Divers Search for Emperor Caligula’s 2,000-year-old Luxury Cruise Ship

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By all accounts, Roman Emperor Caligula lived large, often at the expense of his own people. Evidence of his over-the-top exploits — including the wreckage of large, wooden pleasure boats — has been found on both land and sea. Now, researchers believe they may have uncovered the remains of his largest ship at the bottom of Italy’s Lake Nemi (pictured above). If they’re right, the 400-foot, 2,000-year-old vessel will be the world’s oldest luxury cruise ship ever discovered.

Even ancient Egyptians were known to enjoy pleasure cruising. By the time the Romans adopted it, the idea was not a new one. But Caligula’s well-known taste for excess — from the ruthless, tyrannical way in which he ruled his people to declaring himself a “living god” to the earthly pleasures he enjoyed in his free time — likely meant his ships were nothing short of a bacchanal. Historians don’t have a complete picture of what life aboard his “luxury cruise liners” looked like. But, evidence suggests they were lavishly appointed with silk sails, marble flooring, solid gold accents, and working heating and plumbing fixtures. Given that Caligula himself oversaw the ships’ design and construction, it’s safe to assume there was also plenty of drinking, eating, and lots and lots of sex (some things never change).

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Nemi Ship Hull 1930

For decades, rumors have circled in the town of Nemi among divers and fishermen about the existence of the yet unnamed ship. Until recently, they were dismissed as nothing more than local lore. But, recent reports of fishing nets repeatedly snagging on large, unknown objects in the water have given new life to the potential of the ship’s existence. Now, the mayor of Nemi, Alberto Bertucci, is investing considerable resources — including sonar technology to scan the lake’s muddy bottom — to (dis)prove the ship’s existence once and for all.

Lake Nemi bore fruit in the early 1900’s when Mussolini uncovered two of Caligula’s smaller pleasure ships, among a trove of other artifacts. Unfortunately, the museum in which they were housed burned down (or was shelled) during World War II and little remains of them. Historian and ancient Roman scholar, Anthony Barrett, is skeptical about the existence of the third ship. He questions whether the announcement is merely a cheap PR ploy to bolster local tourism.

The good news? The ship’s wood construction means that, if it does exist, it should be very well-preserved.