If you think we’re the only generation of humans to spend our wealth in depraved ways, think again: two ships built on Lake Nemi under the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula show we’re not alone.
It’s surprising Roman Emperor Caligula was not throttled on his way to the throne. His father died at 33, most likely due to being poisoned by Emperor Tiberius, who saw Caligula’s family as a threat to his power. Caligula was then shipped off to live with various different family members, many of whom ended up getting whacked too. Eventually, he wound up in the care of the Emperor himself. While you might have expected Tiberius to have murdered Caligula, he actually came to care for him.
Caligula was smart. He won over both Tiberius and the senate so that when Tiberius died (it remains a matter of debate, with some believing it could have been from natural causes and others saying it was more likely by Caligula’s hand) he became Emperor.
Caligula had an impressive start as Emperor, lowering taxes and raising military wages, becoming known as a populist reformer. He made the people love him. But then he fell ill, likely due to poison. He recovered in body but not mind, thus entering a paranoid era. During this era, he had people killed for all sorts of reasons – political, personal and for the hell of it. He made people refer to him as a god. It’s even rumoured that he once ordered a whole section of the audience watching the gladiator games to be thrown into the arena.
On the plus side, during this era, Caligula had two large luxurious ships built on Lake Nemi, a volcanic lake about 30 kilometres south of Rome. Some say they were built to send a message to the top dogs of Syracuse, Sicily, and Egypt (according to Windows of World History, “Caligula bragged that his ships were the most luxurious in the Hellenistic world”).
Others reckon one of the ships was made as a floating temple to Diana. Another popular theory, however, is that at least one of the ships was used as a floating pleasure house where Caligula could take a break from the pressures of running a kingdom into the ground while his compatriots tried to poison him, and indulge in the various depravities he was known for.
Apparently, these ships’ parties put Jeff Bezos, Dan Bilzerian, and your local European crypto bros’ debaucherous superyacht summers to shame. Caligula’s ships had huge bars, banquet halls and – according to Weird History – even a wide array of vines and fruit trees. Weird History adds: “Needless to say these ships functioned as floating soddoms and gommorahs.”
The two ships have been described as being built of cedar wood, dazzled with jewelled prows and rich sculpture. There were also, naturally, sails of purple silk, and bathrooms of alabaster and bronze (and vessels of gold and silver). The floors were also apparently paved with glass mosaic, the windows and door frames made of bronze, and many of the decorations were rare pieces of art.
The ships were steered using 11.3 m quarter oars. The second ship (the bigger one) had four oars, two off each quarter and two from the shoulders. The first ship was equipped with just two. The big one was probably powered by oars. The smaller one was likely towed to the centre of the lake to be used. The ships were not very imaginatively named. Caligula called them primera nave and seconda nave.
In 41AD, when Caligula was 28, a senator led a conspiracy to murder Caligula and succeeded. After this, the boats were either sunk on purpose or sank due to neglect. The ships stayed on the bottom of Lake Nemi for 19 centuries, before fascist dictator Mussolini had the lake drained in 1928. This took three years. When they finished historians and archeologists discovered that the ships contained technology not thought to be used in Rome until later in Roman history (like piston pumps for water and a folding stock anchor).
The remains were put in a museum. But in May 1944, the museum was either set on fire by fleeing Nazis or destroyed in a US air strike (it remains up for debate). Some remnants survived and were looted and smuggled out of Italy. A so-called “art squad” has made it its mission to recover some of these artefacts, in at least one case succeeding (a coffee table a wealthy New York couple bought in the 1960s was confiscated in 2017, as it turned out to be a piece of flooring from one of the Nemi ships).
There you have it: it appears superyachts have been unimaginatively named throughout all of history (think: Super Yacht A). And perhaps also proof that humans haven’t changed as much as you might have thought over the course of 20 centuries…