Today, the serene waters of Lake Nemi make it a quaint getaway, one that is best known for its peaceful landscapes and the area's delicious wild strawberries.
But in ancient Roman times, the volcanic lake southeast of Rome was the anchor point for Emperor Caligula's pleasure ships — massive and ornate barges that were rumored to be the sites of wild orgies and other excessive indulgences.
For nearly 2,000 years, the sunken remains of Caligula's pleasure ships tantalized divers, who launched expeditions to recover them, with little success.
It wasn't until 1927, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered Lake Nemi drained, that two of the ships began to be fully revealed. Measuring 230 and 240 feet long, the “Nemi ships” recovered over the next several years astounded researchers with their advanced technology.
At the time, however, Lake Nemi was only partly drained — and in the decades since, rumors have persisted that the remains of a third, 400-foot-long pleasure ship lurk in the deepest part of the lake.
Local fishermen report getting their nets snagged in that area of the lake, only to bring up Roman artifacts, according to the Telegraph.
“We know from documents from the 15th century that one of the boats went down in an area of the lake different to where the other two were found during the Fascist era,” Alberto Bertucci, the mayor of the town of Nemi, told the newspaper.
Questions about whether a third pleasure barge belonging to Caligula is sunken in Lake Nemi could be answered soon. Divers on Wednesday will begin scouring the muddy lake bottom for the legendary ship using sonar and other modern equipment.
“If it’s down there, and it’s that long, then we are talking about the world’s first luxury cruise ship,” Bertucci told the Times of London. “Every emperor had a villa — but Caligula demanded floating villas complete with columns, hot water, gold and mosaics.”
Indeed, the pair of Caligula's pleasure ships found during Mussolini's time as prime minister revealed palatial furnishings and advanced naval mechanisms, including bronze statues, marble floors and lead pipes marked “Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus” (Caligula's full name) that would have carried hot and cold running water, according to a 2002 Films Media Group documentary.
“The Nemi ships are very important, partly because they are the most complete wrecks of their period ever found and because of their huge size,” Italian archaeologist Marco Bonino said in the documentary. “No other wrecks, whether on land or at sea, have provided so much useful information as the Nemi ships, both about construction techniques and about naval architecture.”
The two ships were housed in a museum near the lake but were destroyed in a World War II fire in 1944.
The cruelty and debauchery of Rome's third emperor have remained legendary through the centuries, although scholars debate whether the more salacious details of Caligula's life were exaggerated. He came into power in A.D. 37 but fell ill in the fall of the first year of his reign and began exhibiting, by all accounts, signs of disturbing mental illness.
Historical accounts of his authoritarian rule, bizarre requests and grandiose lifestyle depict someone who showed traces of Joffrey Baratheon from “Game of Thrones,” King Louis XVI and Scrooge McDuck.
Caligula spent untold sums of money on infrastructure projects, some on aqueducts and temples — but also once ordering hundreds of Roman merchant ships to create “a 2-mile floating bridge across the Bay of Bauli so he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it,” according to the History Channel. The network describes Caligula's personal exploits as similarly strange and lurid:
He tormented high-ranking senators by making them run for miles in front of his chariot. He had brazen affairs with the wives of his allies and was rumored to have incestuous relationships with his sisters.
Caligula was tall, pale and so hairy that he made it a capital offense to mention a goat in his presence. He worked to accentuate his natural ugliness by practicing terrifying facial expressions in a mirror. But he literally wallowed in luxury, allegedly rolling around in piles of money and drinking precious pearls dissolved in vinegar. He continued his childhood games of dress-up, donning strange clothing, women’s shoes and lavish accessories and wigs — eager, according to his biographer Cassius Dio, “to appear to be anything rather than a human being and an emperor.”
Caligula often referred to himself as a god and had his enemies tortured and killed.
Throughout his reign, he continued to spend in excess, depleting the Roman treasury. The young emperor was assassinated in A.D. 41 by members of the Praetorian Guard, elite soldiers who were supposed to protect the emperor.