Located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD. Its ruins are located in the comune of Ercolano near Naples.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous as one of the few ancient cities that can now be seen in much of its original splendour, as well as for having been lost, along with Pompeii, Stabiae, Oplontis and Boscoreale, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that buried it. Unlike Pompeii, the deep pyroclastic material which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors, food and even some 300 skeletons which were discovered in recent years along the seashore. It had been thought until then that the town had been evacuated by the inhabitants.

Herculaneum was a wealthier town than Pompeii, possessing an extraordinary density of fine houses with, for example, far more lavish use of coloured marble cladding.

History

Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Heracles, an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In fact, it seems that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC.

Architecture

The buildings at the site are grouped in blocks (insulae), defined by the intersection of the east-west and north-south streets. 

The most famous of the luxurious villas at Herculaneum is the Villa of the Papyri. It was once identified as the magnificent seafront retreat for Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law.The villa stretches down towards the sea in four terraces. Piso, a literate man who patronized poets and philosophers, built a fine library there, the only one to survive intact from antiquity.

The Central Thermae were bath houses built around the first century AD. Bath houses were very common at that time, especially in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Per common practice, there were two different bath areas, one for men and the other for women. These houses were extremely popular, attracting many visitors daily. This cultural hub was also home to several works of art, which can be found in various areas of the Central Thermae site.

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Porta Nigra

The Porta Nigra (Latin for black gate) is the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. It is designated as part of the Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Porta Nigra originated in the Middle Ages due to the darkened colour of its stone; the original Roman name has not been preserved. Locals commonly refer to the Porta Nigra simply as Porta.

The Porta Nigra was built in grey sandstone between 186 and 200 AD. The original gate consisted of two four-storied towers, projecting as near semicircles on the outer side. A narrow courtyard separated the two gate openings on either side. For unknown reasons, however, the construction of the gate remained unfinished. For example, the stones at the northern (outer) side of the gate were never abraded, and the protruding stones would have made it impossible to install movable gates. Nonetheless, the gate was used for several centuries until the end of the Roman era in Trier.

In Roman times, the Porta Nigra was part of a system of four city gates, one of which stood at each side of the roughly rectangular Roman city. The Porta Nigra guarded the northern entry to the Roman city, while the Porta Alba (White Gate) was built in the east, the Porta Media (Middle Gate) in the south, and the Porta Inclyta (Famous Gate) in the west, next to the Roman bridge across the Moselle. The gates stood at the ends of the two main streets of the Roman Trier, one of which led north-south and the other east-west. Of these gates, only the Porta Nigra still exists today.

In the early Middle Ages the Roman city gates were no longer used for their original function and their stones were taken and reused for other buildings. Also iron and lead braces were broken out of the walls of the Porta Nigra for reuse. Traces of this destruction are still clearly visible on the north side of the gate.

After 1028, the Greek monk Simeon lived as a hermit in the ruins of the Porta Nigra. After his death (1035) and sanctification, the Simeonstift monastery was built next to the Porta Nigra to honor him. Saving it from further destruction, the Porta Nigra was transformed into a church: The inner court of the gate was roofed and intermediate ceilings were inserted. The two middle storeys of the former gate were converted into church naves: the upper storey being for the monks and the lower storey for the general public. The ground floor with the large gates was sealed, and a large outside staircase was constructed alongside the south side (the town side) of the gate, up to the lower storey of the church. A small staircase led further up to the upper storey. The church rooms were accessible through former windows of the western tower of the Porta Nigra that were enlarged to become entrance doors (still visible today). The top floor of the western tower was used as church tower, the eastern tower was leveled, and an apse added at its east side. An additional gate - the much smaller Simeon Gate - was built adjacent to the East side of the Porta Nigra and served as a city gate in medieval times.

In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the church in the Porta Nigra and the monastery beside it, along with the vast majority of Trier"s numerous churches and monasteries. On his visit to Trier in 1804, Napoleon ordered that the Porta Nigra be converted back to its Roman form. Only the apse was kept; but the eastern tower was not rebuilt to its original height. Local legend has it that Napoleon originally wanted to completely tear down the church, but locals convinced him that the church had actually been a Gaulish festival hall before being turned into a church. Another version of the story is that they told him about its Roman origins, persuading him to convert the gate back to its original form.

In 1986 the Porta Nigra was designated a World Heritage Site, along with other Roman monuments in Trier and its surroundings. The modern appearance of the Porta Nigra goes back almost unchanged to the reconstruction ordered by Napoleon. At the south side of the Porta Nigra, remains of Roman columns line the last 100 m of the street leading to the gate. Positioned where they had stood in Roman times, they give a slight impression of the aspect of the original Roman street that was lined with colonnades. The Porta Nigra, including the upper floors, is open to visitors.