The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered

Alexander Meddings - November 24, 2017

The emperor Caligula is infamous for a whole host of reasons. According to the ancient sources, when he wasn’t busy shagging his three sisters or arbitrarily murdering anyone who posed him the slightest of threat, he would pass his time making the lives of Rome’s senatorial elite a living nightmare, demanding to be worshipped as a god or leading the Roman state or the Roman army on a series of vainglorious (and ultimately fruitless) pursuits. But aside from his more notorious proclivities, what’s less well known is that Caligula was an enthusiastic shipbuilder.

Caligula’s second century AD biographer, Suetonius, has left us a colorful description of some magnificent galleys the emperor once built along the beautiful coastline of Campania (the southern Italian region that has Naples as its capital):

He had constructed some Liburnian galleys, their prows studded with jewels, their sails of many colors, whose ample interiors housed baths, porticoes, and dining-rooms as well as a large variety of vines and fruit-trees so that lounging on these vessels he might travel by day along the shores of Campania entertained by choirs and orchestras.

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
Eighteenth-century interpretation of Caligula’s pleasure barge. Getty

Although we’re constantly discovering Roman shipwrecks, some dating as back as the First Punic War against Carthage (264 – 241 BC), we’ve yet to locate the ships Suetonius mentions. In all likelihood, they, like the vast majority of relics from the ancient world, have been lost to the processes of erosion, degradation, and the passing of time. However, although a lot of what Suetonius writes about Caligula is historically debatable, we know that he was telling the truth about the emperor’s nautical endeavors because we’ve discovered two—soon to be three—other ships the emperor built.

The site of the ships’ discovery, Lake Nemi, lies 19 miles south of Rome in the region of Lazio. The lake’s name, Nemi, comes from the Latin word nemus, meaning “holy wood”. It’s easy to see how this description might have come about. Lake Nemi is a place of astounding natural beauty: situated some 300 metres above sea level, the lake was formed within an extinct volcanic crater. Its stunning scenery wasn’t lost on past commentators. Lord Byron wrote of, “Nemi, navelled in the woody hills”, while artists from Turner to Jean Charles Joseph used the lake as the backdrop for their dramatic landscapes (pictured below).

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
Jean Charles Joseph’s “Lake Nemi”. Blistar

Today, Nemi is famous mainly for its distinctively small and sweet strawberries. Throughout history, however, Nemi has been famous across Italy and abroad as the resting place of Caligula’s colossal pleasure barges (known as the Nemi Ships). It’s incredible that Caligula thought to build these 220 and 230 feet long floating orgy palaces on Lake Nemi, considering it only has a circumference of 3.5 miles. It’s even more incredible that, since the emperor’s assassination at the hands of his Praetorian Guard in 41 AD, the area’s inhabitants never lost the knowledge that two of these ships lay sunken at the bottom of the lake’s western side.

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
Bronze lion heads, used to hold the ships’ oars. Flickr

Salvaging the Nemi Ships

There was no shortage of attempts to salvage the Nemi Ships over the centuries. Most, however, did far more harm than good. The first salvage effort came about in the mid-fifteenth century when the Lord of Nemi, Cardinal Prospero Colonna, commissioned the renowned architect Leon Battista (the designer of Rome’s original Trevi Fountain) to devise a way of pulling them up from the lakebed. Battista’s response was to construct an enormous raft, complete with ropes, pulleys, and grappling hooks which divers would attach to the ships’ hulls, and sail it out into the middle of the lake.

His efforts, however, were in vain. Though the hooks managed to get purchase of the ancient ships, they were unable to dislodge them from the lakebed’s muddy grip. They succeeded only in tearing off the ships’ lead water pipes and various fragments of wood from the beaten and bruised vessels. It wasn’t all for nothing though: classical enthusiasts were at least impressed by the quality of the woodwork. Subsequent attempts were more or less to follow this example (and share in its success) until 1895, when Signor Borghi obtained permission from Nemi’s landowner, Prince Orsini, to head up another expedition.

With his team of divers, Borghi brought to the surface numerous bronze works that decorated the ships’ hulls. In addition to more lead piping and gilded bronze roof tiles, Borghi managed to salvage a bronze lion’s head (pictured above); one of many remarkable decorative artworks used to hold the ship’s mighty oars in place. While Borghi’s efforts may have born fruit, it also marked a temporary halt to salvage attempts at Nemi, not least because authorities were becoming increasingly concerned that the Nemi Ships were several expeditions away from completely disintegrating.

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
Italian locals lining up to view Caligula’s ships in 1932. Rare Historical Photos

They were right in their decision. Over the centuries local fishermen had been picking away at the Nemi Ships, motivated less by archaeological curiosity than by the considerable potential to profit from salvaging (and subsequently selling) ancient artifacts: initially to local landowners, later to wealthy travelers on their grand tours. But despite the momentary abandonment of salvaging projects, those wanting to uncover the hidden wonders of the Nemi Ships wouldn’t have to wait long.

The breakthrough came under Mussolini’s fascist government in the 1920s. “Il Duce” was an ardent supporter of salvaging the Nemi Ships—eager as always to get his hands on anything Roman that would lend prestige to his party. He outlined his plan to drain the lake in a speech in 1927, and in October the following year, his project was put into action. The first ship emerged from the depths in March 1929; the second in June 1931. The wood of their vast carcasses was treated, artifacts were taken, and they were housed in the purpose-built Museo delle Navi Romane (Museum of the Roman Ships) on the shore of the lake.

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
Benito Mussolini at the inauguration of the Nemi Museum. Rare Historical Photos

The Third Ship

Some might think it ironic that the Nemi Ships survived for over 2,000 years underwater only to be destroyed within a decade of their life on the surface. But this is unfortunately what happened. On May 31, 1944, an unknown group of retreating German soldiers committed a malicious act of arson when they set the ships alight. By the time the Italians knew what had happened, it was too late. Aside from notes in the historical record, all that was left of Caligula’s magnificent vessels were cinders. As fortune would have it, however, it seems there is a third.

Mussolini’s party never drained the deepest part of the lake; rumored since the fifteenth century to be the resting place of a larger 400 feet long vessel. Like the other two ships, it’s likely to be excessively luxurious: resplendent with mosaicked floors, marble columns, gold decorations and (in its day) hot and cold running water. Nor is this ship’s existence just the stuff of rumors. Local fishermen have testified this ship’s existence by reporting Roman artifacts they find snagged up in their fishing lines.

The hunt is already underway. Various Italian authorities have teamed together to launch a cooperative (and therefore distinctly un-Italian) effort to search for the lost ship. Using hi-tech scanners, they have already identified an area some 100 feet deep for divers to scour. Things always move slowly in Italy, and so far they have only made it to a depth of 90 feet without much success. But within a few weeks, we should have a better idea of what—if anything—remains of this third titanic vessel.

The Truth of Caligula’s Wild Ship Party Uncovered
“Lake Nemi” by Sanford R. Gifford. Artcyclopedia

While we wait for the third ship to be discovered, we’ll have to make to with the other ghosts from antiquity that continue to haunt Nemi. There are, however, many. As previously mentioned, Nemi derived its name from the Latin word for “holy wood”, and as well as being famous for its outstanding natural beauty (and debauched booze cruises aboard Caligula’s pleasure barges), Nemi was famous in antiquity for being the home to the Rex nemorensis, or the “King of the grove.”

Quite uniquely in the ancient world, this king could only be a slave who had run away from his master. He was, in reality, less a king and more a priest to the goddess of nature and hunting, Diana. However, like a king, he always faced the real and terrifying prospect of being violently supplanted by someone stronger. The removal of the incumbent king was in fact turned into a quasi-religious ritual, in which after plucking a golden bough from the grove, any other runaway slave could challenge the king to mortal combat. If the king won, he would retain his position. If not, his victor would take up the (dubiously attractive) title in his place.

Testament to the strength of Caligula’s attachment to the Nemi area is the fact that his story ties in with that of the Rex nemorensis. According to Suetonius, Caligula was a very jealous ruler and hated anybody who commanded even a morsel of power or respect. This extended beyond senators and popular theatre performers to include the King of Nemi himself. In the emperor’s opinion, one particular king had held his position for too long. So in a particularly spiteful act, Caligula decided to supplant him. He procured the strongest slave he could find and sent him to Nemi to fight the incumbent king. To cut a long story short: the defending king had far less longevity than either of Caligula’s pleasure barges.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Daily Heritage – The Nemi Ships Were Elaborate Floating Palaces Built by Caligula In The 1st Century AD

Discover Magazine – Nemi Ships: How Caligula’s Floating Pleasure Palaces Were Found and Lost Again

History of Yesterday – The Pleasure Ships of the Roman Emperor Caligula Were The Yachts of Antiquity

The Local – Built by Caligula and smuggled to the US, a long-lost Roman mosaic finally returns to Italy

Rare Historical Photos – Italians viewing antique Emperor Caligula’s Nemi ships, 1932

The New York Times – Long-Lost Mosaic From a ‘Floating Palace’ of Caligula Returns Home

Seeker – Mystery of Emperor Caligula’s Party Ships Could Be Revealed After 2,000 Years