PortandTerminal.com, August 31, 2019
ROME, ITALY – For centuries, the medieval fishermen who worked in the calm waters of Lake Nemi, 19 miles (32 km) south of Rome, had a secret. They knew that the rotting timbers of a gigantic ancient shipwreck lay below the water’s quiet surface.
What the fishermen didn’t know though was that hidden below in the lake was not just the remains of one huge ship, but rather two, and both had once belonged to the insane Emperor of Rome, Caligula 1500 years earlier.
When in the 1930s the ships were finally salvaged their size and luxury was discovered to be astounding. The second largest of the two vessels measured 220 feet long x 62 feet wide (67m x 19m). For perspective, that makes it slightly larger than Beyoncé’s superyacht.
The second of the two vessels was even larger, measuring 233 feet long by 77 feet wide (71m x 24m). About as big as Steve Job’s superyacht.
To put Caligula’s blue-chip birth lineage into perspective for the times, imagine a Reagan/Kennedy marriage where the couple’s child grows up to be the President of the United States. Caligula came from that type of family and was born destined for leadership within Rome.
When he became emperor of Rome in 37 AD he was just 25-years-old. Some surviving accounts of Caligula’s reign described him as a noble and moderate ruler for the first two years of his rule, and then they rightly focus on his cruelty, extravagance, and sexual perversity. He was a madman by most accounts.
While his reign lasted only 4 years it is filled with such murder and debauchery, to levels that even his infamous nephew Nero would be unable to fiddle his way out of.
Late in his 4-year tenure as Emperor, Caligula convinced himself (but likely few others) that he was divine. Historians report that he “built a temple to himself on the Palatine in Rome, and forced leading citizens to pay enormous sums for the honour of becoming his priests.”
Caligula forced a parent to watch his son being executed and then invited him to a celebration where he forced him to make fun of his son’s execution
Caligula was exceedingly cruel and had people butchered mercilessly, often for trivial offences. When there was a shortage of cattle to feed the beasts (lions, tigers etc) at the public arenas, he ordered humans to be fed to them instead. Of his own citizens, he famously declared, “I wish the Roman people had but a single neck” so he could hang them all at once.
Unsurprisingly, Caligula quickly became unpopular in Rome. In 41 AD, a group of guards attacked Caligula and his wife and daughter after a sporting event. He was stabbed more than 30 times, and upon his death, was buried in a shallow grave.
He was just 29 years old when he died. Few tears were shed after his assassination.
After Caligula’s death, the Roman Senate and the Praetorian Guard attempted to destroy everything connected with him, including his barges which they reportedly pillaged and sank. We know for sure that the barges were to remain underwater for 1,900 years.
Caligula’s Nemi ships
As one of his royal passions, Emperor Caligula ordered at least two massive barges to be built for use on Lake Nemi. Why he actually built them is open to historical debate. In all probability, they were probably a personal vanity project of Caligula’s, a way for him to show the world the greatness of Rome and himself as its divine leader.
One of the two largest barges found is believed to have been a floating temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Diana. The second was almost certainly a floating pleasure palace for Caligula and his entourage.
A Roman historian described the two biggest barges that were constructed as being built of cedar wood adorned with jewelled prows, rich sculpture, vessels of gold and silver, sails of purple silk, and bathrooms of alabaster and bronze. This description fits with many of the artefacts that have been recovered.
The floors were paved with glass mosaic, the windows and door frames were made of bronze, and many of the decorations were priceless. The Romans made ball bearings out of lead and they probably used the ball bearings on the Nemi ships to make the statues of the gods rotate or to move the windlasses.
Piston pumps supplied the two ships with hot and cold running water via lead pipes. The hot water supplied baths while the cold operated fountains and supplied drinking water. This plumbing technology was later lost and only re-discovered in the Middle Ages.
Attempts to recover the ships
There were several attempts at salvaging the Roman ships carried out at over the centuries, most of which resulted in the further degradation of the wrecks and plundering of its artefacts.
The first attempt to recover the ships didn’t happen until the middle of the 15th century. A large floating platform was constructed by lashing beams to empty barrels. Divers to attach grapples hanging from chains to the prow of the first ship. But the chains broke and hooks were lost, and only lead water pipes and fragments of wood sheathed in lead secured by copper nails were brought to the surface. It did offer exciting evidence of what was below.
Draining Lake Nemi
The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini worked to recover Caligula’s ships for about five years – from October 1928 to October 1932.
Mussolini ordered antiquarian Guido Ucelli, the Italian Navy, engineers of Civil Engineers, industry, private individuals and archaeologists to drain Lake Nemi.
The local people and archaeologists knew of an ancient Roman underground tunnel that connected the lake to farms outside the crater and they connected it to a floating pumping platform. Using powerful pumps and water scooping machines, the workers lowered the level of the lake and by June 10, 1931, they had recovered the first ship and the second had been exposed. After nearly 1,900 years at the bottom of Lake Nemi, the ships again rode the waves.
Reconstruction and destruction
When they were finally brought to dry land, having lain on the lake bed for almost two thousand years, Caligula’s ships were to have an equally tragic and violent end as that of their owner himself.
On May 31, 1944, Allied planes and artillery units bombarded a German anti-aircraft battery stationed near the Lake Nemi Museum where the Nemi ships were kept.
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