Infectious Disease and Eating Habits at Herculaneum


The Roman town of Herculaneum in Southern Italy was covered under about 30m of volcanic ash following the tremendous eruption of Vesuvius that also buried Pompeii on the night of 25 August, 79 AD. When excavated, the town was found to be almost completely deserted, leading to the belief that the approximately 5000 inhabitants had successfully escaped. However, in 1982 the skeletons of  approximately 250 individuals were discovered on the ancient beach at Herculaneum, indicating that the apparently perfect evacuation had not corresponded to an escape for all the inhabitants.

Analysis of the skeletal material revealed that the people who died from exposure to the first volcanic eruption succumbed to a cloud of volcanic ash that had enshrouded the group at a temperature of c. 600 C and a speed of 270 km/h. Preliminary studies demonstrated the presence of both tuberculosis and brucellosis. The latter was linked to consumption of goats cheese, analysis of carbonised cheeses found at Herculaneum indicating the presence of bacterial particles morphologically and dimensionally consistent with Brucella.

Material and Methods:

A sample of 162 skeletons – 83 males, 61 females and 18 unsexed – were examined. Preservation was excellent due to their instant burial in fine volcanic ash. The high temperature of the ash (c. 650-800 C) led to a sterile environment for some time after burial, producing consistent alterations of aDNA. Age and sex were determined using published methodologies.

All food remains found during archaeological excavation at Herculaneum were also examined.


  1. Preliminary microbiological results show that all the examined food contained micro-organisms, including Saccharomyces ellipsoidens (wine yeast) in the wine and Saccharomyces cerisiae in the bread. Cocciform bacteria consistent with Salmonella were found on the interior of preserved eggshell. There was also extensive contamination of pomegranates and figs believed to be due to Streptomyces spp.
  2. Histological analysis of 12 individuals produced results consistent with the hypothesis that some of the living population of Herculaneum were exposed to natural tetracycline. This may have been produced by Streptomycetes, found in preserved fruits.
  3. Palaeopathological examination of the human remains revealed the presence of all major categories of bone disease: trauma, degenerative joint disease, tumours, inflammation.
    1. Supra-inion periostitis was linked to scalp damage due to localised reaction to headlice.
    2. Focal periostitis of the internal surface of the rib was linked to extension of pleuritis. This type of lung infection was hypothesised to be due to continuous exposure of indoor pollution from smoke produced during combustion of vegetable matter or animal dung to cook food, heat houses, or combustion of oil in lamps.
    3. Inflammatory bone reaction on the dorsal surfaces of the 1st and 5th metatarsals and on the superior surface of the navicular were hypothesised to be due to local irritation of the periosteum from sandals and shoes.
    4. Sinusitis was linked to the spread of dental infection to the maxillary sinus.
    5. Specific bone infection leading to inflammation was identified as tuberculosis and brucellosis. Tuberculosis involved both ribs and vertebrae and was linked to the eating of oxen viscera after ritual sacrifice. Brucellosis, indicated by anterior vertebral epiphysitis, was radiologically demonstrated in 17.2% of the adults and was explained by daily consumption of dairy produce contaminated with Brucella.
    6. Non-specific inflammatory bone response, e.g. osteomyelitis, was rare.


The microbiological contamination of food at Herculaneum was probably the cause of chronic infections of the population, such as tuberculosis and brucellosis. However, other microbiological contamination might have produced some advantage. Consumption of natural antibiotics such as tetracycline was probably low, but this low level may have been useful to prevent or to control non-specific infectious diseases.


Capasso, L. 2007. Infectious diseases and eating habits at Herculaneum (1st century AD, Southern Italy). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 17: 350-357


4 responses to “Infectious Disease and Eating Habits at Herculaneum

  1. I hope you don’t see this comment just as a gratuitous and self-promoting one (although probably it is). But perhaps you might find some interest in my point of view of the article, as posted at . I welcome any kind of suggestions and comments.

  2. Sorry for my html mistakes in my previous comment. This is the corrected text:

    I hope you don’t see this comment just as a gratuitous and self-promoting one (although probably it is). But perhaps you might find some interest in my point of view of the article, as posted at Romans, dried figs and Streptomyces. I welcome any kind of suggestions and comments.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I was interested to read your own thoughts about the study. I found it to be an interesting one, and quite original. I am not aware of anything similar being attempted before, although if anyone knows differently I would be interested to know. The preservation at sites such as Herculaneum provides us with a fascinating snapshot of an instant of the past, something that is unusual for archaeological sites that usually have a longer – and less dramatic – end to their settlement. It also provides opportunities for integrated analysis that are perhaps lacking among other assemblages.

  4. Pingback: Roman antibiotics at Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

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