Legends have talked about Roman ships even greater than the famous “Syracusia.” In one specific place, those tales have been transmitted from generations to generations until they have reached our modern times.
In Italy, in Lazio region, only 30 km sought of Rome, there is a small volcanic lake with a surface of just 1, 67 km²(0. 64 square miles) known as the “Nemi Lake”. Lake's crystal water, area’s clean air, and lower temperatures during summers were highly appreciated in the past when ancient wealthy Romans have used it as a place for rest and recreation.
There have always been stories about a treasure laying down in the depths of the lake from ancient times. The tales were regularly fueled by frequent findings of old pieces and valuable objects in the nets of the local fishermen.
The first tries to reach the bottom of the pond and find what laid down dated from 15th century AD. But it was not until 1920’ that “Nemi Lake” unrevealed its secret.
After series of works supervised by the Italian dictator of that time Mussolini himself, the lake was drained, and a stunning discovery was made:
The remaining of NOT ONLY ONE BUT TWO SHIPS got out of the mud! Their size suggested that they have been so enormous that probably they have almost covered the whole lake when they have been anchored there!
To whom such great vessels could have belonged?
A piece of a lead pipe found in one of the ships gives us the answer. The inscription on it says: “Property of Gaius Caeser Augustus Germanicus.”
Gaius Caeser Augustus Germanicus is the full name of a Roman emperor who is much more known by his nickname – Caligula. As a child, he accompanied his father – a successful general of Emperor Tiberius – during his military campaigns in Germania. There, playing among soldiers he got his nickname meaning “a little soldier’s boot” (diminutive from Latin “caliga” – a soldier’s boot). The ancient authors did not depict him in flattering terms – the most frequent epithet he was described with was “insane”.
There were rumors that Caligula was so jealous of the fame of the sumptuous ships of the ancient rulers of Syracuse and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt that he was determined to outshine them at any price. According to the Roman historian Suetonius (1st century AD), in year 37 AD he ordered the building of not one, but two outstanding ships. The first one was designed as a floating temple of Diana whose passionate follower the emperor was. The second one was planned as a luxury floating palace for pleasure time and entertainment. The “Nemi Lake” was chosen as their home because on its shore there was an old and very popular temple of Diana. During the night, the reflection of the moon on the surface of the pond could be perfectly seen from the temple. That magical view gave the lake an additional name - “Diana’s Mirror” and turned it into a perfect place for worshiping Diana.
Although the ships were not meant to sail, they were equipped with sails and oars. The first one measured 70 m (230 ft) in length and 20 m (66ft) in width. She represented a luxurious residence where Caligula organized banquets and orgies. The second one measured 73 m (240 ft) in length and 24 m (79 ft) in width and bore the temple of Diana worshiped by the emperor with reportedly strange and crooked rituals with sexual elements. (The specific structure of this temple-boat, as well as some findings, suggests that the venerated goddess might be a syncretic deity with features of Diana and Isis and not just Diana).
"Nemi ships" as they were found in late 1920'
Pieces of mosaics, statues, columns, and marbles have been pulled out of the lake for several centuries before. But they gave just a glance of how these “luxurious yachts” really looked like. When - after nearly 1900 years dwelling under the water - the two ships were finally drawn out (the first one in 1929 and the second one in 1932), they discovered skillfully built advanced structures and rarely opulent decorations.
The hulls were constructed of cedar wood, and the prows were garnished with jewels and gold leaf. Multicolored glass and marble mosaics covered the floors, marble and inlaid ivory embellished the walls and doors, and bronze frames decorated the doors and windows. The interior of both ships was full of alabaster, rich marble statues, pictures, and gold and silver vases, bowls and utensils. As a final ornamental touch purple silk sails were suspended. (Purple was the most expensive tint in Antiquity as a product of a hard and time consuming manufacturing. For more on colors in ancient Greek and Roman societies, seethis post).
The technical equipment of the ships was not less impressive. They were provided with their own drive system of water for drinking and supplying the baths. Stopcock pipes (made the same way today) with brass nails against oxidation were used. Bronze valves (still working!) and piston pumps (the knowledge of them was lost and reappeared during the Middle Ages!) regulated the circulation of the water.
The baths were equipped with a proper plumbing of lead pipes through which the hot and cold water was running. They were etched with Caligula’s name and, as you remember, a piece of such pipe revealed the owner of those ships. Under the mosaics was discovered an advanced heating system (hypocaust) that usually heated the Roman villas on the ground.
“Nemi ships” were the first Roman ships found with intact anchors. They gave an end of a many years scholar dispute whether the lead bars found in numerous places in the Mediterranean were anchors or not. The vessels had such bars as well as other type anchors – wooden and iron. The first ship even held one anchor on a movable stock, preceding with 18 centuries the design of the Admiralty anchor patented in mid 19th century.
The most amazing finding was a kind of a ball bearing system which consisted of lead and bronze balls running in hardwood races. That was a mechanism that performed a rotational movement. Bearings, as they resemble wheels, enabled devices to roll. They were probably used to rotate platforms with statues of gods during different performances. Suggestions have been made that they might have been used as well to move deck cranes during the loading of the ship. Although their function is still unclear, the ball bearing systems applied on the Roman ship in the 1st century AD anticipated the principal of the conical pivot introduced by Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century AD.
If the scientists had had enough time for exploring those Roman technical wonders, they would probably have discovered their full secrets. Sadly, the “Nemi ships” have turned quite unfortunate.
First time was right after the death of Caligula - assassinated by his own Praetorian Guards in the fourth year of his reign. The Roman Senate made special efforts to destroy everything that could bear the memory of the Emperor. The two splendid ships were too obvious reminder of Caligula’s ultimate tendency of spending that allegedly brought a financial crisis in the second year of his ruling. It was ordered the vessels to be loaded with rocks and sunk into the lake.
The second time was only 15 years after their recovering of the lake. The “Nemi ships” were completely destroyed in the flames of the Second World War, on the night of May 31, 1944. This time we have lost them for good!
No one of the fighting parts took responsibility for that. It is unclear who was to blame - the U.S. Army for their artillery fire, or the German army for usually setting fire to everything when retreated.
In 1953, the Nemi Lake Museum was restored. The only survivals: bronzes, a few charred timbers, and some small material, stored in Rome found their place there. One-fifth scale models of the ships could be seen there - pale copies of the majestic originals.