1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Herculaneum

HERCULANEUM, an ancient city of Italy, situated about two-thirds of a mile from the Portici station of the railway from Naples to Pompeii. The ruins are less frequently visited than those of Pompeii, not only because they are smaller in extent and of less obvious interest, but also because they are more difficult of access. The history of their discovery and exploration, and the artistic and literary relics which they have yielded, are worthy, however, of particular notice. The small part of the city, which was investigated at the spot called Gli scavi nuovi (the new excavations) was discovered in the 19th century. But the more important works were executed in the 18th century; and of the buildings then explored at a great depth, by means of tunnels, none is visible except the theatre, the orchestra of which lies 85 ft. below the surface.

The brief notices of the classical writers inform us that Herculaneum[1] was a small city of Campania between Neapolis and Pompeii, that it was situated between two streams at the foot of Vesuvius on a hill overlooking the sea, and that its harbour was at all seasons safe. With regard to its earlier history nothing is known. The account given by Dionysius repeats a tradition which was most natural for a city bearing the name of Hercules. Strabo follows up the topographical data with a few brief historical statements—Ὄσκοι εἶχον καὶ ταύτην καὶ τὴν ἐφεξῆς Πομπηίαν . . . εἶτα Τυῤῥηνοὶ καὶ Πελασγοί, μετὰ ταῦτα Σαυνῖται. But leaving the questions suggested by these names (see Etruria, &c.),[2] as well as those which relate to the origin of Pompeii (q.v.), it is sufficient here to say that the first historical record about Herculaneum has been handed down by Livy (viii. 25), where he relates how the city fell under the power of Rome during the Samnite wars. It remained faithful to Rome for a long time, but it joined the Italian allies in the Social War. Having submitted anew in June of the year 665 (88 B.C.), it appears to have been less severely treated than Pompeii, and to have escaped the imposition of a colony of Sulla’s veterans, although Zumpt has suspected the contrary (Comm. epigr. i. 259). It afterwards became a municipium, and enjoyed great prosperity towards the close of the republic and in the earlier times of the empire, since many noble families of Rome selected this pleasant spot for the construction of splendid villas, one of which indeed belonged to the imperial house (Seneca, De ira, iii.), and another to the family of Calpurnius Piso. By means of the Via Campana it had easy communication north-westward with Neapolis, Puteoli and Capua, and thence by the Via Appia with Rome; and southwards with Pompeii and Nuceria, and thence with Lucania and the Bruttii. In the year A.D. 63 it suffered terribly from the earthquake which, according to Seneca, “Campaniam nunquam securam huius mali, indemnem tamen, et toties defunctam metu magna strage vastavit. Nam et Herculanensis oppidi pars ruit dubieque stant etiam quae relicta sunt” (Nat. quaest. vi. 1). Hardly had Herculaneum completed the restoration of some of its principal buildings (cf. Mommsen, I.N. n. 2384; Catalogo del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, n. 1151) when it fell beneath the great eruption of the year 79, described by Pliny the younger (Ep. vi. 16, 20), in which Pompeii also was destroyed, with other flourishing cities of Campania. According to the commonest account, on the 23rd of August of that year Pliny the elder, who had command of the Roman fleet at Misenum, set out to render assistance to a young lady of noble family named Rectina and others dwelling on that coast, but, as there was no escape by sea, the little harbour having been on a sudden filled up so as to be inaccessible, he was obliged to abandon to their fate those people of Herculaneum who had managed to flee from their houses, overwhelmed in a moment by the material poured forth by Vesuvius. But the text of Pliny the younger, where this account is given, has been subjected to various interpretations; and from the comparison of other classical testimonies and the study of the excavations it has been concluded that it is impossible to determine the date of the catastrophe, though there are satisfactory arguments to justify the statement that the event took place in the autumn. The opinion that immediately after the first outbreak of Vesuvius a torrent of lava was ejected over Herculaneum was refuted by the scholars of the 18th century, and their refutation is confirmed by Beulé (Le Drame du Vésuve, p. 240 seq.). And the last recensions of the passage quoted from Pliny, aided by an inscription,[3] prove that Rectina cannot have been the name of the harbour described by Beulé (ib. pp. 122, 247), but the name of a lady who had implored succour, the wife of Caesius Bassus, or rather Tascius (cf. Pliny, ed. Keil, Leipzig, 1870; Aulus Persius, ed. Jahn, Sat. vi.). The shore, moreover, according to the accurate studies of the engineer Michele Ruggiero, director of the excavations, was not altered by the causes adduced by Beulé (p. 125), but by a simpler event. “It is certain,” he says (Pompei e la regione sotterrata dal Vesuvio l’anno 79, Naples, 1879, p. 21 seq.), “that the districts between the south and west, and those between the south and east, were overwhelmed in two quite different ways. From Torre Annunziata (which is believed to be the site of the ancient Oplontii) to San Giovanni a Teduccio, for a distance of about 9 m., there flowed a muddy eruption which in Herculaneum and the neighbouring places, where it was most abundant, raised the level of the country more than 65 ft. The matter transported consisted of soil of various kinds—sand, ashes, fragments of lava, pozzolana and whitish pumice, enclosing grains of uncalcined lime, similar in every respect to those of Pompeii. In the part of Herculaneum already excavated the corridors in the upper portions of the theatre are compactly filled, up to the head of the arches, with pozzolana and pumice transformed into tufa (which proves that the formation of this stone may take place in a comparatively short time). Tufa is also found in the lowest part of the city towards the sea in front of the few houses that have been discovered; and in the very high banks that surround them, as also in the lowest part of the theatre, there are plainly to be seen earth, sand, ashes, fragments of lava and pumice, with little distinction of strata, almost always confused and mingled together, and varying from spot to spot in degree of compactness. It is clear that this immense congeries of earth and stones could not flow in a dry state over those 5 m. of country (in the beginning very steep, and at intervals almost level), where certainly it would have been arrested and all accumulated in a mound; but it must have been borne along by a great quantity of water, the effects of which may be distinctly recognized, not only in the filling and choking up even of the most narrow, intricate and remote parts of the buildings, but also in the formation of the tufa, in which water has so great a share; for it cannot be supposed that enough of it has filtered through so great a depth of earth. The torrent ran in a few hours to the sea, and formed that shallow or lagoon called by Pliny Subitum Vadum, which prevented the ships approaching the shores.” Hence it is that, while many made their escape from Pompeii (which was overwhelmed by the fall of the small stones and afterwards by the rain of ashes), comparatively few can have managed to escape from Herculaneum, and these, according to the interpretation given to the inscription preserved in the National Museum (Mommsen, I.N. n. 2455), found shelter in the neighbouring city of Neapolis, where they inhabited a quarter called that of the buried city (Suetonius, Titus, 8; C.I.L. x. No. 1492, in Naples: “Regio primaria splendidissima Herculanensium”). The name of Herculaneum, which for some time remained attached to the site of the disaster, is mentioned in the later itineraries; but in the course of the middle ages all recollection of it perished.

In 1719, while Prince Elbeuf of the house of Lorraine, in command of the armies of Charles VI., was seeking crushed marble to make plaster for his new villa near Portici, he learned from the peasants that there were in the vicinity some pits from which they not only quarried excellent marble, but had extracted many statues in the course of years (see Jorio, Notizia degli scavi d’ Ercolano, Naples, 1827). In 1738, while Colonel D. Rocco de Alcubierre was directing the works for the construction of the “Reali Delizie” at Portici, he received orders from Charles IV. (later, Charles III. of Spain) to begin excavations on the spot where it had been reported to the king that the Elbeuf statues had been found. At first it was believed that a temple was being explored, but afterwards the inscriptions proved that the building was a theatre. This discovery excited the greatest commotion among the scholars of all nations; and many of them hastened to Naples to see the marvellous statues of the Balbi and the paintings on the walls. But everything was kept private, as the government wished to reserve to itself the right of illustrating the monuments. First of all Monsignor Bayardi was brought from Rome and commissioned to write about the antiquities which were being collected in the museum at Portici under the care of Camillo Paderni, and when it was recognized that the prelate had not sufficient learning, and by the progress of the excavations other most abundant material was accumulated, about which at once scholars and courtiers were anxious to be informed, Bernardo Tanucci, having become secretary of state in 1755, founded the Accademia Ercolanese, which published the principal works on Herculaneum (Le Pitture ed i bronzi d’ Ercolano, 8 vols., 1757, 1792; Dissertations isagogicae ad Herculanensium voluminum explanationem pars prima, 1797). The criterion which guided the studies of the academicians was far from being worthy of unqualified praise, and consequently their work did not always meet the approval of the best scholars who had the opportunity of seeing the monuments. Among these was Winckelmann, who in his letters gave ample notices of the excavations and the antiquities which he was able to visit on several occasions. Other notices were furnished by Gori, Symbolae litterariae Florentinae (1748, 1751), by Marcello Venuti, Descrizione delle prime scoperte d’ Ercolano (Rome, 1748), and Scipione Maffei, Tre lettere intorno alle scoperte d’ Ercolano (Verona, 1748). The excavations, which continued for more than forty years (1738–1780), were executed at first under the immediate direction of Alcubierre (1738–1741), and then with the assistance of the engineers Rorro and Bardet (1741–1745), Carl Weber (1750–1764), and Francesco La Vega. After the death of Alcubierre (1780) the last-named was appointed director-in-chief of the excavations; but from that time the investigations at Herculaneum were intermitted, and the researches at Pompeii were vigorously carried on. Resumed in 1827, the excavations at Herculaneum were shortly after suspended, nor were the new attempts made in 1866 with the money bestowed by King Victor Emmanuel attended with success, being impeded by the many dangers arising from the houses built overhead. The meagreness of the results obtained by the occasional works executed in the last century, and the fact that the investigators were unfortunate enough to strike upon places already explored, gave rise to the opinion that the whole area of the city had been crossed by tunnels in the time of Charles III. and in the beginning of the reign of Ferdinand IV. And although it is recognized that the works had not been prosecuted with the caution that they required, yet in view of the serious difficulties that would attend the collection of the little that had been left by the first excavators, every proposal for new investigations has been abandoned. But in a memoir which Professor Barnabei read in the Reale Accademia dei Lincei (Atti della R. Ac. series iii. vol. ii. p. 751) he undertook to prove that the researches made by the government in the 18th century did not cover any great area. The antiquities excavated at Herculaneum in that century (i.e. the 18th) form a collection of the highest scientific and artistic value. They come partly from the buildings of the ancient city (theatre, basilica, houses and forum), and partly from the private villa of a great Roman family (cf. Comparetti and de Petra, La Villa Ercolanese dei Pisoni, Turin, 1883). From the city come, among many other marble statues, the two equestrian statues of the Balbi (Museo Borbonico, vol. ii. pl. xxxviii.-xxxix.), and the great imperial and municipal bronze statues. Mural paintings of extraordinary beauty were also discovered here, such as those that represent Theseus after the slaughter of the Minotaur (Helbig, Wandgemälde, Leipzig, 1878, No. 1214), Chiron teaching Achilles the art of playing on the lyre (ibid. No. 1291), and Hercules finding Telephus who is being suckled by the hind (ibid. No. 1143).

Notwithstanding subsequent discoveries of stupendous paintings in the gardens of the Villa Farnesina on the banks of the Tiber, the monochromes of Herculaneum remain among the finest specimens of the exquisite taste and consummate skill displayed by the ancient artists. Among the best preserved is Leto and Niobe, which has been the subject of so many studies and so many publications (ibid. No. 1706). There is also a considerable number of lapidary inscriptions edited in vol. ii. of the epigraphic collection of the Cat. del Mus. Naz. di Napoli. The Villa Suburbana has given us a good number of marble busts, and the so-called statue of Aristides, but above all that splendid collection of bronze statues and busts mostly reproductions of famous Greek works now to be found in the Naples Museum. It is thence that we have obtained the reposing Hermes, the drunken Silenus, the sleeping Faunus, the dancing girls, the bust called Plato’s, that believed to be Seneca’s, the two quoit-throwers or discoboli, and so many masterpieces more, figured by the academicians in their volume on the bronzes. But a still further discovery made in the Villa Suburbana contributed to magnify the greatness of Herculaneum; within its walls was found the famous library, of which, counting both entire and fragmentary volumes, 1803 papyri are preserved. Among the nations which took the greatest interest in the discovery of the Herculaneum library, the most honourable rank belongs to England, which sent Hayter and other scholars to Naples to solicit the publication of the volumes. Of the 341 papyri which have been unrolled, 195 have been published (Herculanensium voluminum quae supersunt (Naples, 1793–1809); Collectio altera, 1862–1876). They contain works by Epicurus, Demetrius, Polystratus, Colotes, Chrysippus, Carniscus and Philodemus. The names of the authors are in themselves sufficient to show that the library belonged to a person whose principal study was the Epicurean philosophy. But of the great master of this school only a few works have been found. Of his treatise Περὶ φύσεως, divided into 37 books, it is known that there were three copies in the library (Coll. alt. vi.). Professor Comparetti, studying the first fasciculus of volume xi. of the same new collection, recognized most important fragments of the Ethics of Epicurus, and these he published in 1879 in Nos. ix. and xi. of the Rivista di filologia e d’ istruzione classica (Turin). Even the other authors above mentioned are but poorly represented, with the exception of Philodemus, of whom 26 different treatises have been recognized. But all these philosophic discussions, belonging for the most part to an author less than secondary among the Epicureans, fall short of the high expectations excited by the first discovery of the library. Among the many volumes unrolled only a few are of historical importance—that edited by Bücheler, which treats of the philosophers of the academy (Acad. phil. index Hercul., Greifswald, 1859), and that edited by Comparetti, which deals with the Stoics (“Papiro ercolanese inedito,” in Rivista di fil. e d’ ist. class. anno iii. fasc. x.-xii.). To appreciate the value of the volumes unrolled but not yet published (for 146 vols. were only copied and not printed) the student must read Comparetti’s paper, “Relazione sui papiri ercolanesi.” Contributions of some value have been made to the study of Herculaneum fragments by Spengel (“Die hercul. Rollen,” in Philologus, 1863, suppl. vol.), and Gomperz (Hercul. Studien, Leipzig, 1865–1866, cf. Zeitschr. f. österr. Gymn., 1867–1872). There are in the library some volumes written in Latin, which, according to Boot (Notice sur les manuscrits trouvés à Herculaneum, Amsterdam, 1845), were found tied up in a bundle apart. Of these we know 18, but they are all so damaged that hardly any of them can be deciphered. One with verses relating to the battle of Actium is believed to belong to a poem of Rabirius. The numerical preponderance of the works of Philodemus led some people to believe that this had been the library of that philosopher. Professor Comparetti has thrown out a conjecture (cf. Comparetti and de Petra, op. cit.) that the library was collected by Lucius Piso Caesoninus (see Regione sotterrata dal Vesuvio, Naples, 1879, p. 159 sq.), but this conjecture has not found many supporters. Professor de Petra (in the same work) has also published the official notices upon the antiquities unearthed in the sumptuous villa, giving the plan executed by Weber and recovered by chance by the director of excavations, Michele Ruggiero. This plan, which is here reproduced from de Petra[4] is the only satisfactory document for the topography of Herculaneum; for the plan of the theatre published in the Bullettino archeologico italiano (Naples, 1861, i. 53, tab. iii.) was executed in 1747, when the excavations were not completed. And even for the history of the “finds” made in the Villa Suburbana the necessity for further studies makes itself felt, since there is a lack of agreement between the accounts given by Alcubierre and Weber and those communicated to the Philosophical Transactions (London, vol. x.) by Camillo Paderni, conservator of the Portici Museum.

EB1911 Herculaneum.jpg

Among the older works relating to Herculaneum, in addition to those already quoted, may be mentioned de Brosses, Lettre sur l’état actuel de la ville souterraine d’Héracléa (Paris, 1750); Seigneux de Correvon, Lettre sur la découverte de l’ancienne ville d’Herculane (Yverdon, 1770); David, Les Antiquités d’Herculaneum (Paris, 1780); D’ Ancora Gaetano, Prospetto storico-fisico degli scavi d’ Ercolano e di Pompei (Naples, 1803); Venuti, Prime Scoverte di Ercolano (Rome, 1748); and Romanelli, Viaggio ad Ercolano (Naples, 1811). A full list will be found in vol. i. of Museo Borbonico (Naples, 1824), pp. 1-11.

The most important reference work is C. Waldstein and L. Shoobridge, Herculaneum, Past, Present and Future (London, 1908); it contains full references to the history and the explorations, and to the buildings and objects found (with illustrations). Miss E. R. Barker’s Buried Herculaneum (1908) is exceedingly useful.

In 1904 Professor Waldstein expounded both in Europe and in America an international scheme for thorough investigation of the site. Negotiations of a highly complex character ensued with the Italian government, which ultimately in 1908 decided that the work should be undertaken by Italian scholars with Italian funds. The work was begun in the autumn of 1908, but financial difficulties with property owners in Resina immediately arose with the result that progress was practically stopped.  (F. B.) 

  1. A fragment of L. Sisenna calls it “Oppidum tumulo in excelso loco propter mare, parvis moenibus, inter duas fluvias, infra Vesuvium collocatum” (lib. iv., fragm. 53, Peters). Of one of these rivers this historian again makes mention in the passage where probably he related the capture of Herculaneum by Minatius Magius and T. Didius (Velleius Paterculus ii. 16). Further topographical details are supplied by Strabo, who, after speaking about Naples, continues—ἐχόμενον δὲ φρούριόν ἐστιν Ἡράκλειον ἐκκειμένην εἰς τὴν θάλατταν ἄκραν ἔχον, καταπνεόμενον Λιβὶ θαυμαστῶς ὤσθ᾿ ὑγιεινὴν ποιεῖν τὴν κατοικίαν. Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates that Heracles, in the place where he stopped with his fleet on the return voyage from Iberia, founded a little city (πολίχνην), to which he gave his own name; and he adds that this city was in his time inhabited by the Romans, and that, situated between Neapolis and Pompeii, it had λιμένας ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ βεβαἰους (i. 44).
  2. See also Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, i. 76, and Mommsen, Die unteritalischen Dialekte (1850), p. 314; for later discussions see Osca Lingua, Pelasgians.
  3. C.I.L. ii. No. 3866. This Spanish inscription refers to a Rectina who died at the age of 18 and was the wife of Voconius Romanus. It is quite possible that she was the Rectina whom Pliny the elder wished to assist during the disaster of Vesuvius, for her husband, Voconius Romanus, was an intimate friend of Pliny the younger. The latter addressed four letters to Voconius (i. 5, ii. 1, iii. 13, ix. 28), in another letter commended him to the emperor Trajan (x. 3), and in another (ii. 13) says of him: “Hunc ego cum simul studere, mus arte familiariterque dilexi; ille meus in urbe, ille in secessu contubernalis; cum hoc seria et jocos miscui.”
  4. The diagram shows the arrangement and proportions of the Villa Ercolanese. The dotted lines show the course taken by the excavations, which began at the lower part of the plan.