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Roman Emperor Caligula and the fantastic Nemi Barges discovered at the bottom of the lake.

Updated on July 23, 2017
Artist impression of the oar powered Seconda nave
Artist impression of the oar powered Seconda nave
Another artist impression of the oar powered Seconda nave, showing vines and fruit trees.
Another artist impression of the oar powered Seconda nave, showing vines and fruit trees.
An artist impression of the unpowered Prima nave, showing guide chains.
An artist impression of the unpowered Prima nave, showing guide chains.
 Archaeologist Annesio Fusconi used this new diving bell.
Archaeologist Annesio Fusconi used this new diving bell.
Inside the new diving bell
Inside the new diving bell
Emissary to drain Lake Nemi
Emissary to drain Lake Nemi
Once raised the public were admitted to view.
Once raised the public were admitted to view.
Early days of being raised
Early days of being raised
Raised hulls under cover
Raised hulls under cover
Gorgon bronze from the wreck
Gorgon bronze from the wreck
Bronze mooring rings
Bronze mooring rings
Caligula bust from the wreck
Caligula bust from the wreck
Beautiful statue from the wreck
Beautiful statue from the wreck
Another view of the wrecks pulled from the lake
Another view of the wrecks pulled from the lake
Section of floor tile
Section of floor tile
Bronze hand beam finisher
Bronze hand beam finisher
Beam finisher in place on wreck
Beam finisher in place on wreck
Bronze water valve still in working order.
Bronze water valve still in working order.
Ships lead clad anchor
Ships lead clad anchor
Caligula's new aqueduct for Rome
Caligula's new aqueduct for Rome
Another of the new aqueducts built by Caligula
Another of the new aqueducts built by Caligula

When you hear the name Caligula you almost certainly visualise a mentally unstable Roman Emperor with an incredible appetite for perversions. I am not proposing to write about his debauchery but about his fascination and love for a pair of special types of phenomenal ships that he had built to celebrate his favourite Goddess Diana.

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus adopted the name Caligula, which was his childhood nickname, when as a little boy, with his father Germanicus; he would enthusiastically play on the banks of the river Rhine, wearing oversized soldier's boots. People would see this bright, blonde haired little boy and named him Caligula which means "Little Boots" and they continued to call him that, sometimes unwisely, when he became Roman Emperor in 37 A.D.

Whether or not he was a crazy homicidal manic I will leave for others to debate, my interest is in the fantastic vessels that he had built for personal use on Lake Nemi.

Lake Nemi (Italian: Lago di Nemi, Latin: Nemorensis Lacus) is a small circular volcanic lake in the Lazio region of Italy 30 km (19 miles) south of Rome. It has a surface of 1.67 km2 (0.64 square miles) and a maximum depth of 33 meters (108 feet). In ancient times the lake was known as "Diana's Mirror" because the reflection of the moon upon Lake Nemi could be perfectly viewed from a temple built on the shore. A stream flowed into Lake Nemi from a sacred grotto nearby the temple. This stream was associated with the water nymph named Egeria. Both Egeria and Diana are early forms in the Lady of the Lake mythos (myths or legends). The Lady of the Lake was intimately connected with the guardian of the sacred oak tree grove of Diana. He was referred to as Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Woods, whose role it was to guard Diana's sanctuary at Nemi. Situated on opposite sides of the lake and on top of the crater walls, is the town of Genzano which was dedicated by the Romans to the goddess Cynthia, a cult associated with that of Diana Nemorensis and Nemi, which did not exist in Roman times. The name Nemi derives from the Latin nemus Aricinum (grove of Ariccia). During the height of the Roman Empire the area around Genzano was used as a sanctuary by wealthy Roman citizens because of its clean air, uncontaminated water and cooler temperatures during the hot summer months. The situation gives the lake its own microclimate and protects it from the wind by the crater walls. Goethe, Lord Byron and Gounod all lived in Nemi and saw the wonderful magical reflection of the Moon seen in the centre of the lake during summer

The first question, to be asked is why Caligula put so much effort into building these stupendous ships. Some think that Caligula built them to prove to the powerful rulers of Syracuse, Sicily, and the Ptolemaic rulers in Egypt that Rome could match any luxurious pleasure barges that exist anywhere else.

He planned and ordered two supersize barges to be built, which were designed to be the most luxurious in the Hellenistic world. One was to be unpowered and partly used as an opulent floating temple to Diana Nemorensis and the other was designed to be oar powered and act as a floating palace where Caligula, his court and guests could indulge, undisturbed, in their various depravities.

These two large barges were built from cedar wood highly decorated with sculpted and jewelled prows, rich marble sculptures, vases and vessels of gold & silver and bathrooms of marble, alabaster & bronze and a set of sails of purple cotton/silk. The floors were paved with coloured glass mosaic, the windows and door frames were made of bronze, and many of the decorations were thought to be almost priceless. The ships were also adorned with vines and fruit trees giving a natural and airy feeling.

There were some unexpected advanced engineering features discovered many of which used various variations of ball bearings made from lead or bronze running in hardwood races. These were probably used on the Nemi ships to allow the statues of the gods to rotate or to smooth the operation the windlasses. There was also some speculation that they could have been designed to give an easy rotational motion to deck cranes used for loading and unloading. Two additional turntables also were discovered, one of which was mounted on eight bronze balls that had been cast with trunnions on either side. Originally fitted to the underside of a platform, where the pins were held in place by clamps, they allowed it to rotate smoothly. The exact purpose is not known but the platforms may have been used for the revolving presentation of a statue, possibly of Diana. (Although these balls and rollers are not true ball bearings, insofar that they do not roll freely within a circular race, they served much the same function as the bearings nested around a conical pivot first illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci almost fifteen-hundred years later.) Incredibly some of the iron nails used in the construction had been copper plated against corrosion using an electroplating process not previously thought to have existed at that time.

Caligula dedicated the largest ship; he had built, to the moon Goddess Diana. This huge vessel was decorated in the style of one of his palaces but transposed to the lake and featuring a special temple honouring Diana. Multi-coloured marble mosaic floors, inlaid ivory on the walls & doors, heating, plumbing and baths were featured throughout both ships. The hot or cold water flowed through lead pipes etched with Caligula's name and bronze sculptures abounded.

Caligula seemed to be obsessed with the sacred Lake Nemi (also named "the mirror of Diana,”) and he revered the actual Goddess Diana. A Temple to Diana had been constructed in a grove of oak trees on Lake Nemi's shores, and every time the full moon shone the grove would be illuminated and Caligula would appear arms outstretched imploring his beloved Diana to come to him.

The flat bottomed Nemi barges or ships were quite outstanding but, as mentioned, one was not designed to be self-propelled. Instead, it was attached, at either end, to the shore by chains and bridges stretching across the water so people and goods could travel back and forth. The larger of the Nemi Ships measured 240 feet in length and 79 feet in width and the smaller ones measured 230 feet by 66 feet. The second ship, although absolutely sumptuous, was not quite so ornate and was used, primarily, to entertain and ferry his guests to the larger ship.

The first ship recovered, was referred to as the “Prima nave” and was 70 meters (230 feet) long with a beam (width) of 20 meters (66 feet). The hull was divided into three "active" or main sections. The general shape of the hull appears wider at the stern and narrower at the bow; in fact, the main section is not amidships but is displaced towards the stern. The superstructures appear to have been made of two main blocks of two buildings each, connected by stairs and corridors, built on raised parts of the deck at either end. This distribution gives the ship an unusual look and has no similarity to any other known ancient construction.

The second, rather larger ship, recorded as the “Seconda nave” measured some 73 meters (240 feet) in length and with a beam of 24 meters (79 feet) and was an oared galley, with an unexpected oar arrangement. The superstructure appears to have been made with a main section amidships, a heavy building at the stern and a smaller one at the prow. Although nothing remains of the stern and prow buildings their existence is indicated by the shorter spacing of the deck supporting cross beams and distribution of ballast. The arrangement of the Seconda nave superstructures is comparable to that of the shrines depicted on an Isian lamp held by the Museum of Ostia. If not coincidental, then this is further evidence of Caligula worshiping the goddess Isis as well as Diana.

According to some uncorroborated historical accounts, Caligula's ships were the scenes of cruel orgies, murder, music, and sport and he supposedly spent a large proportion of the fortune he inherited from his Uncle Tiberius to create his Nemi Ship fantasy retreat.

Many people speculated that the Nemi Ships were purely pleasure barges, but the great Roman commentator Pliny the Younger disagreed. He said that since Lake Nemi was sacred, Roman law prohibited ships from sailing on it. However, Pliny argued that Caligula had received a religious exemption for his ships. Most Romans didn't oppose Caligula building his ships on Lake Nemi and the citizens of Rome, great military leaders and visitors from the provinces & conquered lands came to admire and indulge in the pleasures of Caligula's Nemi ships.

Contrary to popular belief, surviving records of Caligula's reign initially describe him as a noble and moderate ruler for at least the first two years of his reign, and then something changed and records focused on his alleged cruelty, extravagance, and sexual perversity almost as if he had suffered some rapid mental breakdown.

It is also recorded that during his reign, Caligula worked diligently to increase the emperor's authority and sphere of influence and accordingly Rome annexed the Kingdom of Mauretania and converted it into a province. He took a particular interest in construction projects, including luxurious homes for himself and two spectacular new aqueducts in Rome. Although his personal involvement with the Nemi ships has never been officially recorded, it is clear that he played some part in the planning or construction. A lead pipe found on one of the wrecks is inscribed, "Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus." The dates on numerous tiles found on the wrecks of the Nemi ships also suggest his close involvement.

A catastrophic turn of events was to bring the short era of the Nemi ships to an abrupt end when officers of the Praetorian Guard and members of the Roman Senate & Imperial court conspired to assassinate him. Although the treacherous and brutal assassination succeeded on 21st January 41 AD., the conspirators did not achieve their intention to restore the Roman Republic. On the same day as Caligula's assassination, the Praetorian Guard declared Caligula's Uncle Claudius as emperor.

Following Caligula's assassination, the Roman Senate & Praetorian Guard set out to destroy and obliterate everything connected with him, including his prized barges which they pillaged and sank, loaded with rocks.

Fishermen handed down memories of Caligula's palatial Nemi ships to their descendants, some swearing that they could make out the shadowy outlines of the ships deep in the waters of Lake Nemi. The ships were actually buried in the mud 200 yards distant from each other in six fathoms (36 feet) of water; one 150 feet from the bank and the other 250 feet from the bank. From the documents I have read I feel these measurements are somewhat suspect bearing in mind one of the ships, at least, stood 30 feet high and parts would have protruded above the water until the superstructure rotted. There are other surveys that put the wrecks at 18.3 m (60 feet) deep which is more likely.

Legends of Caligula's sunken Nemi Ships filled with fabulous treasures were told by generations of Lake Nemi citizens. For centuries local fisherman considered Caligula's sunken barges local landmarks in Lake Nemi, and some explored the wrecks and took small treasures from them, but it wasn't until the Middle Ages that anyone tried to seriously explore and perhaps raise Caligula's legendary ships.

Although the sunken hulls of two ships were known to rest on the bottom of Lake Nemi, the first attempt to recover them did not occur until 1446 when Cardinal Prospero Colonna, intrigued by the stories he had heard, sought the help of the Renaissance humanist Leone Battista Alberti (who later would design the original Trevi fountain).

A large floating platform was constructed by lashing beams to empty barrels and inflated bladders. Experienced divers then were hired from Genoa to attach grappling hooks hanging from chains to the prow of the first ship. Disastrously the enormous weight broke the chains & hooks and only lead water pipes and fragments of wood sheathed in lead secured by copper nails were finally brought to the surface. A little time elapsed while they regrouped but on their arrival back at the lake they found that the locals had broken up their diving platform and stolen all of the timber and barrels.

Almost a century later, in July 1535, a second attempt was made. Using a primitive type of diving harness worn on the users shoulders, built of tightly fitting wooden planks clamped together with iron hoops and fitted with a glass window in the front, Guglielmo de Lorena was able to descend some thirty-six feet to the bottom of the lake Francesco de' Marchi recorded his own experiences underwater and, although sworn to secrecy about this crude diving “bell”, he does comment on “the small fish and plants that appeared so much larger through the magnifying effect of its glass lens, with them nibbling first on the crumbs from the bread and cheese he had taken with him—and then on the nether parts of his naked body” (why he would choose to dive naked is anyone’s guess). He was able to attach ropes to the wreck, allowing sections of larch, pine, and cypress to be pulled away and winched to the surface. Nails of copper and brass were recovered still holding the sheets of tarred wool and lead that had protected the wood, as well as paving tiles of brick and red enamel flooring. Finding lead sheathing was a surprise as it was normally only used on ocean going ships to protect against bore-worm and was totally unnecessary on a freshwater vessel. However, everything found or used was subsequently stolen by thieves who, he said, had hoped to discover something more about "this ingenious instrument of Master Guglielmo." From the diving bell De Marchi took accurate measurements and obtained valuable information about the ships. After he examined the material that he had recovered from the wreckage of the ships, De Marchi concluded that the Romans had used mortise and tenon joints, to secure the timber, (more commonly used in high quality furniture) both in the hull and superstructure, when they built the Nemi ships.

Over the next three centuries, fishermen and local divers kept the legend of Caligula’s ships and the hope of finding glittering treasure alive, but there were no more official or government salvage efforts. The locals had, however, removed anything of any value that could be raised by hand leaving the interior pretty much barren. Then in 1827, a heavy handed effort to salvage the two ships broke off the prow from one of the vessels causing unnecessary and permanent damage.

In September 1827, Archaeologist Annesio Fusconi built another floating platform to mount another salvage attempt and on September 10, he decided to use a diving bell called "Halley's Bell, “to which he attached a modern pump to ensure an adequate air flow to the occupants”. This held eight workmen and his intention was to take the first ship (the one nearer to shore) completely apart in sections. There was still more wood and nails (some of copper with decorated gilt heads), fragments of marble and mosaic, terracotta pipes, and bricks framed in iron with the inscription TIB.CAES. Other artifacts could be seen at the very bottom of lake but were out of reach being up to 100 feet down. Again, almost everything from this attempt was subsequently lost, even the diving bell and pump which was stolen by thieves, when work had been suspended for the winter. In his journals he provided a list of the items he had recovered, including two pieces of marble floor, marble pieces of various quality, enamels, mosaics, metal, bricks, clay pipes, beams and wooden boards. He sent some of the items recovered to the Vatican Museums and the rest were lost to robbers or history.

Several decades later the House of Orsini and the Italian Ministry of Education joined with antiquarian researcher Eliseo Borghi to explore Lake Nemi for what they believed, at that time, to be just one wreck. Signor Borghi obtained permission from Prince Orsini, who owned the land, to make a further examination of the wreck. During this, divers recovered the bronze protomes (usually animal heads) that had decorated the ship. One of the first pieces brought to the surface was a lion's head holding a mooring ring in its mouth that had capped one of the steering oars. The decks were paved with beautiful glass mosaics and more lead pipes, gilded bronze roof tiles, and ball bearings were found. Borghi then offered to sell the artefacts, which were on show in his own museum, to the Italian government, which had already claimed them in the first place.

It was further decided that amateur salvage attempts on the ships was proving to be increasingly destructive and should stop until work could continue in a more measured and scientific manner. There were charges, too, that the process used in taking casts was damaging the original bronzes and the technicians were even producing imitations that were being substituted, while the originals were stolen to order. Many items were being sold or stolen without being recorded, not just by the salvagers but individuals in the Government itself.

On November 18, 1895, much to their amazement, the original team discovered a second ship and recovered a Medusa's head (now in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome) and a bronze panel depicting a forearm & hand together with several other items including wooden beams in excellent condition. The government purchased most of the recovered materials, but some of the gilded copper tiles, mosaic fragments, marble and lead pipes were confiscated and sold elsewhere. To prevent this, the recovery team concealed many finds so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the government. The Director General of the Department of Antiquity and Fine Art submitted a report to the government requesting that the recovery efforts be halted because, as he put it, of the "devastation of the two wrecks." A bitter controversy grew about the fate of the actual wrecks and the artifacts and treasures recovered from them. This was played out in the press and the government forbade the use of any methods of recovery that would injure or damage the ships or their contents.

Borghi hoped to further a major salvage idea and organized a company which offered shares for sale to raise money to drain the lake sufficiently so that he could reach the ships. Archaeologists who were consulted about the ships questioned the feasibility of Borghi's scheme, stating that they feared that the two ships were too far decayed to remain intact, unsupported by the water and mud.

According to an article in the Brooklyn Eagle of 10th August 1902, an Italian Navy engineer, Comendatore Vittorio Malfatti and his crew surveyed the wrecks over a period of between 1896 and 1905. They examined and charted the two Nemi ships and the lake bed to see if the two ships could be recovered intact. Malfatti reported that the only practical way to do this was using a similar method to Borghi and to partially drain the lake. Prior to this work they marked the outer wreck margins with buoys and recorded their positions on a chart of the lake. Malfatti believed that the ships were too fragile to be lifted, so his proposition was that "if the ships could not be raised to the surface of the lake, then the surface of the lake should be lowered to the ships." Signor Malfatti's report suggested building a tunnel or drainage canal from the lake through which the water could be pumped.

This excellent report lay dormant until almost thirty years later when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had a similar personality to Caligula, decided to settle the issue of recovering the Nemi ships. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini set in motion their five year plan to recover Caligula's ships between October 1928 and October 1932. Mussolini instructed six different bodies, the antiquarian Guido Ucelli, the Italian Navy, and Italian Civil Engineers, suitable industry chiefs, private individuals and archaeologists to provide a method of draining Lake Nemi.

The local people and archaeologists knew of an almost forgotten ancient Roman underground tunnel that allowed water from the lake to flow to farms outside the crater which could be connected to a floating pumping platform.

Taking a step back for a moment, late in the fourth-century BC, an emissary (water tunnel) had been constructed to drain water from Lake Nemi and so regulate its level, which otherwise might threaten to flood the Temple of Diana on the shore. This tunnel, which had been dug from opposite ends of the crater wall, was 1653 metres long cut through a mountain and ending in Vallericca 10 m lower. The emissary has two inlets from Lake Nemi, an upper tunnel cut into the rock and a lower tunnel also cut into the rock but furnished with a series of chambers constructed from large peperino ashlars (volcanic rock). The upper inlet is the earliest, while the second inlet situated around 11 m lower must have been constructed later in order to create and secure a lower water level in the lake.

The actual construction was technically based on the work that Julius Caesar had conceived of draining the Fucine Lake (Suetonius, XLIV.3) (near Avezzano and Frosinone) although it was Emperor Claudius who actually made the attempt. An outlet three-and-a-half miles in length was cut, both by levelling and tunnelling through a mountain, a project that took eleven years and the labour of thirty thousand men (Suetonius, XX.2; Tacitus, Annals, XII.56-57). Repaired during the reign of Hadrian (Historia Augusta, XX.12), the emissary again had become obstructed by the early third century AD, when Cassius Dio wrote that the money expended by Claudius had been wasted (Roman History, LX.11.5). The lake was, however, finally drained in 1875 and produced very fertile land.

On the 20thOctober 1928, the Nemi emissary would be used by Guido Ucelli when, in the presence of Mussolini, he commenced work in draining the lake. The ancient channel was cleared and water began to be pumped through four large pipes into a header tank that, in turn, emptied into the emissary. The water was then channelled through a canal to the sea. When the water level had dropped sufficiently, a second pumping station was established and work continued until it too was replaced by a floating station on the water.

In March 1929, the first ship emerged, revealing a tapered round beam nearly twelve meters long capped at the wide end by a bronze collar in the shape of a lion's head holding a mooring ring in its mouth, as well as a wolf's head, also holding a ring.

By September 1929, the entire hull had been revealed and fitted to a large supporting cradle by which it could be moved along a series of rails to the shore. By then, the water level had been lowered by more than fifteen meters and a portion of the second ship was revealed, showing long beams protruding from the sides, which led to speculation about the positioning of oars on Roman ships. In some galleys, the oars did not pivot from the sides of the ship but from a projecting frame (apostis) that extended over the water. By mounting the tholes or oarlocks outside the hull, there was a more efficient platform from which to pull the oars and greater leverage for longer ones. The additional space also allows rowers to sit in two or more banks on each side of the vessel. The prima nave was recovered with an apostis on either side of the ship and presumably had at least one bank of oars. The smaller second ship did not have apostes and was therefore considered unpowered.

The discovery of the second vessel created great excitement which resulted in the pumps being stopped and the hull starting to dry out, requiring it to be quickly resubmerged. Having considered the problem and using powerful pumps and water scooping machines, the workers again lowered the level of the lake and by 10th June 1931, they had recovered the first ship and the second had been exposed. A London Times story reported that everyone on the site cheered as the waters receded to reveal the first Nemi ship. After nearly 1,900 years at the bottom of Lake Nemi, the ships were again bathed in the sunlight and caressed by the waves. During June 1931, the second ship that had emerged was threatened by the shifting lake bottom and rising water, which again surrounded the hull. After seven months the pumps were restarted and the ship again re-emerged from the protective mud, only to dry, much too quickly and begins to warp and crack.

The solution was found using the same methods that preserved the wood of the Viking long ships in Oslo, where the wood was treated with steam and a water bath and then saturated with a vegetable tar diluted in solvent.

Pumping the waters of Lake Nemi resumed on 28th March 1932, and the second ship was recovered, using the same method as the first, in October 1932. The complete hulls of the Nemi ships and their contents were now recovered as well as items found scattered around the ships, including bronze and marble ornaments, tiles and utensils. On close examination it was discovered that both ships had been sheathed in three layers of Leadville sheeting (a by-product of silver smelting), paint and tarred wool which protected their hulls. On February 19, 1932, the Navy Ministry, which had been a partner in the recovery, petitioned the Prime Minister to resume the project. Joining with the Ministry of Education they received permission to take over responsibility and pumping to drain the lake recommenced on March 28.

Around this time a small boat was also found, about 30 feet long with a pointed bow and a square stern. It had been loaded with stones in order to sink it. It is believed to date from the same time as the larger barges.

Overall it was a shock to all concerned when the Roman Emperor Caligula's two massive ships were finally uncovered in all their opulent glory from the waters of Lake Nemi. While although their presence had been known for centuries, their size and extravagance were thought to be greatly exaggerated. Built to recall the pleasure barges of Egypt in Hellenistic times, the boats nearly covered the small lake. Fittingly, it was a 20th-century dictator, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who directed the final recovery of the Nemi ships.

To give some indication of the true opulence of these barges a twin hulled barge was built for Caesar and Cleopatra’s use on the Nile and was described by Ptolemy Philopator's as follows:

There was constructed a river boat, the so called 'cabin-carrier,' having a length of three hundred feet, and a beam at the broadest part of forty-five feet. The massive height, including the pavilion when it was raised, was little short of sixty feet. Its shape was neither like that of the war galleys nor like that of the round-bottomed merchantmen, but had been altered somewhat in draught to suit its use on the river. For below the water-line it was flat and broad, but its bulk rose high in the air; and the top parts of its sides, especially near the bow, extended in a considerable overhang, with a backward curve very graceful in appearance. (The overall construction of the vessel was unusual, the hull was obviously designed by naval architects, but the superstructure was definitely the work of civil architects). It had a double bow and a double stern which projected upward to a high point, because the waves in the river could often be very high. It was steered by two 37 feet long oars four, two off each quarter and two from the shoulders. The accommodation amidships was constructed with saloons for dining-parties, with berths, and with all the other conveniences of living. Around the ship, on three sides, ran double promenades. The perimeter of one of these measured not less than five furlongs (3300 feet). The structure of the one below decks resembled a peristyle (covered walk); that of the one on the upper deck was like a concealed peristyle built up all round with walls and windows. Guests boarded at the stern, where there was set a vestibule open in front, but having a row of columns on the sides; in the part which faced the bow was built a fore-gate, constructed of ivory inlaid expensive wood, entering this, one came upon a kind of proscenium (stage frame) which in its construction had been roofed over. Matching the fore-gate, again, a second vestibule lay aft at the transverse side, and a portal with four doors led into it. On both sides, left and right, portholes were set beneath to provide good ventilation. Connected with these entrances was the largest cabin; it had a single row of columns all round, and could hold twenty couches. The most of it was made of split cedar and Milesian cypress; the surrounding doors, numbering twenty, had panels of fragrant cedar nicely glued together, with ornamentation in ivory. The decorative studs covering their surface, and the handles as well were made of red copper, which had been gilded in the fire. As for the columns, their shafts were of cypress-wood, while the capitals, of the Corinthian order, were entirely covered with ivory and gold. The whole entablature was in gold; over it was affixed a frieze with striking figures in ivory, more than a foot and a half tall, mediocre in workmanship, to be sure, but remarkable in their lavish display. Over the dining-saloon was a beautiful coffered ceiling of Cyprus wood; the ornamentations on it were sculptured, with a surface of gilt. Next to this dining-saloon was a sleeping apartment with seven berths, adjoining which was a narrow passage-way running transversely from one side of the hold to the other, and dividing off the women's quarters. In the latter was a dining-saloon, with nine couches, which was similar to the large saloon in magnificence, and a sleeping-apartment with five berths. "Now the arrangements up to the first deck were as described. Ascending the companion-way, which adjoined the sleeping-apartment last mentioned, was another cabin large enough for five couches, having a ceiling with lozenge-shaped panels; near it was a rotunda-shaped shrine of Aphrodite, in which was a marble statue of the goddess. Opposite to this was a sumptuous dining-saloon surrounded by a row of columns, which were built of marble from India. Beside this dining-saloon were sleeping-rooms having arrangements which corresponded to those mentioned before. As one proceeded toward the bow he came upon a chamber devoted to Dionysus, large enough for thirteen couches, and surrounded by a row of columns; it had a cornice which was gilded as far as the architrave surrounding the room; the ceiling was appropriate to the spirit of the god. In this chamber, on the starboard side, a recess was built; externally, it showed a stone fabric artistically made of real jewels and gold; enshrined in it were portrait-statues of the royal family in Parian marble. Very delightful, too, was another dining-saloon built on the roof of the largest cabin in the manner of an awning; this had no roof, but curtain rods shaped like bows extended over it for a certain distance, and on these, when the ship was under way, purple curtains were spread out. Next after this was an open deck which occupied the space directly over the vestibule extending below it; a circular companion-way extending from this deck led to the covered promenade and the dining-saloon with nine couches. This was Egyptian in the style of its construction; for the columns built at this point bulged as they ascended, and the drums differed, one being black and another white, placed alternately. Some of their capitals are circular in shape; the entire figure described by them resembles rose-blossoms slightly opened. But around the part which is called the 'basket' there are no volutes or rough leaves laid on, as on Greek capitals, but calyxes of water-lilies and the fruit of freshly-budded date-palms; in some instances several other kinds of flowers are sculptured thereon. The part below the root of the cap, which, of course, rests upon the drum adjoining it, had a motif that was similar; it was composed of flowers and leaves of Egyptian beans, as it were, intertwined. This is the way in which Egyptians construct their columns; and the walls, too, they vary with alternating white and black courses of stone, but sometimes, also, they build them of the rock called alabaster. And there were many other rooms in the hollow of the ship's hold through its entire extent. Its mast had a height of one hundred and five feet, with a sail of fine linen reinforced by a purple silk topsail."

A rapidly constructed frame building provided teams of historians and archaeologists with needed cover to study the artifacts found on both ships. The recovery and study of the Nemi ships settled many technical and historical arguments. Prior to the ships being recovered, many had scoffed at the idea that the Romans were capable of building large enough ships to carry grain, despite ancient documentation that said they had built such ships. The size of the Nemi Ships proved that the ancient sources were correct. Over the centuries, many have also debated whether or not the lead bars found on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea were anchor stocks. The Nemi ships were built during the transition between wooden and iron anchors and they were the first Romans ships found with intact anchors. The Nemi ships confirmed that these same lead bars were indeed anchor stocks. The anchor from the first ship had a movable stock held in place by a cotter pin, which anticipated a design (the Admiralty anchor) that would not appear until the mid-nineteenth century. Forged from three iron bars (for the shank, arms, and stock), the anchor was sheathed in wood to allow a greater surface area to gain purchase on the bottom but not embed itself too deeply. Indeed, the stock, which rests parallel, has forced one arm into the mud. Grooves show where ropes and metal bands once secured the wood exterior to the iron core. The weight of the anchor, which is stamped on one of the arms, was 1275 Roman pounds Libra (about 925 lbs., the abbreviation for pound having derived from its Roman antecedent). Two anchors were recovered from the muddy bottom of the lake. The one on the second ship, discovered, was typical of the time, when the boats were sunk about AD 40. It is a large wooden anchor, the heavy oak arms tipped with iron and secured to the eighteen-foot shank with stout pegs. So that the wooden anchor would sink, the perpendicular stock (the crosspiece that cants one of the arms to assure that its fluke will dig in) was cast in lead, with rope bindings securing the anchor ring. Remarkably, these lashings and the thick anchor cable were intact when found. The anchor was said to have been invented by Eupalamus (Pliny, Natural History, VII.209), the anchor with two arms or "teeth" (bidentem) by Anacharsis, one of the seven wise men of Greece (Strabo, Geography, VII.3.9).

Both of Caligula's Nemi ships contained several hand operated bilge pumps working like modern bucket dredges, which is the oldest example of this type of pump ever found. Bronze valves were recovered (still amazingly in working condition). Piston pumps on the two Nemi ships supplied the hot and cold running water system through lead pipes and the Romans used the hot water for baths and the cold water for decorative fountains and drinking water. This advanced piston pump technology was lost into the mists of history and did not reappear until the Middle Ages.

The Italian government built a museum called the Lake Nemi Museum over both ships in 1935 and it opened in January 1936.

Less than a decade after being uncovered, however, the two ships were effectively destroyed towards the end of World War II. There is much disagreement over which of the warring nations caused the fire that consumed the ancient vessels. Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party had thrown their fortunes and those of their country behind the Nazis in World War II, but by 1944 the tides of war had turned in favour of the Allies. The Italians, who had always been reluctant members of the Axis powers, deposed Mussolini from his dictatorship of the country and Italy surrendered and moved their military might to join the Allied side. The Allied forces advanced north into Italy, striving to hold a line from Monte Casino eastward through the Alban Hills near Lake Nemi. On the 31st May 1944, Allied planes and artillery units bombarded a German anti-aircraft battery stationed near the Lake Nemi Museum. Some shells struck the Lake Nemi Museum, but they didn't cause much damage. Then a few hours later, smoke rose from the Museum buildings, quickly followed by flames and the two ships were burnt to ashes, although the museum's concrete structure suffered little damage.

Later in 1944, the Italian Government filed an official report in Rome, charging that German soldiers had deliberately burned the Nemi Ships. German newspaper stories, in response, blamed the flames on American artillery fire. The Museum keepers later swore that the Nazi troops had ordered them out of the buildings and the consensus of opinion was that the retreating Nazis set fire to the two ships as an act of wanton destruction and sheer spite. It was also discovered that during the German retreat, soldiers burned 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society of Naples as well as the two Nemi Ships.

Like the Emperor Caligula, the Italian dictator Mussolini died violently at the hands of his countrymen on 28th April 1945. The Museo delle Navi Romane at Nemi, Italy, which was built by Mussolini to house the ships, now holds some remaining artifacts and documentation and the Lake Nemi Museum was restored and reopened in 1953.

Photographs, drawings from the Italian Navy survey, and drawings of archaeologist G. Gatti also survived the fire, allowing artists and architects to make reconstructions of the two ships. The spaces that once held the two immense Nemi Ships are now filled by one-fifth scale models built in the naval dockyard near Naples, and bronzes and other artifacts that survived the fire.

Outside the Lake Nemi Museum, a life-size reconstruction of the sailing ship's hull is displayed. In 1995, the Association Dianae Lacus - Lake of Diana-founded to preserve the culture and history of the Nemi Lake area, originated Project Diana with the goal of building a full size replica of the first Nemi ship. The group planned to build the replica to deck level only and moor it on Lake Nemi in front of the Lake Nemi Museum. The Nemi town council voted to finance the building of the forward section of the first Nemi Ship in July 1998, and the Torre del Greco shipyards completed it in 2001. The finished section was transported to the Lake Nemi Museum to await the next step in the project, dubbed Project Diana, which was estimated to cost $10.7 million dollars or 7.2 million Euros. On the 15thNovember, 2003, Assimpresa, the second largest confederation of employers and businesses in Italy, announced it would sponsor the project by supplying all the timber required.

When Caligula had the Nemi Ships built, with it he established a lavish, historic, and trailblazing legacy for these fantastic ships, and their story and survival have fulfilled that legacy.

In 1999 Rosario D'Agata, former public relations director of an Italian petroleum company, established the Association Dianae Lacus to replicate Caligula's huge sailing ship. Rosario expects that the replica, one day moored on the lake, will foster interest in this historically and culturally rich area. The association is seeking out sponsors to finance one or more of the 18 outlined construction phases, at a total cost of nearly $10 million. The undertaking, which will last at least two years, promises to be as monumental as the replica itself. The oak needed to construct the ship's 230-foot-long central keel, stem, and stern came with a price tag of almost $50,000. For further information on the Association Dianae Lacus' activities, visit its website at However, no press releases have been made since 2004 and the Dianae Lacus website was deleted on October 1st, 2011.

Rumours have circulated for decades that a fortune in gold coins will be found in the area in which the ships were originally built. Investigator Snr. Kohani believes that as the archaeological programme advances at the Lake Nemi site somebody is going to stumble upon a jug of coins. It was quite common for the paymasters to bury the wages on site until it became time to pay the shipwrights. If, for some reason, something befell the paymaster then a fortune in wages would lay underground and undiscovered.

Despite the seemingly incredible wealth accumulated by certain modern individuals, it pales into insignificance compared with the spending of various Emperors and Rulers of the past, where the sums involved were staggering.

Copyright Peter Geekie 2013

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    • Peter Geekie profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Geekie 

      6 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thank you Jane,

      People have a tendency to concentrate on the more lurid aspects of Caligulas life. This was a life-style more luxurious than most of us can imagine.

      Kind regards Peter

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is fantastic but I never heard of it before


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