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Huge Caligula ships

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ship of Caligula from the Nemi Lake
Ship of Caligula from the Nemi Lake

Photograph from the early 1930s showing the remains of one of the two powerful ships of Caligula from Lake Nemi (Nemorensis Lacus) which, on the order of Benito Mussolini, has been drained.

The shipwrecks were excavated in 1929 and then moved to the local museum, which unfortunately in May 1944 was completely burned down. None of the two has survived to this day. After losing such a valuable monument, everyone was blamed for the destruction. The Italians accused the Germans of deliberately burning them down when they recalled the American attack.

Why were the ships unique? The ships were monumental and full of amazing technology. They were over 70 meters long and 24 wide, a system of supplying hot and cold water (pipes with the name of the emperor), bathrooms and baths. Everything in marble, gold and ivory. Undoubtedly they served the Emperor’s private pleasures – a large living room, kitchen or bedroom indicate that the ships were treated as mobile palaces. They contained Archimedes’ screws (the oldest known to us), an extremely rare anchor of admiralty at that time; piston pumps (discovered again only in the Middle Ages). Both had a system of moving sculptures (modelled on the theatre) with a ball-bearing system. Two ships were a little different from each other – one was a galley (driven by oars), and the other was sailing on the strength of the wind.

Lake Nemi
Author: Livioandronico2013 | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Caligula, commissioning the construction of such “palaces on the water” modelled on the glamour of the Hellenistic rulers of Syracuse and the Ptolemaic dynasty. To this day, speculations are underway – why Caligula decided to build these large ships just on the small lake Nemi, which area was 1,67 square kilometres, and the maximum depth was 33 meters. In ancient Rome, the lake was sacred and it was not allowed to sail on its surface1. Probably a friendly climate played a decisive role. Many patricians spent their free time in this area and rested. In addition, the ships were considered to be static barges.

Brass rings recovered from the wreck in 1895. Those were mounted at the end of cantilever beams that strengthened the ship’s structure near the rowing positions.
Author: Folegandros | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The loss of these amazing structures at the end of World War II was a shock to public opinion all around the world. To this day, various associations are considering attempting to recreate these two monuments. So far, the closest implementation of the plan was “Diana Project”, inaugurated in 1995. It was believed that a budget of 10,7 million dollars is needed. Eventually, work on the reconstruction of ships was stopped, and the website of the Dianae Lacus Association (the main initiator of the project) ceased to exist in 2011.

  1. Pliny the Elder, Litterae VIII-20
  • Oleson John Peter, Greek and Roman Mechanical Water-Lifting Devices: The History of a Technology, 1984

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