Caligula’s Pleasure Ships of Lake Nemi

Nov 18, 2019 0 comments

Two thousand years ago, the debauched Roman emperor Caligula ordered the construction of two large floating pleasure barges on the relatively small Lake Nemi so that he could indulge in many of the depravities attributed to him. Lake Nemi is a small, shallow crater lake in the Alban Hills, approximately 30 km southeast of Rome, that has long been a vacation getaway for Romans, and now Italians, from the intense summer heat. Emperor Caligula, like his predecessor Emperor Tiberius, liked to spend his summers sailing in Lake Nemi.

nemi ships

Caligula ordered two large ships, more than 70 meters long, which he intended to use during his vacations. One ship was a floating temple dedicated to the goddess Diana. The other was a floating pleasure palace. Both ships were of nearly identical size, with one slightly larger than the other. The larger one was dubbed prima nave (first ship), and the smaller was called seconda nave (second ship).

The ships were meant to be anchored in place, and therefore had no means of propulsion such as sails, although they did have large rowing stations with long oars that was used to steer the ships. The ships had large marble palaces ostensibly decorated with mosaics, gemstones, statues, marble paving stones, gilded copper roof tiles, and fruit gardens. The palaces were equipped with plumbing and had hot water delivered to the baths through lead pipes.

Despite the immense cost at which they were constructed, these opulent palaces were afloat only for a brief time, most likely a year or two, before Caligula’s four year reign came to an end. He was assassinated by an alliance of Praetorian Guard, senators, and courtiers in 41 AD. Shortly after his death, the ships were sunk intentionally. They settled in shallow water at a depth of about 20 meters, a short distance away from the shore area where they were built and docked.

lake nemi

Lake Nemi. Image credit: Stefano_Valeri/

Caligula’s ships were gone, but not forgotten. Throughout the medieval period, local fishermen used grappling hooks to pull up pieces of the ship and small artifacts which they sold to tourists. The first attempt to recover the ships was commissioned by Pope Prospero Colonna in the mid-1400s. A floating platform was made and expert divers brought from Genoa were sent down to the bottom. But the ships were too massive to the brought to the surface. All they managed was to tear off some planks. The second attempt took place in 1535 under the direction
of Francesco De Marchi. He personally plunged into the lake using a diving bell, and recovered many items of marble, bronze, copper and lead. The timber beams he carved into walking sticks and boxes. It would need another four hundred years and the audacity of a fascist dictator to uncover the ships.

In 1928, Benito Mussolini ordered the whole of Lake Nemi to be drained so that the ships could be recovered. Engineers reactivated an ancient Roman underground water conduit linking the lake to farms outside the crater and began pumping water. Five months later, the first ship broke the surface. Two years later, the second ship was exposed. By this time over 40 million cubic meters of water was removed from the lake, and its level had dropped more than 20 meters. Then something curious happened. The lake bed, released of this enormous weight, began to bounce up and erupted in mud flows. This caused the lake floor to subside threatening the exposed ships. Work was suspended for almost a year. The second attempt at draining the lake was successful, and both ships were freed from the mud and carefully transported to dry land, where a museum was built to house them. The museum was inaugurated in 1936.

On the night of May 31 1944, less than four years after Italy entered the Second World War, the museum along with both ships was razed to the ground. It is not known whether the fires were started because of US bombing or German arson. Both parties blame the other. The ships were almost totally destroyed. Only some bronzes and materials that were already moved to museums in Rome survived.

Today, only scaled replicas of the ships exist at the museum.

nemi ships

nemi ships

nemi ships

nemi ships

Benito Mussolini attends the inauguration of the museum housing the Nemi ships.

nemi ships

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