Agoraphobia and Herculaneum


(Written Feb. 5) – Granted I’m here to teach a couple of courses. The students come first, the exploring comes second. However, those moments do come!

Yesterday (Feb. 4) my friend Gary loaned me one of his cars. The last time I drove in Europe was when I was stationed in Spain from 1998 – 2000. I didn’t do any major highway driving then as I had a small motorcycle. Additionally, I prefer buses and other people driving because I wrestle with a very nasty case of agoraphobia. Traveling is difficult due to high quantities of anxiety sparked by any break in routine.

I have stayed in the Navy partly because it forces me to continually learn new coping skills to overcome said agoraphobia. Meds are one method I embrace. Breathing exercises are another. Accepting the fear raging inside and making myself walk out the door is often the final option. In the end, I’ll deal with the fear instead of being paralyzed by it because there is a world to see…but it does come at a price for me (as it does anyone who struggles with agoraphobia).

So, anyway, I rented a GPS, borrowed Gary’s car, and set out Saturday to drive up Mt. Vesuvius and then see Herculaneum.

I never made the summit of Mt. Vesuvius, though not from lack of trying. The GPS could only get me to the perimeter of the national park, but my stunning lack of fluency in Italian prevented me from finding the road leading to the walking trail that would summit the volcano. I did explore a number of incredibly beautiful small towns on its slopes, and I was finally able to touch the mountain itself, but I never got to the top of the crater. It was a foggy, rainy day, so I didn’t take any photos up there. However, the low-light conditions did call to mind the darkened skies of 79 A. D. as the ash cloud billowed up and cast its long shadow over the landscape before falling upon the low-lying towns.

This was also the fist time I have ever been on the slope of an active volcano. Pretty cool…in a “lava-hot” sort of way!

Pompeii was directly in the path of the eruption and caught the brunt of it. Pryoclastic flows, lava, mud, ash–it landed directly on Pompeii and literally crushed the life out of everything there. No organic material remains; the casts of the dead resulted from the solidifying ash maintaining the shape of the bodies as they deteriorated.

Herculaneum, on the western edge of the event, was also buried under nearly 10 meters (over 30 feet) of ash and mud, but was not hit by any lava flows. Initially the residents of Herculaneum tried to flee by sea, but tsunami action forced their boats back to the town. Most of the residents sheltered in the boathouses at the shoreline and died rather violently (but quickly) when volcanic gasses heated nearly 250 degrees Celsius (nearly 500 Fahrenheit) incinerated them before the super-hot mud flow enveloped the town during the eruption’s second and subsequent phases (and also extended the shoreline by several hundred yards).

This is why there are no body casts at Herculaneum. In a volcanic irony, the falling ash insulated the dead in Pompeii from the later lava and mud flows. The ash quickly hardened, maintaining the shape of the bodies as the bodies deteriorated. The dead in Herculaneum were cremated almost immediately, leaving only their bones behind.
In the boathouses today one sees casts of the jumbled skeletons where most of the town died. The original skeletons were removed for study and offer a treasure trove of information on the health, diet, and diseases of the 1st century Romans.

Herculaneum was a wealthy small town (as opposed to the city of Pompeii), and far less of it is excavated. This is partly due to the modern town of Ercolano (formerly known as Resina) having grown up smack dab on top of the site; partly it is due to its discovery after Pompeii captured the world’s attention.

The upshot is that it is possible to see all of excavated Herculaneum in one day without being rushed. Unlike Pompeii, where the only roofed structures to survive were those with arched roofs (the weight of falling ash crushed the rest), the mud flows that hit Herculaneum preserved several structures nearly intact. You don’t just walk into the ruined remains of houses as in Pompeii. In Herculaneum, you can walk INTO the houses at several points.

It is…eerie. Life froze at that moment. We of the 21st century seem to picture 1st century life as marble-white and colorless due to the condition of ancient ruins long exposed to the sun’s bleaching effects. In reality, the ancients of this part of world painted their world with enough color to inspire crayon developers for years to come.

Many common people ate midday meals at Thermopolium–lunch counters on street corners that are amazingly similar to modern cafeterias. You’d get your food from any number of terra cotta urns set into a counter and then retire to the back room to eat with your friends. Only the wealthiest, who could afford private kitchens, always ate at home.

The counters are empty and the winds own the back rooms, but one can hear the echoes of long-ago conversations if one listens hard.

Herculaneum’s wealthy status is evidenced by the profusion of impluvium in the atrium of many of the houses. These are small, rectangular pools that were both decorative and served to collect rainwater, channeling it to an underground cistern. Around these now-dried pools are often intricate mosaic tile floors. I even found a shamrock pattern on the floor or one house along with the expected sea-life based motifs. As I observed my fellow tourists, it struck me that we’re standing on floors laid by hand 2,100 years ago.

I wonder what those 1st century Romans would have thought, seeing our modern, mass-produced shoes walking on floors that were each a one-of-a-kind work of art?
But the day was wearing on, and I had to get back before daylight fell. Driving in a foreign land is hard enough in daytime, but there was no way I was going to do it after dark. Even my ability to contain stress has limits, and the level of stress an agoraphobic anxiety attack imparts on one is staggering. So, after spending most of the day visiting the dead, I headed back to Gary’s car, set my GPS, and promptly got lost in the land of the living.


I missed a turn (not hard to do considering Italy’s narrow, windy roads were laid out long before high-speed automobiles were common) and ended up in a small neighborhood with no room to turn around. I had only a couple of inches’ clearance on either side of the car by the time I hit the dead end. A kind Italian man allowed me to pull into his drive so I could reverse course.

I finally got back to my lodgings just as dusk was falling. A long hot shower, several cups of very strong tea, and a glass of Italian wine worked in fine concert with a lot of deep breathing to get the stress hormones out of my bloodstream while I started processing my photos.

Agoraphobia is no joke, and I can only imagine how much more I could do if a good half of my inner strength were not geared to containing, managing, and getting past my own over-active fear response . Not everyone with this particular issue is able to strike as I do, so in many ways I’m lucky. As very hard as it is on me, I am able to get out on my own.

Still, I REALLY look forward to the day when I have a partner in my life to share this journey with. I want to share these adventures with someone…but having company makes wrestling with the fear easier (doesn’t solve it; just makes it easier).

Either way, I will keep striking out, because there is a world to see out here. I just hope this year will be the year I get to add another set of eyes to my adventures.

In the meantime…Herculaneum and Pompeii sleep under a volcano that is still quite alive. Vesuvius has spoken before; it will speak again.

(Pardon any formatting and spelling errors; I’m writing these on a text-only word processor with no spell checker).

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