Yet its inhabitants of later days were proud to trace back their origin to the Greek god Heracles, and there is no doubt that this town shows more evidence of Greek influence in its works of art than Pompeii.