Gilham ’13 on Visiting Herculaneum

Alex Gillham ’13 – To say the least, it has been an incredibly long day. Long, but incredibly interesting. We hit two major locations on the Western Italian Seaboard: Herculaneum and Capua, each of which are famous in their own specific way. More on that in a bit. Anyway, after having breakfast at our hotel this morning, the owners of which were extremely kind and hospitable to us, we set out for Herculaneum, a city known for its luxury in Roman antiquity, something that made it home to some of the one-percenters back in the day.

As one of my classmates mentioned on site, it was the “Carmel” of ancient Rome. Because of its reputation for luxury, Herculaneum is indeed a fascinating place to visit, especially with respect to the focus of our immersion course. Inasmuch as our class has studied Roman social history for the entire semester, we have concerned ourselves much with the various classes of Roman society, and how they interacted with one another. From opulent, mosaic-floored steam rooms in its baths, to enormous villas overlooking the coast, Herculaneum provides some fascinating insight into the life of ancient Rome’s wealthiest.

However, it is also interesting from a methodological perspective, primarily because of its location. The city was buried entirely by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, and remained that way until excavations uncovered it only within the last several hundred years. For that reason, it remains a “city frozen in time”, which makes it an interesting example of what everyday life perhaps would have looked like in Roman antiquity. That is, if you buy the argument that it is actually a citizen frozen in time, one that is a reliable case study for getting a sense of what everyday life might have been like. Thus, the earlier scare-quotes. But I digress.

Let us leave the methodological concerns for the professionals. It should suffice to say that the visit to Herculaneum was interesting and rewarding for a number of reasons, only a few of which I have touched base on here. After spending four hours or so there, we took a bus to Capua, a city of ancient importance located between Herculaneum and Rome. Capua, of course, is important for a study of ancient Rome in general. Cicero himself called it “another Rome”. But there are some more specific reasons for its importance, ones relevant to the focus of our social history class. Fans of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” should certainly be familiar with the place; Capua is where the remains of a large ampitheatre remain, one that was very popular in antiquity for the gladiatorial games it hosted. And that is partly why the location is so important to all of us in the class.

Again, we have focused on the different social groups of ancient Rome, and how they interacted with one another in both public and more private spaces, whatever the term “private” might denote for an ancient Roman, if anything. As such, Capua is relevant because of the insight it provides into the life of a fringe group in ancient Rome: gladiators. Interactions between gladiators and Roman citizens were always tense; there was a general concern regarding the possible gladiatorial uprisings. Capua is exactly one of the places where that fear was realized. The Spartacus we all know from the popular HBO series led a slave rebellion there in antiquity. Without going into too much detail, one can imagine how visiting such a location would be important to students of Roman social history, considering the importance of various questions surrounding how different social groups felt about one another, interacted with one another, responded to one another, et cetera.

So, after visiting the ampitheatre and its museum, we took off for Rome, from which I am currently writing. It has indeed been a long day, but the excitement of feeling and seeing everything we have studied this semester is keeping all of us going. Of course, while I would love to provide more details regarding the activities of the day, Rome is calling my name, and so I must go. From Rome, with love.

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