Pompeii is a popular destination for tourists travelling to Italy. The ancient town, buried by the explosion from the Mount Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD, is a time capsule from Ancient Rome. While it’s an interesting place to visit, it has become very touristy, which takes away from the experience. Lesser-known towns of Ostia Antica and Herculaneum, on the other hand, offer a great alternative for visiting Roman ruins in Italy.
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Pompeii and Herculaneum: a tale of two cities
What makes Pompeii and Herculaneum so closely connected is that they both perished during the Mount Vesuvius explosion. Pompeii was the larger and more opulent of the two. It was a place of decadence, debauchery and a playground of rich Romans.
Pompeii was a popular place in Roman times and quite prosperous. Many rich Roman had their villas here, overlooking the sea. On the other hand, Herculaneum was a smaller town also filled with opulent villas of the rich. After the eruption, both towns disappeared for centuries, forgotten over time.
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Pompeii, briefly discovered in 1592 just to be covered up again, had to wait couple more centuries to be properly discovered under King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon in the mid-18th century. It took another century for the excavations to ramp up; however, many of the works were either removed or covered up, especially the numerous erotic images and statutes deemed scandalous.
The story of Herculaneum Italy
Herculaneum, although smaller than Pompeii, was a very wealthy town. Many of the uncovered villas show remnants of more lavish mosaics and marble cladding, attesting to that. Unlike the ash and pumice that covered Pompeii, the eruption covered Herculaneum in a superheated pyroclastic flow of molten rock, mud and gas. It buried the city under 50 to 60 feet (15 to 18 metres) of tufaceous material, forming a time capsule that lasted for centuries.
The preservation of Herculaneum was so great that even wooden frames of houses, furniture and other everyday items survived. This makes Herculaneum a more accurate reflection of life in Ancient Rome. It is also a more interesting experience.
Over the years, mismanagement, theft and damage plagued the excavation of Pompeii. Meanwhile, Herculaneum became the poster-child of archeological discovery. Between Pompeii and Herculaneum, the latter was unearthed, and since the excavation was more difficult, the city was better preserved.
Visiting Herculaneum today is an unreal experience. Pompeii is like visiting a giant abandoned city that goes on for miles. Herculaneum, on the other hand, lies under the modern-day city. You can see Mount Vesuvius in the background at both places, but in Herculaneum, you have apartment buildings overlooking the excavation site between the ruins and the volcano.
The ancient city of Herculaneum, much like Pompeii, was on the water. The eruption changed the landscape, and the sea is a lot further today than it used to be. Modern-day city, built on top of the old one, still covers a large part of the ancient one, but it’s not likely to get completely uncovered as people live above it.
Maybe it’s just me, but living here would make me extremely uncomfortable. Staring into the past as you see the reason for its demise behind you. There is a morbid element at play here, but the locals seem perfectly at peace.
The darker side of excavations
When the excavations started, there was an assumption that most residents escaped the tragic events since few bodies were found in the city. It wasn’t until the 1980s when excavations moved to the former shore and revealed the truth about what really happened.
Herculaneum’s citizens didn’t escape an agonizing death. Dozens of skeletal remains huddled together under the arched boat sheds and on the shore reveal their tragic end. Most likely, they hoped to escape by sea but didn’t make it. Their remains and the horrific end they endured really hit you with the magnitude of just how devastating the eruption was. It really makes you look at the current city, with the mighty Vesuvius looming in the background, in a different light.
The entrance to the archeological park is a gate that separated the site from a modern-day city. As you walk past it, you’ll see the city below you. You can easily see the whole site from there, unlike Pompeii. It’s a fascinating view of the city below you, especially in contrast with the modern-day housing.
There was a moment of hesitation where we didn’t know if we should actually pay and see the site since we could see it from above without a fee. While what you see is impressive, going down to the street level brings you face to face with the past.
Unlike Pompeii, you can actually walk up closer to the art, get inside the villas and stroll around what used to be lavish homes of the people who lived there. It’s quite the experience. You don’t get that in Pompeii, where everything is roped off and crowded.
What you need to know
Herculaneum is not as large as Pompeii and not as overwhelming. You can tour the city in a relatively shorter time without getting lost. There are also fewer crowds. Having been to Pompeii twice, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this experience a lot more. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are a short distance from each other, but I would recommend doing them on separate days. That is a lot of destruction and death to handle in one day, not to mention the Italian sun’s heat.
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Ostia Antica Italy
On Rome’s outskirts lies Ostia Antica, an important port city and commercial hub of Ancient Rome. Today it is home to impressive and well-preserved Roman ruins.
Unlike the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Ostia didn’t suffer any natural disasters. The city, completely abandoned by the 9th century AD, slowly submerged under mud and silt deposits from the River Tiber.
Impending threats of attacks, raids by the Saracen pirates and malaria all contributed to the city’s downfall. Ostia Antica never suffered any significant damage like the Pompeii and Herculaneum, but it still suffered from neglect, thefts of materials and the effects of time. The elements damaged it while at the same time ensured the preservation of what’s left behind.
Ostia Antica and modern day Ostia
With origins dating back to the Etruscan times, Ostia Antica flourished under Roman rule. As a major point of entry to Rome, for both goods and people, it developed significant importance in ancient times.
During that time, the city was on the shores of the River Tiber. Today, it’s farther inland. The modern city of Ostia resembles what Ostia Antica might have been like in those days. It’s a popular destination for beachgoers with various restaurants, bars, and shops situated on the shore. Both Ostia and Ostia Antica are not far from each other, offer their own charm, and explore great places.
What makes Ostia Antica so important?
The preservation of buildings at Ostia Antica provides us with an understanding of how the ancients designed their cities, how they functioned and left us a very detailed insight into the Romans’ lives.
At one point, Ostia Antica was home to more than 100,000 people. It was a large city with all the staple Roman elements, including an amphitheatre, public baths, temples and public houses. You can see the remnants of well-preserved mosaics, frescoes, paved roads, shop fronts, taverns and piazzas.
In a way, it’s very similar to Pompeii without the feeling of dread and destruction. Ostia Antica even had a brigade of firefighters, entrusted with guarding the warehouses and putting out fires. Established around 137 AD by Hadrian, the two-story complex housed 400 men on duty, and you can still see it today.
It’s quite amazing to walk among the storefronts’ remnants and find similarities from the past to the world we know today. The Square of the Guilds (Piazzale delle Corporazioni) was the centre of the city’s economic activity. There you’ll find several rooms with different mosaics in front of them. Most likely, used as a point of reference for negotiators looking for certain trades.
Visiting Ostia Antica
You can walk the ancient streets pretty much the same way the Romans did centuries ago. The complete archeological area is just over 10,000 acres and has a main street that runs for over a mile. There is a lot to cover, including villas, apartments, a necropolis and warehouses.
You won’t find the same size crowds of visitors here as you would in Pompeii. Most tourists are not as aware of Ostia Antica as they are of other places, and you can take advantage of that. While places like Pompeii and Herculaneum get more exposure, Ostia Antica is a great alternative to ancient ruins in Italy.
As you enter the park, you’ll walk along the main road in what was the necropolis. As per the ancient city laws, it had to be placed outside city walls, makes for an impressive gateway. It’s easy to imagine how spectacular the place must have looked back in its glory. All structures are accessible, and you can really walk around what’s left of them.
What you need to know
Ostia Antica suffered plundering and theft that stripped its former glory while the elements did the rest. The official excavations under Mussolini between 1939 and 1942 unearthed significant objects. This led to further excavations over the next few decades.
A short drive or a train drive from Rome, Ostia Antica is easily accessible as a day trip. You can also opt to stay in town or nearby Ostia.
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Roman ruins in Italy
There are many ruins, Roman and others, all over Italy. While you can throw a rock and pretty much hit some type of ruin, the larger places like Ostia Antica, Pompeii and Herculaneum offer a more insightful look into Ancient Rome.
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Having been to all three places, I think each one has a lot to offer. Pompeii and Herculaneum are closer together and can be done as one jam-packed but doable trip. While Herculaneum is smaller, the experience, in my opinion, is a lot more intimate, if you can call hanging out in old ruins that. If you have time, see both, but Herculaneum is a great alternative if you are strapped for time.
Ostia Antica, due to its proximity to Rome, is a great day trip from the city. Again, if you are short on time and can’t make it down south to see the other two, you won’t be disappointed here.