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Divers in Italy Are Searching for Caligula’s Last, Lost Pleasure Ship

The Roman emperor’s prized boats boasted marble, gold, and running water.

One of Caligula's sunken pleasure ships, retrieved from the bottom of Lake Nemi in the 1920s.
One of Caligula’s sunken pleasure ships, retrieved from the bottom of Lake Nemi in the 1920s. WikiCommons/Public Domain

Over the past week, divers from Italy’s Civil Protection Agency have been scouring the bed of Lake Nemi, a peaceful oasis just outside of Rome. They’re working off an unusual tip: According to local fishermen, when nets go down into the lake, they often come up full of ancient artifacts.

These trinkets, the divers think, might be coming from a tantalizing source: the last, lost pleasure boat of the Roman emperor Caligula. Crews are using sonar to search for the rest of the ship in the lake’s mucky bottom, the Telegraph reports.

Caligula ruled Rome from A.D. 37 to 41. Infamously fickle and image-obsessed, he would often become obsessed by strange projects, and spare no expense in their achievement.

A bust of Caligula, recolorized to reflect what the artist saw.
A bust of Caligula, recolorized to reflect what the artist saw. Marsyas/CC BY-SA 2.5

For example, early in Caligula’s life, a soothsayer predicted that he had as much of a chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding horses over the gulf of Baiae. Years later, he used massive pontoons to build a two-mile “floating bridge” over that same gulf, and spent several days riding his favorite horse back and forth over it.

When Caligula was emperor, Lake Nema was sacred, and no ships were allowed to sail on it. Despite this, he ordered the construction of three massive barges on the lake. Each was decorated in gold and marble and equipped with hot water, plumbing, and purple silk sails. Caligula likely hung out on them often, drinking dissolved pearls and carrying on his many affairs.

Ornately decorated brass rings from one of Caligula's pleasure ships.
Ornately decorated brass rings from one of Caligula’s pleasure ships. Folegandros/CC BY-SA 3.0

Soon after Caligula was assassinated in A.D. 41, though, the ships were ballasted and sunk. No one saw them again until the late 1920s, when dictator Benito Mussolini had the lake partially drained in order to reveal them. These efforts uncovered two ships, which were moved to a museum—but this museum was destroyed during World War II.

Now, divers are searching for the lost third ship. “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,” said local mayor Albert Bertucci.

“If it’s down there, and it’s that long, then we are talking about the world’s first luxury cruise ship,” Bertucci said. Caligula would have wanted us to use it.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com.