Who burned the ships of Caligula? or: When Rome was almost displaced to Egypt

Despite their extraordinary importance, the great public hardly knows the Nemi ships and their history. The reason is obvious: they no longer exist. Their story, however, is fascinating.

These two ancient parade boats were gigantic constructions that Emperor Caligula had built in honour of the goddess Diana during his term of office, which lasted only 4 years (37-41 AD), and which were sunk after his death in Nemi Lake.

After it had already become known in the times of the Enlightenment that there was something hidden in the round crater lake 27 km southeast of Rome, the wrecks were salvaged from the lake in 1929 and 1932 at Mussolini’s request. Since then, people have wondered why two such large ships ended up in such a small lake, what they were used for, why they were sunk and who destroyed them during World War II.

The Nemi wreck recovery

Lake Nemi

Lake Nemi appears to the visitor today to be an abandoned pond lined with garden huts. It is little visited and mostly known only to the locals. In ancient times, however, the lake surrounded by high cliffs was of central importance. On the slope of Lake Nemi stood the largest sanctuary of the goddess Diana in the Roman Empire.

The remains of the gigantic temple still lie buried under weeds and undergrowth. They have long since been looted and are only accessible to those who know where the temple once stood. Next to its stones are other important sites, such as one of Rome’s first legal Christian churches, a nymphaeum and more. All are overgrown and abandoned. The sacred grove of Diana now houses a horse farm – irony of history, given that horses – the animals of Poseidon – were forbidden in the grove of Diana in ancient times.

The importance of Diana herself is also underestimated in our times. Diana is known today as the goddess of the hunt, but she was much more to the Romans. She was goddess of the moon and thus also of femininity and birth. The monthly cycle was associated with the moon, but also with death. The woman is traditionally the mediator between the world of the living and the dead. Diana was thus also associated with the three-headed goddess of the dead, Hekate, was the leader of the dead souls and mystical goddess of the three ways. In Nemi, this underworld-connected character of Diana was more present than elsewhere, since the image of the goddess had been brought to Nemi from a temple in the Crimea by the legendary Orestes, and human sacrifices were said to have been made to him there. In Nemi, too, the lord of the temple was therefore traditionally murdered by his successor in a duel, an exception in the Roman Empire, which otherwise knew almost no human sacrifices.

The Nemi ships as evidence of the will to leave Rome for Egypt

To this day, the question remains why Caligula placed the huge ships in Lake Nemi and why such valuable boats were sunk.

So far, hardly any answer has been given in the literature as to the ‘why’ of the boats, yet on closer inspection the answer seems obvious. In later antiquity, the goddess Diana was equated with the Egyptian goddess Isis. Archaeologists found numerous temples to Isis in the area around Rome and Naples, and Caligula worshipped not only Diana but especially her Egyptian personification at Lake Nemi. Isis was popular in his day. In Pompei, too, there are numerous frescoes depicting Isis, a temple of the goddess was found and representations of the most beautiful of her landscapes: Of the Nile Delta near Canopus/Alexandria, an area that today is only accessible to underwater archaeologists as it is submerged.

Reconstruction of one of the Nemi Ships
The solar boat of Kufu, found in Egypt.

Caligula, who suffered from psychological problems due to his terrible childhood and was probably also epileptic, worshipped the goddess of the moon and Isis. However, he was even more envious of the Egyptians for Canopus. He had been born to the murdered general Germanicus and the later exiled and starved Agrippina the Elder. Caligula was named Gaius Iulius Caesar and was the great-grandson of Emperor Augustus through his mother and the great-grandson of Augustus’ wife Livia through his father and thus a descendant of Caesar. He admired Cleopatra and Egypt and had little love for Rome after the terrible events of his childhood. He was in constant conflict with the Senate, feeling persecuted after a supposed or real poison attack. In the year 40, he finally announced that he would move the capital of the empire to Alexandria in Egypt, where he hoped to be worshipped as a living god.

For many, the prospect of Rome losing its emperor, and with him its political power, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back of the evil deeds, incest and murders committed by Caligula, who was deemed insane. In the case of the transfer of the capital, both the Senate and the Praetorian Guard would have been powerless to further stop Caligula’s oppression and debauchery. Against this background, Caligula’s assassin Chaerea convinced his co-conspirators to put their plan into action. After only four years of rule, the youthful Emperor Caligula was assassinated in a theatre corridor in Rome, just like his ancestor Caesar. This also put an end to the plan to move Rome to Egypt.

One thing is important in this story, for understanding the boats: Canopus is located near Alexandria. Its most outstanding feature is its Nile barques. The annual celebration of the resurrection of Osiris by Isis was one of the great religious ceremonies of ancient Egypt, culminating in a water procession along the canals between Thonis-Herakleion and the city of Canopus. Some of these barques were discovered and researched in modern times by Franck Goddio and his team. Their images can also be seen on frescoes and mosaics in ancient Rome.

It can therefore be assumed that the Nemi ships were an imitation of these Nile barques. Caligula imitated the much-admired Canopus at Lake Nemi, where he had a villa, and prepared his move to Alexandria.

Who destroyed the Nemi ships?

The question remains what happened to the two famous wrecks of the Mad Emperor.

In 1944, the two ships, salvaged with such great effort, were destroyed by fire. Who is to blame is the subject of various allegations.

The fact is that the area around Nemi and the surrounding villages came under heavy fire during the battles for Anzio and Nettuno in WWII. The nearby Castel Gandolfo, actually immune as the Pope’s palace, was bombed by the Allies and several hundred civilian refugees died. In Genzano on Lake Nemi, escape rooms collapsed and a large part of the population was buried alive. In the night of 31 May to 1 June 1944, there was another firefight. This time, in order to spare the surrounding villages, the German defence had set up on the uninhabited shore of the lake. As a precaution, the staff of the Nemi Museum was evacuated and housed in caves on the crater slope below the village of Nemi for safety.

Heavy bombardment and firefights ensued. But at the end of the fighting, although the surrounding localities and the German position had suffered, the museum was still largely untouched. Hours after the battle, however, the museum staff saw fire in the windows of the building from a distance. In view of the darkness and the prevailing fear, no one approached the museum, although flames raged inside. The next morning, the disaster became apparent: the ships had been completely destroyed by the fire. Only a few individual parts were saved, which had previously been removed to the Museo Palazzo Massimo Romano in Rome.

Immediately after the end of the war, a commission of enquiry opportunely accused the soldiers of the German Wehrmacht of deliberate arson. The commission’s report can be viewed on the website of the Nemi Museum. A small fallen column is cited – without explanation – as proof of the Germans’ guilt. However, it also mentions that there are holes in the roof of the museum that suggest a shell impact. The apportionment of blame does not appear to be based on any evidence, even after reading it several times. In addition, time-delayed incendiary bombs were commonly used by the Allies at the time and their presence would explain the delayed ignition of the boats by two hours much better than a clandestine arson without motive.

However, since the American army used the museum to house its soldiers a short time later and had cleaned it, the commission could no longer find any bomb remains.

In the summer of 2020, it became known that the mayor of Nemi, Alberto Bertucci, wanted to claim damages from the German government on behalf of the city council for the destruction of the ships. He intended to use the money to have the ships reconstructed and then exhibited in the local museum. In support of his claim, Bertucci claimed that he had in his hands “reports, extensive documents and testimonies” that the heavy flak division 163 of the German Wehrmacht had been responsible for the destruction of the ships. To press his case, he called in the Florence-based German lawyer Joachim Lau, who had previously represented descendants of SS victims in Italy in compensation proceedings. Bertucci’s initiative secured him the attention of numerous Italian and German media, but he has still not produced his alleged evidence and it can be doubted that he ever will.

It can be presumed that they do not exist. Why German soldiers would go to Mussolini’s favourite boats in the middle of the night a few hours after a heavy bombardment of their position to set the wrecks on fire is hardly explicable. That American bombers paid little attention to cultural sites in the region, on the other hand, is known. They destroyed parts of Pompei and the Montecassino monastery. So why should they have paid attention to the Nemi ships? It is thus much more likely that the Nemi ships fell unintended victim to a stray American incendiary bomb.

The realisation that cultural sites should be better protected in wartime did not manifest itself until 1954 in the Hague Convention. Too late for Caligula’s ships.

Read more in my book ‘Murder in the cove of the goddess‘.

U.C. Ringuer

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