Herculaneum has a lot in common with the nearby city of Pompeii. They are both Roman cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, their ruins have been excavated and are open to visitors, and they are both on the same train line from Naples. So why do tourists flock to the ruins of Pompeii while Herculaneum remains considerably less visited?
Herculaneum, Ancient Rival to Pompeii
Like so many places in this part of Italy, Herculaneum was founded by the Greeks; set up as a trading post on the Bay of Naples and named after the great hero Hercules. In Roman times it was a rival to Pompeii: Herculaneum was richer than its larger, busier neighbour, a place for wealthy citizens to live.
The splendour of both cities was short. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the great volcano that looms up behind the town. But, unlike Pompeii, it was destroyed by falling ash rather than by molten larva, allowing many buildings to survive in a more complete form.
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The Well Preserved Ruins of Herculaneum
Of course, the reason why Pompeii is more popular is that it is larger and has been more fully excavated. But there are many reasons why you should visit Herculaneum as well.
For one, it is less crowded, making it easier to soak up the atmosphere as you wander along the narrow streets, wondering what the town would have been like two thousand years ago. And, apart from being better preserved, the houses were richer and grander than those of Pompeii. You can still see several two storey houses here, and even one with some of its original wooden frame.
Then there are the mosaics, more elaborate and extensive than those in Pompeii, reflecting the wealth of Herculaneum.
As I turned to leave I overheard a guide talking to a tour group. “The mosaics are much better here than in Pompeii,” he said. Obviously the rivalry between the two places continues to this day.