Lost Masterpieces

The Search For Caligula’s Sunken Orgy Ship

Wild tales of sex, affairs, and murder are associated with Roman emperor Caligula’s grand ships. Two vessels have been discovered in Italy’s Lake Nemi—and there may be a third.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The legend was passed down from generation to generation. One can imagine it was the type of story that was relished by listeners and raconteurs alike, given the salacious tales of ancients behaving badly and the shimmering possibility of a rich discovery.

But as with most folklore, surely audiences thought this tale suffered from more than a little exaggeration—a centuries-long game of telephone with the attendant grandiose distortion.

The story being told was that of the three gigantic pleasure ships built by Roman Emperor Caligula in the middle of Lake Nemi just south of Rome early in the first century. Oh, the antics that were alleged to have occurred there: orgies, murder, and more entertainment for the Roman ruler and his crew. But then, the story told, those ships sunk to the bottom of the lake.

There they remained as only a legend until the 15th century when two of the ships were first discovered. It took nearly five centuries for them to be raised from the seabed and, when that day finally came, it turned out they were even more spectacular than historians had hoped.

While those two ships were resurrected and then destroyed once and for all in spectacular fashion in the early 20th century (more on that later), there’s still a third ship rumored to be on the floor of Lake Nemi waiting to be found, one that is bigger than its siblings. And if a new tip is right, after waiting more than 2,000 years, it may have its day back in the sun very soon.

Caligula ruled over the Roman Empire from 37 to 41 AD in a style that has earned him the descriptors “mad” and “notorious.” He was a dictator who set the bar for horrible dictator behavior, a feat that was possibly aided by a mental illness.

Among his many infamous acts were declaring himself a god, attempting to have his horse appointed consul, and allegedly treating his three sisters in a fashion that was not very—er—brotherly. He drank dissolved pearls and allegedly “tormented high-ranking senators.”

During his very short four years of rule, his love of luxury and his ability to quickly spend vast quantities of money—money that was collected from Roman citizens, of course—took center stage.

Historian Suetonius, writing around 121 AD, has the earliest accountings of the grand Caesar’s excess. “He built villas and country houses with utter disregard of expense, caring for nothing so much as to do what men said was impossible. So he built moles out into the deep and stormy sea, tunneled rocks of hardest flint, built up plains to the height of mountains and razed mountains to the level of the plain; all with incredible dispatch, since the penalty for delay was death. To make a long story short, vast sums of money, including the 2,700,000,000 sesterces which Tiberius Caesar had amassed, were squandered by him in less than a year.”

At the time that Lake Nemi caught Caligula’s eye, it was technically off limits—the lake was considered sacred. But whether that distinction didn’t matter to the emperor or whether he saw it as a challenge, he set his sights on turning the small lake into his playground, deities be damned, and, in true form, spared no expense.

The two ships that have been recovered, were giants of the water, clocking in at 230 feet and 240 feet in length. The rumored third ship is thought to be even larger, around 400 feet long. Made of wood, the boats were decked out in gold, marble, ivory, and mosaics and topped off with gorgeous silk sails, making them something like ornate floating palaces. They were so large and so heavy, in fact, that they were more like barges and had to be towed to their respective floating positions.

In addition to extraordinary artistic craftsmanship, they also exhibited some incredible feats of engineering.

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The ships are alleged to have had running hot and cold water and plumbing (“quite unnecessary when one can so easily jump overboard,” a 1908 piece in The New York Times wryly reported).

While early historians thought that the ships were the work of Tiberius, Caligula’s grand-uncle, that was cleared up in the early 20th century when lead pipes responsible for the running water were recovered and found to be stamped with the rightful owner’s full name.

“According to contemporary accounts, [the ships] were filled with all sorts of art treasures and were considered among the world’s wonders…Repeated attempts to salvage them were only partly successful, but sufficient fragments have been recovered to prove that the ships are more than legendary and are still so well preserved that it is possible to refloat them,” The New York Times wrote in 1928 in a report on the progress of the recovery.

While we will never know for certain what went on during trips on the pleasure ships, historians have made some salty suggestions that seem in keeping with the antics of the Mad Emperor. Reports of orgies, affairs, and incest abound, as do tales of Caligula’s cruelty. There was entertainment—musical performances and sporting matches—and punishment—Atlas Obscura says he may have used the boats as a site to cut out tongues and murder possible adversaries “one by one.”

Lest he tempt the gods too much, it has also been suggested that one of the barges may have been used as a giant temple dedicated to the goddess Diana.

It is not known exactly how the boats came to end up at the bottom of the lake. The theories range from their destruction in a natural disaster to a decision made by one of the Roman rulers, like Caligula’s successor Claudius who wanted to erase the surely painful memory of his terrible predecessor.

The responsibility has also been accorded to Caligula himself, with possible motives ranging from an order given in a fit of inebriation to a legend repeated in a 1929 piece in The New York Times—“that Caligula deliberately sank both vessels in all their splendor, together with his guests, in order that he might crown an orgy with a tremendous spectacle.”

Starting in 1435, several attempts over the centuries were made to raise the two known ships from the lake. But the efforts finally succeeded at the hands of Mussolini in 1932, who arranged for the lake to be drained by 20 feet. After the ships were recovered they were enshrined in a museum near Lake Nemi.

Unfortunately, their place of honor lasted for only a decade. Reports differ as to what exactly happened, but in May of 1944, the museum burned to the ground, taking almost all of the two ships’ remains with it. Some have blamed Allied bombers, others say the fire was set by German soldiers.

Either way, the terrible damage was done, with legend positing that a third ship may still be out there sunk in the deepest part of the lake. But despite finding the two other boats, no glimpse had ever been caught of this great barge.

Then something strange started happening in one part of the lake. Local fisherman, The Telegraph reported, had revealed that their nets often got caught on something when they were fishing in one particular area. When they were able to free them and haul them up, they had caught something very interesting—Roman artifacts.

At the beginning of April, the Italian government started a project to send divers and sonar equipment to that area of the lake to see if the 2,000-year old boat could be found. If it is, modern technology may uncover a boat of staggering design, luxury, and ancient technology of its own.

“Wood can last for centuries,” historian Anthony a. Barrett told Travel & Leisure. “If the environment is completely stable the wood will survive.”