Hercules in Herculaneum fresco,
Museo Archeologico Nazionale,
Naples, inv. 9008
(ph. Wikimedia Commons)

Herculaneum, named after the hero Hercules, was a small town in Campania on the west coast of central Italy, located some 8km south-east of present-day Naples.

Boasting only a small harbour, its main advantages were its excellent climate and its seaside position. It grew into a holiday resort and luxurious retreat for the wealthy landowners who built and bought estates there. The largest villa, the so-called Villa of the Papyri, is widely believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law, L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

The origins of Herculaneum are unclear: the name and the regularity of the urban planning suggest that it may have been connected with the Greek settlement at Naples, but the recorded languages used in the town are Oscan and then Latin, both native Italic languages. As elsewhere in southern Italy, an originally Greek foundation may have become 'Italicised' through conquest or assimilation. In the fourth century BC Herculaneum was a member of the Samnite league but was later allied to Rome, although it sided with the Italian allies in the Social War of 91-87 BC.