Teaming up with police divers and officials from Italy’s civil protection agency, the mayor of Nemi, Alberto Bertucci, has initiated searches of the lake. Using sonar to sweep the waters and high-tech scanners that use ground-penetrating sound waves to detect objects buried up to 9 feet deep, they are hoping to recover the legendary vessel.
So who was Caligula and why did he have such a giant party boat? The third of Rome’s emperors, Caligula achieved feats of waste and carnage during his four-year reign (37-41 A.D.) unmatched even by his infamous nephew Nero. The son of a great military leader, he spent his childhood at his father’s posting on the Rhine, where he wore a miniature uniform. Based on his outfit, which included tiny shoes, the general’s troops gave the future emperor his nickname “Caligula,” meaning “little boot.” As emperor, Caligula was known for his thirst for murder, hedonist tendencies, brazen ego and out-right crazy ideas (as an expression of his absolute power he planned to appoint his horse to the high office of consul).
Caligula’s personal and fiscal excesses led him to be the first Roman emperor to be assassinated, so it comes as no surprise that 2,000 years after his short-lived rule of Rome, his notorious orgy boat has been left at the bottom of a muddy lake. In fact, it believed the boats were deliberately sunk after Caligula’s assassination to hide the evidence of his lavish and debauched reign.
We have some insight into what this luxury-style orgy boat could have looked like from the Roman historian Suetonius. He described the boats as having, “ten banks of oars…the poops of which blazed with jewels…filled with ample baths, galleries, and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and fruit trees.”
Researchers are hopeful about what they may find at the site, especially since two other ships (One measuring 230 feet in length, the other 240 feet) were recovered in the late 1920s. Under dictator Benito Mussolini’s orders, water was pumped out of the volcanic lake, revealing the two wooden ships, which were equipped with naval technology that astonished experts, including piston pumps for hot water and an anchor with a folding timber stock (a technology not used again until the British Navy introduced it in 1841). The ships themselves were kept in a museum beside the lake until they were lost in a later fire during World War II. They also recovered ornate bronze fittings equipped with heads of lions, which have survived to this day and are currently on display in the National Roman Museum in Rome, and marble floors.
The part of the lake they are searching now, however, was not emptied during Mussolini’s time.
This most recent search was inspired by a much earlier 16th-century diver, Francesco de Marchi, who used an early version of a diving bell (an open-bottomed chamber with compressed air) to search Lake Nemi for Caligula’s boats. “He reported bringing up relics on the far side of the lake from where the two other boats were found, and talked of a boat measuring up to 400 ft long,” Bertucci said. “Since then we have oral testimony from fishermen bringing up items in the nets at that spot.”
As Bertucci explained, previous efforts to locate the boat have been hampered by technology. “Divers have tried to find the boat in the lake but the mud means visibility is only 15 centimeters (around 6 inches),” he said, which means this new equipment could be a game-changer. “If it’s down there, and it’s that long, then we are talking about the world’s first luxury cruise ship,” said Bertucci.