In the Gulf of Naples, a few kilometers from Pompeii and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, there is an amazing underwater archaeological park, the Roman city of Baia. It is one of the lesser-known archaeological sites, but actually one of the most important places in the Empire.
An exclusive holiday resort, well known since the 1st century BC, it comprises luxurious and enormous villas of the Roman nobility where they went to conspire away from the watchful eyes of the Senate, lazing around forgetting their commitments in the capital, feasting and indulging in all kinds of pleasures. Seneca describes drunken people staggering in the harbor and music everywhere, coming from the boats in the bay where parties were held and from the villas on the mainland. Varone writes that Baia was the place where the old went to become young and the young to become young girls. Here one came to pursue one’s pleasure, but what happened in Baia remained private.
Some of the most important names in Roman history such as Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, Brutus and Nero had villas in Baia. The ruins on the surface tell us about this glorious past, but more than half of this great city is underwater: 177 hectares of submerged archaeological structures, with roads, kilometers of brick walls, floors made of precious marble from all over the place of the Empire, statues and beautiful mosaics.
What has surprised the archaeologists the most is the lack of public facilities: there is no forum and no temples, only the remains of huge luxury villas, one after the other.
The Luxury and Ostentation of Wealth in Baia
The nearby archaeological site of Pausilypon gives us the impression of what the ancient city of Baia must have looked like. The maritime villas were not formed by a single large structure, but by an entire complex of buildings, each of them was a kind of miniature city with amphitheaters capable of hosting more than a thousand people, refined pictorial and sculptural decorations and water features.
Also, in Positano, a few kilometers from Baia, there is a large villa that can give us further information on the luxury of the Roman villas in Baia. You go down to a depth of 19 meters to enter a richly frescoed dining room with very bright and expensive colors, representing marine scenes and fantasy animals, with stuccoes that emerge and seem to come to life from the walls. Even the furnishings are pieces of art and the whole scene constitutes a great display of wealth.
Some villas even had fish and oysters farms that allowed you to always feast on fresh food, but they were also a symbol of the wealth and social status of the Roman aristocrats.
In addition to the natural beauty, this place was particularly appreciated for its warm mineral waters and each villa overlooking the sea had its own spa complex. The heat from the volcanic springs was used by Roman engineers to heat the water in the baths.
In the thermal baths that remain on the hilly area, it is possible to admire various architectural complexes, including the Temple of Mercury, which was not a place of worship, but rather a frigidarium (where you cooled down after the sauna) dominated by a splendid dome, the first concrete dome in the world, which forestalls that of the Pantheon in Rome by about a century. The importance of Baia also lies in the engineering and architectural innovation of its spas.
Despite the abundance of thermal water, fresh water was scarce, so the Romans built the Piscina Mirabilis (Wondrous Pool), located near Bacoli, the largest cistern in the whole Empire, terminal tank of the Augustan aqueduct, used to supply water to ships at the port, wash, cook, but also for the numerous and spectacular water features of the villas.
In one of these submerged villas, a room full of splendid marble statues, very well preserved, was found. As there were no public buildings, the environment must have belonged to a very luxurious private house. To save them from deterioration, the statues were brought to the surface, restored and replaced underwater with copies.
They refer to the examples of Greek statuary and were the type of works that the Roman elite loved to exhibit in their homes. Archaeologists have established that the richly decorated environment was a Nymphaeum, an artificial cave dedicated to water nymphs, but also a cool and pleasant place where guests came to feast. The Nymphaeum was accessed by a canal that ended in the hall forming a swimming pool, surrounded by convivial beds where guests would lie down to feast. It was eighteen meters long, nine meters wide and the statues were placed in large niches on the walls. In the back wall, an apse contained a sculptural group of the Odyssey cycle: Ulysses getting Polyphemus drunk. Unfortunately, the statue of Polyphemus has not been found and the others are partially ruined by the mollusks that habit the rocks.
Another statue of the Nymphaeum, now preserved in the Castle of Baia (which in its foundations hides the villa that belonged to Julius Caesar), sculpted with a diadem on his head, an engrossed face and a robe that creates a beautiful play of folds, gives us a precious clue about the owner of the villa: the statue represents Antonia Minor, the mother of the emperor Claudius who was grandson of the first emperor Augustus. This was the villa of the Emperor Claudius.
Nero’s Villa and Life in Baia
Nero also had a sumptuous villa in Baia and spent a fortune on banquets, as reported by the historian Tacitus. During these banquets, not only food was consumed, but there was also a lot of sex.
As Suetonius tells us, Nero was so tied to Baia that he also began to desire the villas of other nobles, such as that of his aunt Domitia who had an enviable tank for breeding fish. When his aunt got ill, it was probably Nero who anticipated her end and thus found himself owning the imperial villa inherited from Claudius and that of his aunt. From here he ruled the Empire but also indulged in all kinds of entertainment. After all, Baia was not so isolated from Rome as an underwater archaeological discovery demonstrates: the Via Herculanea, a paved road that led across the sea to the city of Puteoli (Pozzuoli), once the largest commercial ports of Rome for all goods, but above all for the wheat destined to feed the great metropolis.
Nero also wanted to build a canal connecting Baia to Rome and which was to protect the traffic of goods from storms at sea. Work began, but the project was soon considered too ambitious and was abandoned. The emperor’s megalomania alarmed the ruling class in Rome and Nero, who wished to keep as far away from it as possible, remained in Baia for longer and longer periods, often in the company of a friend, Caio Calpurnio Pisone, a rich man and supporter of the arts who owned the most beautiful villa in Baia.
The place where the villa once stood was identified thanks to a water pipe bearing his name. It had a huge garden, two spa facilities, fish-breeding tanks and a private dock, which suggests that the villa was right in front of the sea. Within the walls of this villa, Pisone devised a plan to assassinate Nero and declare himself emperor. In Baia, Nero felt so at ease that he often went around alone and without his escort, thus exposing himself to possible attacks. However, as the ancient texts tell, at the last moment Pisone changed his mind, but when Nero learned of the conspiracy, he ordered him to commit suicide. It is also here in Baia that Nero had killed his mother, Agrippina, six years earlier. He invited her as a guest of honor to a sumptuous banquet and at the end, he accompanied her to the dock where, waiting for her, there was a boat that he had tampered with to make it sink. Once set out to sea, the boat sunk but Agrippina was saved by a passing boat. She then returned to her villa and Nero ordered his soldiers to kill her.
The End of Baia
Surrounded by 24 volcanoes including Vesuvius and Solfatara, Baia saw its end due to bradyseism, a phenomenon that causes the earth’s crust to emerge or sink due to the pressure of the lava and underground gases that make the ground move. This is what happened in the fourth century AD, coinciding with the end of the Roman Empire: the underground chambers of molten rock and gas were emptied, causing the overlying surface to sink by about twenty meters. Half of the city sunk under water, where it was forgotten for 1500 years. Gradually, over time, the magma and gas chambers have brought Baia closer to the surface of the water.
Fishermen have always known that something was hiding on the seabed, but it was only after the war with the photos taken by airplanes that one began to get an idea of the vastness of this archaeological area. It was necessary to wait until the 1980s for the first underwater archaeological excavation, the one that brought to light the imperial Nymphaeum. Even today, teams of archaeologists are consolidating the submerged remains, monitoring the state of conservation, consolidating the structures, preserving them from decay and reconstructing a detailed map of what the city must have looked like at its peak.
Anyone who visits the Gulf of Naples and its extraordinary beauties and has learned underwater techniques must not miss a visit to this wonderful and suggestive archaeological park, unique in the world, by contacting the Tour Operator authorized by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage of Naples and Caserta.