April 15-16, 2008: I’ve never been that fond of the Ancient Romans: if they weren’t marching off to invade new territory or to supress an uprising, they were cheering on the slaughter of men and animals in the Colosseum at home. The Ancient Greeks seemed so much more civilized (not that they were pacifists!). Sure the Colosseum is impressive, but any dictator can put up an impressive monument if he puts his mind – and his subject’s taxes – to it. But I do have to hand it to the Romans when it comes to living well. I remember visiting a couple of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall on a typically chilly northern English day, and admiring the remains of the bath houses, and the provision of hot water.
Hadrian’s Wall was just a provincial outpost, at the furthest reach of the Empire. Pompeii and Herculaneum were just 150 miles from Rome: Pompeii a port town, and Herculaneum more of a seaside resort for the wealthy. I visited both, along with the sumptuous Villa Oplontis, thought to have belonged to the infamous Nero’s also infamous second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Although people rave about Pompeii, I have to confess that I preferred Herculaneum, but I saw it first.
I heard that the day I went to Herculaneum actual hail fell, but I didn’t see that myself. I did see plenty of rain, starting almost as soon as I got off the Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station, and I waited out the worst of it with an espresso in a handy cafe. The morning alternated between sunshine and rain, but since the many of the ruins at Herculaneum retain their second stories, I could always find shelter when needed. In fact, it proved to be a very user-friendly site, not too crowded, with a good free brochure and plenty to see.
I started at the Visitor’s Center, standing across from the site, looking down at the store rooms and boat houses that once opened onto the beach. I felt a little uneasy, thinking of the 300 inhabitants who sought an illusory refuge there, their bodies discovered only in 1982. Looking up, I saw only clouds, although at other times Vesuvius’ dark cones had been an all-too present reminder that around the Bay of Naples people still live with an active volcano.
While I visited the “sacred area” above the warehouses, with its two temples, and an altar dedicated to one M. Nonius Balbus, a senator and local benefactor, and the huge palaestra, reserved for sports, for the most part I wandered in and out of villas and tavernas. I admired the pillars and frescoes in the villas, and checked out the jars sunk into the counters of the tavernas. I especially liked the women’s baths, with black and white mosaic floors and marble seats, and the Hall of the Augustals, the freed slaves, which had featured in the reading I had done before the trip. (I think we tend to forget how many inhabitants of Ancient Greece and Rome were slaves.) Everywhere I looked in Herculaneum I found some reminder of the lives cut short in 79AD, but I didn’t find the site morbid. I could easily imagine the excitement of the archaeologists who first worked here.
On the way to the Villa Oplontis I picked up a sandwich, and when the rain started up again I found a seat under cover and ate my lunch where Nero must often have passed. As would become a theme on this trip, much of the villa was under renovation and off limits, but I could see enough to make me keenly aware of the luxury enjoyed by the Roman upper crust – not just the hot baths and flushing toilets, but a personal swimming pool and room after room full of frescoes and mosaics.
Next day I made an early start for Pompeii, armed with a six hour tour outline and lots of anticipation. The good news about Pompeii? It was a full-size working town, with a forum, temples, theaters (for plays) and an amphitheater (for games). The bad news about Pompeii? It was a full-size town, requiring a great deal more walking per interesting sight than Herculaneum. (Again, some parts were closed.)
The best part of the day, for me, came early, at the Villa of Mysteries, outside the city walls to the northeast, which I had almost to myself. I also liked the Botanical Gardens, which smelt wonderful. As I walked the streets, being careful not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface, and taking advantage of the stepping stones set between the sidewalks at key intersections, I pondered the advantage of having slaves to do the shopping. I also noted with interest that penises were protective symbols here just as they still are in Bhutan. By the time I finally finished dodging tour groups and reached the amphitheater, at the far end of the site, I had little energy left to imagine the gladiators and wild animals fighting and dying for the amusement of the crowds seated above me, especially as most of the seats were missing.
Of course, Pompeii is a truly remarkable sight, but if you only have time for one of the towns buried by Vesuvius, I would recommend Herculaneum.