If you’re a history buff or just enjoy learning about events that made the history books, a visit to the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum should be on your radar if you’re cruising to Naples. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D., is possibly the most famous volcanic eruption in human history. In a single day, the two once prosperous Mediterranean cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were frozen in time by volcanic debris — only to be rediscovered many centuries later by archeologists. Work continues to this day to unearth and preserve these ancient European time capsules.
For nearly 15 centuries, Pompeii lay cloaked in a sarcophagus of ash and dirt from the Vesuvius eruption. Then in 1594, a local architect found remains of the city while digging a well. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that excavation on a large scale would begin. To date, approximately two-thirds of the city has been uncovered.
Top things to see:
Pompeii’s amazingly well-preserved paintings, mosaics and frescoes depict everything from gods and goddesses to the everyday life of its citizens. These decorations have been invaluable to scholars hoping to learn more about 1st century life.
The impressive Amphitheatre of Pompeii is one of the finest representations of its kind. It’s thought to be a model for those later built throughout Europe and the empire.
Watch for Roman-era graffiti on the walls of houses and buildings. These include advertisements for political candidates, caricatures of celebrities, statements of romantic love, and risqué jokes.
One of the more ghastly sights to behold in Pompeii is that of its citizens’ remains. The ash-covered bodies can be seen frozen in their last moments — a reminder of the many thousands of lives lost to this natural disaster.
Pompeii’s public bath complexes, or “thermae,” were an important part of social life at the time. The Stabian Thermal Baths is the oldest public bath in Pompeii, featuring a central gymnasium with sections for latrines, changing rooms, and private baths surrounding it.
This city shared the same fate as its more famous neighbor on that terrible August day in 79 A.D. However, Herculaneum’s demise differs in one key aspect: Whereas Pompeii was covered mostly in volcanic ash by the eruption, Herculaneum succumbed to a river of mud, in essence mummifying the entire city. This left delicate items such as clothing, furniture, wooden structures and personal effects remarkably well preserved. A smaller site than Pompeii, much of Herculaneum still lies buried, and the nearby modern city of Ercolano was built on top of other portions of it. But there’s still much to see, and many consider it an easier site to explore than Pompeii, and there are fewer crowds as well.
Top things to see:
The Barrel Arches at Herculaneum are vaulted rooms opening to the beach. In 1980, the remains and effects of 300 people were found here. It’s thought they were trying to escape the city by boat but were overcome by hot, poisonous gases pouring down from the volcano.
Herculaneum houses one of the best-preserved thermae of the ancient world. Known as the Suburban Baths, this complex includes a frigidarium (cold bathing room), tepidarium (warm bathing room) and an aldarium (hot bathing room).
Just to the front of the Suburban Baths stands the Terrace of M. Nonius Balbus, containing the marble-covered funeral alter of this Roan senator.
The huge sports complex known as the La Palestrae consists of two terraces, of which only a portion has been uncovered. A vast, rectangular hall on the western side of the portico contains a niche with a marble table used for religious ceremonies.
Explore the ancient ruins of Naples on a cruise to Europe with Holland America Line.
To read this article on the Holland America Line website, click here: Touring the Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.