Naples – The Ruins of Herculaneum

It  lies off toward our right here, while Vesuvius is directly behind us. At our feet we have a most remarkable sight, a city of the first century, and above it is built one of the twentieth century. This modern town, a few buildings of which we see in front of us and to our right, is called Resina, and contains about thirteen thousand inhabitants. The old town, called Heracleion by the Greeks, derived its name from the worship of Hercules, which was popular at this place. Heracleion is said to have been founded by Hercules himself, during one of his visits to this region. After it became subject to Rome, its salubrious climate and its charming situation, with a river on either side and the glorious bay stretching away in front of it, made it a favorite resort for Roman nobles, who built spacious villas here.

At that time Naples was not a city with a population of half a million as it is now, but was, like Herculaneum, a fashionable resort for the emperor and nobility of Rome. The first eruption of Vesuvius of which there is any record took place on August 24, 79 A. D., near the close of the Roman Republic. This destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum and also caused the death of Pliny the naturalist, whose nephew became the historian.

In his letter to Tacitus, Pliny the historian, an eye witness of the fearful tragedy, writes that his mother called the attention of his uncle, who was stationed with the Roman fleet at Misenum, to a vast and curious cloud rising and spreading above Vesuvius; a cloud shaped like a pine tree, for it shot up into the air to a great height in the form of a trunk and then spread out on all sides in the form of branches. Through the center of this trunk leaped up a long train of fire, resembling a broad flash of lightning. As the shower of ashes fell, the air became stifling and the sea rolled back upon itself. Then, he continues, “At length a glimmering light appeared which we imagined to be a forerunner of an approaching burst of flames, as, in truth, it was, rather than the return of the day as some supposed. However, the fire fell at some distance from us. Then again we were immersed in thick darkness and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap. At last the dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees like a cloud of smoke ; the real day returned and even the sun appeared, though very faintly and as when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes, which were extremely weakened, seemed changed, being covered with white ashes as deep as snow. In the midst of this awful calamity,” he concludes, “what mournfully consoled us was the thought that the whole universe was perishing with ourselves.” And, indeed, in this eruption, besides Pompeii and Herculaneum five other coast cities were buried.

We are fortunate in having the testimony of an eye witness, and of one so well qualified to give an accurate and vivid description of what took place. From the accounts we have, it would appear that no lava issued from the volcano on this occasion but only ashes, red hot stones and fragments of other volcanic material; also great clouds of steam rose from the mountain and, being mixed with the ashes, covered everything (especially in the direction of Herculaneum), with a thick pasty mud. This mountain was, till then, a charming sight, wooded from base to summit and, except an occasional earthquake shock, which was not infrequent in Mediterranean countries, there was nothing to warn the inhabitants of the towns clinging to its sides and nestling at its base of its fearfully destructive powers. They lived and toiled over a volcano and knew it not. Evidences were not wanting that, in prehistoric times, this had been a scene of volcanic eruptions, but the grass and flowers had covered all the scars, and the lava streams were hidden away beneath a forest of green. The poets sang of the mountain as the genial source of fruits and flowers and golden wine, all the gifts of the gods.

Ovid in his Metamorphoses speaks of the city as ” Herculea Urbs.” Among distinguished Romans who had villas here were Servilia, the sister of Cato of Utica, and the mother of M. Junius Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar, who resided in a villa presented to her by the man whom her son afterward murdered. Agrippina was placed here by her uncle Tiberius in a villa which was subsequently destroyed, as Seneca tells us, by Caligula, in order to obliterate all reminders of his mother’s suffering.

It would seem as though comparatively few people lost their lives in the catastrophe which overwhelmed these cities, as there was sufficient warning to enable most of the inhabitants to escape. Only two victims have been discovered in Herculaneum, and from the position of one of them and from the fact that a bag of money was found beside him, it is evident he perished while trying to remove a bag of gold. Very little money or jewels or even household furniture have been discovered at Herculaneum, and not much more at Pompeii, indicating that the inhabitants had ample time to remove these things before the towns were entirely buried, a process which must have required a number of hours, or else, as is considered more probable, all articles of value were taken in later years by those who tunneled their way into the houses.

The knowledge that a city lay buried here was ever present with the people of the surrounding towns, for the upper portions of the walls of the highest buildings protruded above the ashes that had buried it ; but what city it was and when it had been overwhelmed, none could tell. The discovery of the real site of Herculaneum, like most important discoveries, was a matter of accident. In the year 1711 Prince d’Elbeuf constructed a casino at Portici, about two miles to our right, near the Granatello, which he wished to embellish with rare marbles. Having heard that some one in sinking a well at Resina had come upon fragments of precious marbles, both statues and mosaics, and being up to the Italian trick of digging out of the magical soil of Italy priceless treasures of art, while the same process in other countries only brings forth stones and iron and coal, he purchased from the government the right to search for what he desired and appropriate to his own use what he might find. In sinking the well they struck, at the depth of ninety feet, the seats of the ancient theatre, and during the five years in which the prince continued his excavations he brought to light a vast number of statues and mosaics without once suspecting the name or history of the site upon which he was digging until, at length, coming upon a very beautiful statue belonging to the Balbi, the Austrian viceroy interfered and revoked the permit for excavation, and with remarkable coolness appropriated all that had been discovered in the name of the state and sent the entire find to Vienna and Dresden. It is to be hoped that at least he gave back the amount paid by d’Elbeuf for the permission to excavate, even if his Austrian lordship did not feel disposed to pay the cost of the digging, for the prince must have needed the money. It would seem, however, as though the poor prince had to stand the whole expense, as we have no record of any money being refunded. The artistic ardor of other Italian princes having been extinguished by the experience of d’Elbeuf, and the Austrians not caring to incur the expense, excavations ceased until 1738, when Charles III, desiring to build a palace at Portici, ordered the work to be resumed. In 1750 a long narrow passage was cut down through the volcanic rock into the theater, near where the well had been sunk, in order to effect an easy access to the place, and this is the entrance at the present day. You can see it to our right. Notice the door in the stone wall, extending along the highway, which lies between the ancient and modern towns. The steps which you see are cut in the solid rock and a railing makes them safer and easier to climb.

The finest statuary in the Neapolitan Museum from any of the buried cities, has come from Herculaneum. It is to be regretted that the early excavators, d’Elbeuf and Charles III – although as things turned out you can hardly blame the former – did not remove the débris from the place and so leave the town uncovered as far as they carried on their work. Instead of this, in order to save time and expense, since they were only seeking for what they considered of value to themselves, they filled up one house with the material taken from another, and when they quit their labors, the town was as completely buried as ever. In 1770 the work of excavating was relinquished because of attention being turned to Pompeii, which seemed an easier and more productive field.

With the exception of the period from 1828-1837, when excavations were resumed, at no time have investigations been made with the same persistency and regularity as at Pompeii, and little if anything has been done. Nevertheless the future may have in store for us very interesting discoveries. At present the work is not being pushed very rapidly. They dig down the required depth, say from fifteen to thirty feet, until they strike the top of walls or columns that still may be standing. Then they proceed to uncover them as carefully as possible. A blacksmith is always on hand, who places iron bands and rivets in the walls or columns whenever they appear weak. These walls are never excavated but part way down, being left until the Director of Excavations comes out from Naples, which is usually once or twice a week, and he superintends the rest of the work. The space already excavated is only eighteen hundred feet long and nine hundred feet wide, the most important part of which we see.

From the entrance at the foot of those stairs on our right there is a passageway leading into the theater which, as it extends beneath the roadway seen on the right, is exceedingly dark, and the shadows are only deepened by the flickering light of the candle which the guide holds in his hand. In order to pre-vent the rock above from giving way with its super-imposed weight of roadway and houses, huge but-tresses have been built, which add to the gloom and cave-like appearance of the theater. The structure contained four marble platforms or steps for the chairs of distinguished spectators who might happen to be present, and above these are sixteen tiers of seats in six sections, and, between these, flights of stone steps ascend to a corridor, above which are three more tiers of seats. The building could accommodate about eight thousand spectators. The floor of the theater lies about ninety feet below the level of this modern city of Resina, and a faint light streams into the subterranean building through the narrow cylindrical shaft of the well by means of which the building was first discovered. From an inscription on one of the walls we learn that L. Annius Mammianus Rufus, a duumvir, erected the structure and that Publius Numisius was the architect.

We are about sixty feet above the top of the walls seen directly below us, the excavations here varying from forty to sixty feet deep. These walls, which you observe are very thick, are built of a light volcanic stone called “tufa” which is found near Mt. Vesuvius. The houses in Herculaneum are larger than those at Pompeii and unlike the latter, often have a second story, but as the ground plan of Roman houses is invariably the same, these are, in that respect, similar to those found elsewhere. That street down into which we are looking and which is bordered by edifices, was doubtless one of the main thoroughfares of the town, and yet it is but twenty feet wide. It is paved with polygonal lava blocks, the highest part being in the center and sloping down to a narrow gutter, on the inner side of which you observe a curbing of lava blocks, and back of this a sidewalk of the same material extending to the walls of the buildings.

In the house whose walls are seen just over and below this lichen-covered piece of marble near us – the first on the left-hand side of the road – were found the remains of skeletons belonging to the victims to which reference has already been made. The house opposite, the first on the right, in whose wall you perceive a shrine to one of their many gods, was used as a place for trading purposes, as was the one beneath the entrance steps. Beyond this is seen an open space surrounded by the bases and portions of broken columns. They formed part of the arcade or peristyle that, as was customary in Roman houses, enclosed the sides of the courtyard or garden. On the street in front of the entrance to the house, you perceive portions of two columns, one on either side of the doorway. Still further away and on the same side of the street, is seen what must have been a spacious and beautiful structure and the remains of what, up to the present time, is the most imposing private dwelling found in this old city. We do not know who occupied that sumptuous mansion, but from a painting of Mercury before Argus and Io found on the walls of the dining-room, it is called the House of Argus, otherwise known as the Villa Suburbana. Even the ruins of the structure are elegant and ornate, and they stand, after having been buried for nearly two thousand years, as splendid monuments to the cultured taste and artistic skill of the ancients. You will observe that the garden or courtyard of the house is enclosed by an arcade of columns and buttresses, ten beautiful columns being on each side. From the arcade opened out the various rooms of the house, some of which were decorated in a lavish and brilliant manner. Notice the marble balustrade on the roof of the house and see how the side wall nearest the street is shored up with heavy beams and how in front of the street entrance stand broken columns like helpless monitors who can no longer watch and guard. This gives us an excel-lent opportunity to see what was the general plan of a Roman house.

It is also interesting to note how the street, at that point, begins to slope downward, which incline is very perceptible if you look at the bases of the columns, and it also shows the proximity of the ancient town to the sea. The eruptions of Vesuvius, however, have driven the sea back a half mile or more, and we can now but faintly discern it over the tree tops and beyond the high chimneys.

This beautiful structure, the House of Argus or Villa Suburbana, is said to be the dwelling, in a small room of which, evidently the library, were discovered in 1752, in presses or cupboards ranged about the walls, a large number of what appeared to be sticks of charcoal and, for some time, the structure went by the name of the House of the Coal Merchant. When first discovered some of these sticks were destroyed, but one day some one happened to notice Greek and Latin words on them and immediately an investigation was made which resulted in the discovery that these were originally rolls of papyri on which were ancient writings, and that they had been changed into their present state by the action of the air and moisture. The problem then was how to unroll them without destroying the writing. Many experiments were tried but with indifferent success. At last Padre Piaggio invented a curious and ingenious machine for separating and unrolling them, but the process being exceedingly intricate and painfully slow, it was hoped that chemistry might be of service. Accordingly the celebrated chemist, Sir Humphry Davy, was invited to visit Naples for this purpose. He accepted the invitation and made numerous experiments, but at last was compelled to abandon his efforts for want of success. So Padre Piaggio’s machine is still in use as the best method obtainable. Of the one thousand seven hundred and fifty papyri found, less than five hundred have been unrolled.

During the eruption of 1906 ” ashes ” (i. e. volcano dust) fell thick and fast in this neighborhood, and the townsfolk of Resina fled for their lives, fearing the place was to be re-buried. It was no wonder they were panic-stricken ! But as a matter of fact the damage done in this vicinity was comparatively slight. The lava-streams poured down the farther side of the mountain and not in this direction.

Mr. W. D. Howells’ account of his visit to Herculaneum is interesting.

“Emerging from the coal bins and potato cellars the visitor extinguishes his candle with a pathetic sigh, profusely rewards the custodian (whom he connects in some mysterious way with the ancient population of the injured city about him), and, thoughtfully removing the tallow from his fingers, soon arrives at the gate opening into the exhumed quarter of Herculaneum. There he finds a custodian who enters perfectly into his feelings; a custodian who has once been a guide in Pompeii, but now despises that wretched town and would not be guide there for any money since he has known the superior life of Herculaneum, who in fine, feels toward Pompeii as a Bostonian does toward New York. Yet the reader would be wrong to form an idea that there is bitterness in the disdain of the custodian. On the contrary he is one of the best natured men in the world. He is a mighty mass of pinguid bronze, with a fat lisp and a broad sunflower smile, and he lectures us with a vast and genial breadth of manner on the ruins, contradicting all our guesses at things with a sweet ” Perdoni, signore! ma-.” At the end we find he has some medallions of lava to sell; there is Victor Emmanuel, or, if we are of the Partito d’azione,” there is Garibaldi, both warm from the crater of Vesuvius, and of the same material which destroyed Herculaneum. We decline to buy, and the custodian makes the national shrug and grimace (signifying that we are masters of the situation and that he washes his hands of the consequences of our folly) on the largest scale that we have ever seen, his mighty hands are rigidly thrust forth, his great lip protruded, his enormous head thrown back to bring his face on a level with his chin. The effort is tremendous, but we, nevertheless, feel that he loves us the same.”

As Herculaneum lies on the road to Vesuvius we shall appreciate the more our visit to Pompeii, and understand better what we shall see there, if we first ascend that ” peak of hell rising out of paradise.” Byron, in his Childe Harold, speaks of ” Vesuvius rearing his hackneyed height.” But what would he say to a railroad climbing the sides of that smoking mountain, its roadbed hewn in the solid rock and not more than seven feet wide, skirting, at times, deep precipices and steeply shelving embankments, yet carrying with absolute safety to the foot of the crater fifteen thousand tourists every year? For myself I prefer going on horseback as far as possible, well knowing that thus mounted one realizes more fully the grandeur of the scene.

We shall move now about a mile nearer Vesuvius and look up to its summit. The map shows that we shall be looking toward its western side.