In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Herculaneum (Modern Ercolano)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Museum Catalogues and Site Guides
  • Official Publications
  • Vesuvian Landscape
  • Discovery of the Herculaneum Women and of the Ancient Theater
  • Spanish Bourbons in Naples, Excavations, Conservation
  • Suburban Roman Villas and the Villa Dei Papiri
  • The Papyri
  • Architecture, Arts, Material Goods, Organic Remains
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Early Travelers

Classics Herculaneum (Modern Ercolano)
Carol C. Mattusch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0076


Herculaneum, named after the mythical hero Hercules, was a town of perhaps five thousand inhabitants, alongside of which were vacation homes situated on a promontory that, according to Strabo (Geography 5.4.8), caught the sea-breezes and made Herculaneum a desirable place to live. Today Herculaneum is not nearly as well known as Pompeii and is far less frequently visited, even though Herculaneum was the first Roman site on the Bay of Naples to be officially excavated. The discovery of the theater and the identification of the site sparked a great deal of public interest, and the 18th-century catalogue of finds from all of the sites around the Bay of Naples bore its name, Delle antichità di Ercolano. Buildings of particular interest on the site are the Suburban Baths, recently restored, the House of the Relief of Telephus, House of the Stags, the Samnite House, the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, several shops and tavernae, the College of the Augustales near the northwest corner of the site, and beyond it the Porticus (formerly known as the Basilica and currently under excavation) and the magnificent northeastern palaestra, much of which is still beneath modern Ercolano. Perhaps the most important building that has been found on the site is the huge Villa dei Papiri, which was built to the west of the town proper. A sprawling two- to three-story complex, the villa was situated 36 feet (11 meters) above the ancient coastline. What has so far been mapped, including an enclosed colonnaded garden with a pool 217 feet (66 meters) long, covers about 65,000 square feet (6,000 square meters). From 1750 to 1761, more than 1000 papyrus book rolls and 85 bronze and marble statues and busts were found there. Check the website for its opening times. Today Pompeii is a far more familiar name than Herculaneum, and its name may appear instead of Herculaneum in titles of books, exhibitions, or films that contain material about Herculaneum.

General Overviews

Herculaneum was the first of the Vesuvian sites to be formally excavated, yielding scores of marble and bronze statues, and giving its name to the multivolume Bourbon publication of this major new collection of antiquities (Delle antichità di Ercolano). And yet the site of Herculaneum was difficult to see because access was by means of 65- to 90-foot-deep vertical shafts and horizontal excavation tunnels, the air was bad, the tunnels were dark, and it was difficult to get a sense of the buildings whose walls the tunnels followed. Open-air excavation did not begin until 1828. In contrast, this method was always employed at Pompeii, whose location was always known, for volcanic debris accumulated to a depth of less than 20 feet, and upper stories of houses remained visible. That there are few general works about Herculaneum is indicative of an enduring lack of interest in the town, of which even now only a relatively small portion has been cleared, because it lies directly beneath modern Ercolano. The areas of the town that are now uncovered are at such a great depth that conservation and safety are matters of great concern. Waldstein and Shoobridge 1908 may be out of date, but it remains a thorough and serious historical survey and wide-ranging analysis of Herculaneum; a popular overview is provided by De Carolis and Patricelli 2003, and Deiss 1995 is of general interest. The short papers published in Dell’Orto 1993 provide a good review of scholarly work in various fields.

  • De Carolis, E., and G. Patricelli. 2003. Vesuvius, A.D. 79: The destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

    A popular book about the volcano, the ancient testimonia, the background to the eruption, the eruption itself, the discovery of bodies and skeletons, and modern stories and pictures about the eruption. Sections of chapters deal with Herculaneum. A list of major eruptions from twenty-five thousand years ago to the present is provided on pages 125–126.

  • Deiss, J. J. 1995. The town of Hercules: A buried treasure trove. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.

    The latest revised edition of a popular and readable book (previously called Herculaneum: Italy’s buried treasure) that deals with what is known of the people of Herculaneum from the eruption to the skeletons to the archaeological and epigraphical evidence. Suitable for an undergraduate course assignment.

  • Dell’Orto, L. F., ed. 1993. Ercolano 1738–1988: 250 anni di ricerca archeologica: Atti del Convegno internazionale, Ravello-Ercolano-Napoli-Pompei, 30 ottobre–5 novembre 1988. Monografie / Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei 6. Rome: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider.

    The Italian, French, English, and German papers from this 1988 conference primarily about Herculaneum cover the history of excavation and study; topography and architecture; the papyri from the Villa dei Pisoni (villa of the family of Piso, another name for the Villa dei Papiri); figurative art; natural science and archaeology; minor arts, cult, history, and society; and current activities, study, and research by the Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei.

  • Waldstein, C., and L. Shoobridge. 1908. Herculaneum Past Present & Future. London: Macmillan.

    Part 1 contains chapters on the topography, inhabitants, and history of the site before and since the eruption; Part 2 proposes how to conduct future excavations; and three useful appendices contain ancient testimonia about Herculaneum in Latin or Greek with English translations; a list of artifacts from Herculaneum; and a guide to the Villa Suburbana (now known as the Villa dei Papiri) with a plan.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.