Italian Culture and History: Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata
- WTI Magazine #97 Nov 18, 2017
The archaeological areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata (just a stone's throw from Naples) make up one of Italy’s 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ruins of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 B.C., but they still offer an unparalleled window into the quotidian life of classical antiquity.
The cities, both of Oscan origin, were dominated by several different populations; after the Social War (91-88 B.C.), Pompeii was elevated to the rank of colony, with the name Cornelia Venera Pompeiana, while Herculaneum was demoted to municipium. In 62 A.D. Pompei was partially destroyed by an earthquake, and as its reconstruction was still ongoing, on August 24, 79 A.D. the eruption of Vesuvius covered the city and its suburban villas with a thick layer of stones, ashes and lapilli (thick, glassy lava). Herculaneum, on the other hand, disappeared beneath a flood of volcanic mud.
Since the discovery of the two buried cities in the 18th Century, scholars have excavated countless ruins that bear witness to the cities' architectural importance.
From Pompeii the main forum and public buildings – such as the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the divine triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; the Basilica or tribunal court; and the public baths, comprised of the triangular forum with two theatres (the larger of Greek origin but modeled on Roman tastes). Other public buildings of note here include the well-preserved Stabian Baths.
Due to its healthy climate and pleasant scenery, Pompeii was a holiday resort for rich Romans. It is now famous for its civic buildings lining the streets that are still intact today. Some of these include the Surgeon’s House, as well as those of the Faun and the Chaste Lovers, which are exceptional examples of the epoch’s architecture. Another remarkable construction is the House of Mysteries, which derives its name from the murals depicting the initiation rites (i.e., the mysteries) of the Dionysian cult. A peculiar characteristic of Pompeii is the florid graffiti covering the walls in just about every building; this is because when the volcanic eruption happened, Pompeii was set to carry out elections in the days ahead – hence the writings and ideograms, which feature both political and sexual content.
Legend has it that Hercules founded Herculaneum, but in reality we know very little about this buried city (even if, ironically, its buildings are the best-preserved). The Baths, along with the College of the Priests of Augustus and a theatre are all almost completely intact. Also extant are the House of the Bicentenary and the House of Stags, which contain ample courtyards and are rich in decoration. Herculaneum was a thriving commercial zone, and various jars and containers filled with foodstuffs resisted the destruction and subsequent burial from the eruption.
The suburban community of Oplontis (today’s Torre Annunziata), suffered the same fate as the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Known as a vacation resort for its saltmines and thermal complexes, the so-called Villas of Poppaea and of Lucius Crassius Terzius are also located here.
Throughout Herculaneum, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, one can view rare and beautiful sculptures, mosaics and mural paintings.