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Herculaneum

A Greek Nea-polis, a Roman holiday resort

The city dedicated to the Greek God Hercules was founded as a new city or 'Nea-polis' by the Greeks, the Italian region Napoli or Naples being the descendant of that place name. A Roman holiday resort, Herculaneum boasted a swimming pool, playing fields and beautifully decorated public baths. The public facilities and scale of the extravagance in the 'civitas' or town portray what seems to have been a quaint recreational village for holidaying Patricians.

Herculaneum first became a Roman municipality in 89 B.C.E. It was originally ruled over by the Samnites, tribes from the Italian mainland, from the 6th-century B.C.E onwards. The first indication that Herculaneum dwelled beneath the 'commune of Ercolano' became apparent in 1738. Charles of Bourbon, King of Spain and the Spanish Indies, commissioned a palace to be constructed in the region during his rule over Naples and Sicily. During the construction of a well, the city was discovered. Excavations began in 1748, approximately ten years after its discovery. Along with the town's Roman aspects, a library containing books of Greek philosophy was also found, harking back to the town's Greek origins. Like Pompeii, the original coastline of Herculaneum had been rearranged. There is now a swamp where the sea shore had once been. Replicas of the skeletons, that had been crystallized by the volcanic rock and ash, now lie in the ancient boat deposits, once used by the region's fishermen. When one ascends the steps that escalate over the original Roman steps, one arrives in a courtyard. This small pocket of the town sports a statue of the Roman senator, Nonio Balbo, who had donated a sum of money to build the town's basilica. This statue, evidently created to inspire admiration, shows how recognition and acknowledgment played a role in Herculaneum's civilisation.

One may assume that public monuments were just another part of communal life. However, what may alter one's opinion of Herculaneum being just another ancient town is the public Lararium, or shrine. Were there no private places of worship in the individual homes of the city, like Pompeii? Could not the city-dwellers worship at home? The reason for this kind of space in the town may have been connected to the kind of residents in the town. Herculaneum was, in fact, a holiday resort for wealthy Patrician families. The size and detail of the Lararium's various divinities show that it was specifically for public viewing. The divinities depicted represented fire, sea, war and justice and also, quite unexpectedly, communication. The town also boasted an impressive and incredibly advanced drainage system that deported human waste and sewage below ground. This already shows that Herculaneum differed subtlely, but significantly, from Pompeii and was clearly the 'posh' Roman retreat of the period. Not only did the city have exceptional drainage but also an impressive distribution of irrigation. Water pipes were commonplace in the town and, according to most sources, far more reliable than the ones currently installed in Irish soil. (Come now, Irish Water, water distribution has seen better days, isn't that right Drogheda?)

The bakery, the swimming pool, the public baths and even the water fountains sported intricate decoration. The public water trough bore an elaborate design depicting Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea, and his dolphins. The bakery also displayed two, rather carefully carved penises on the sides of the oven. This, allegedly, was to encourage the bread to rise within. A case of water-tight logic. The changing room, adjacent to the public baths, exhibited a stunning mosaic on its floor. Beauty and flamboyance took precedence in much of Roman art, as also shown in the replica of the original statue found in the swimming pool area. Indeed, one can imagine it in a modern art exhibition. Another example of such beauty, flamboyance and patience, was the sensational glass mosaic that had been found in a wealthy villa. The mosaic displayed an interpretation of Neptune and his wife, wearing the same colours and design as it had when first painted. This mosaic was an original, recovered and preserved with great care. In this villa, theatrical masks had also been discovered embellishing a central hearth. It was believed that they had been hung in appreciation of the arts and was a statement of culture, not unlike our modern tendency to hang Banksy creations in our quirky downstairs bathrooms or retain a copy of Ulysses/ War and Peace in the front room. How clever we are!

The almost perfectly preserved shop, that had sold olive oil and wine back in its heyday, still possessed all of its original furniture. The jars and casks with flat bases had usually been sold to residential customers. Those with pointed bases were for transportation, presumably through Pozzuoli, the large Roman port located on the Phlegrean Peninsula. The pointed bases were fashioned so that the cargo would stand upright in the sand inside the trading vessel and ensure minimum damage. On the outside wall of this building was a wine price list, proudly presenting the price of the wares within. Another advertisement also threatened to take over some wall space. This was one to notify holiday makers of an event that would shortly be taking place in Nola, one of the regions outside Herculaneum. Hopefully, at least some had managed to attend.

The last of the sincerely magnificent buildings in Herculaneum was that of the Augustali. The Augustali was an original left-wing political party, made up of ex-slaves. The house where they conducted their meetings possessed a plaque, declaring their name and creed. This space was richly decorated and provided another example of beautiful architecture present in the city. The building also possessed an altar, possibly another Lararium, and beautifully illustrated scenes that adorned the walls, far superior to those that would follow in the Medieval Period.

There is much with which to credit the Greeks and Romans, not least their philosophy, capacity for history, architecture, art and highly developed irrigation and drainage systems. Herculaneum's beauty was not such that was solely encapsulated with its physical trappings but with the knowledge of when such a beauty had been created. The trip-you-up epiphany that often slams you in the face when walking around this ancient, derelict community, gifts many with perspective. We truly are all simple souls passing through, borrowing time and balancing on an eternal knife edge. Our arrogant and possibly endearing assumption that we've reached the zenith of modernity is simply not true. Many civilisations existed before ours, and ones that were not so far behind in the queue either. Fascination and comfort can be taken from this. Fascination of the intellect that graced the world before ours did and comfort from a great deal of pressure being taken off our egos, having believed we are the most intelligent beings to have sallied forth from the shadows. We are not. There is more comfort yet to gleaned, in the knowledge that we have the capacity to build empires, have them crumble and begin again.