Decadent Roman Party Town: The Lost City of Baiae
The city of Baiae was an ancient Roman town found on the Northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples. It was a fashionable holiday resort for Romans of antiquity and was especially popular during the final years of the Roman Republic around the year 27 BC.
It was reckoned to be far superior to Capri, Pompeii, and Herculaneum all of which had been popular with the Roman elite for many years. Many of the villas found their date from around 100 BC to 500 AD.
Unfortunately, much of the lower part of the town was submerged because of volcanic activity that caused the collapse of much of the surrounding area of coastland. Recent archaeological surveys have revealed many of the fine buildings that still exist under the sea. However, why was this city lost and how did it come to be one of the most popular holiday resorts for wealthy Romans?
Baiae’s Name and History
The origin of the town’s name can reveal a lot about the history of this town and how the contemporary citizens thought of it. It is supposed that the town was named after the helmsman of Odysseus’s ship in Homer’s Odyssey.
The Odyssey told of the famous hero Odysseus making his way home from the Trojan War. Baius, the helmsman, is supposed to have died in Sicily when they were camped there. The Baian Gulf, next to Baiae, is named after the town. It has also been known as the Cumaean Waters but only on rare occasions.
The town was built on an active volcanic area known as the Phlegraean Fields located in the Cumaean Peninsula. It has been suggested that the town was initially built as a port for Cumrae.
Much of Baiae’s history is centered around when it became a fashionable destination for Roman elites. Pompey, Lucullus, and Marius all frequented the town whilst Julius Caesar had a villa there.
Under the rule of Augustus, the town was brought under closer imperial control. Nero had a magnificent villa constructed there in the middle of the first century, whilst Hadrian died in his villa at Baiae in 138. Due to the clear imperial links, Suetonius, the imperial historian, claims that the cloak, gold bulla (amulet), and brooch given to the emperor Tiberius were on display there around 120AD.
Suetonius again provides a source of information about Baiae as the location of an eccentric stunt by the demented emperor Caligula as he attempted to ride a horse across the gulf. Caligula ordered the construction of a 3-mile-long pontoon bridge made from ships lashed together purely so that he could ride across it.
This was, surprisingly, a success, although undoubtedly also a massive waste of time and resources. It is a story that was passed down as late as the 18th century as those in the town claimed to have pieces of this bridge in storage, as proof of this idiotic scheme.
Baiae became notorious for the hedonistic lifestyle of its guests and residents. In 56 BC, Clodia, a prominent socialite, was condemned in trial for living the life of a harlot and indulging in beach parties as well as long drinking sessions.