If you have ever had a dilemma while visiting Italy and pondered what is better to visit, between these 2 sites, then you were not alone: Pompeii or Herculaneum? Herculaneum or Pompeii? And here is my answer, if there is any at all.
Pompeii, located in Campania region, is mainly known for the ruins of the ancient Roman town with the same name. A roman colony for about 160 years before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius from 79 AD left many traces about the roman life, as well as other inscriptions by previous conquerors in the area. With its great position very close to the Gulf of Naples, Pompeii became a very important and large city, it is estimated about 11,000 permanent inhabitants, and around 20,000 with all surrounding areas, at the time of eruption. The size of this city is another reason of why Pompeii is very famous, with its uncovered ruins of houses, baths, streets, villas, temples, taverns, gardens, etc. It is only about two thirds of a total of 170 acres that has been uncovered, and even though many artifacts were saved in a good state, since the first excavations in mid – 18th century, many were not preserved as best as others. Main reason was the lack of methods and equipment of the early archeology, when the main focus was on recovering the artifacts, instead of preserving them.
Herculaneum (modern Italian name Ercolano), located in same region as Pompeii, but on the West side of Mt Vesuvius is much smaller in size, and I would say not as popular as Pompeii. While the main destruction of the buildings in Pompeii was due to volcanic ash and stone coming from the volcano in the first phase of eruption, the deadly part (ash and hot gases) came over during the following night, when six flows and surges buried shortly the Herculaneum’s buildings, causing little structural damage and preserving objects and victims almost intact. Also, while the layers of lava in Pompeii was only 4 metres, therefore easier to be excavated, Herculaneum (still 75% uncovered today) was under 20 metres of ash. Most of the uncovered city that can be visited today was excavated in the 20th century, with much more advanced technology, therefore better preserved.
While in Pompeii we could see the actual size of an ancient city, and notice the whole structure of the daily life of this commercial town, with its grand coliseum, theater, with their gardens, and even the funeral monuments,
in Herculaneum, very similar in style, but more refined, better preserved and at a smaller size, we could see a totally different aspect of some of the structures: 2 storey buildings with some of the original wood structure very well carbonized, as well as doors, beds, railings, or some iron grille.
Visitors in Pompeii can see few of the Vesuvius’ victims that have been recreated through casting of plaster, or resin. It was really moving when we saw these shrinking (from pain, fear, or terror) casts, but I understood they drove to many discoveries the modern archeologists nowadays.
Another touching view was to be found in Herculaneum, when we just entered the site. While descending the first path, we could see the boat houses with hundreds of skeletons in the shade. At the time of eruption, all these people were actually waiting for rescue from the opposite side of the Vesuvius, the sea (at that time the seashore was right there, and only after the eruption the shore has moved about 400 m away due to large quantity of lava). But their salvation never came, and they got trapped in these boat chambers.
We did wonder at how well the whole Pompeii was developed with their market, roads, and even the road crossings. Romans were very well known for their famous roads they started building with the Roman expansion in 300 B.C.; however, here, in the heart of their own home, we could see how well built is the stone-pavement, flanked by footpaths, and drainage ditches. What impressed me so much was the crossing path at the main intersections, or close by important places in the city, built with large slabs of stone where one can step from one to another one (and not needing to step onto the road), but leaving measured distance for Roman carts to pass through.
Various frescoes could be found in both cities, but really impressive were the well preserved bath houses in Herculaneum, with their separate rooms for males and females. Less crowded, we could visit the whole site at our leisure, and wonder at how solid this ancient town was built.