World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Nemi ships

The remains of the hull of one of the two ships recovered from Lake Nemi. Workers in the foreground give an indication of scale.
Reconstruction of the Nemi Ship A

The Nemi Ships were ships built by the Roman emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD at Lake Nemi. Although the purpose of the ships is only speculated on, the larger ship was essentially an elaborate floating palace, which contained quantities of marble, mosaic floors, heating and plumbing such as baths among its amenities. Both ships featured technology long thought to be recent inventions. It has been stated that the emperor was influenced by the lavish lifestyles of the Hellenistic rulers of Syracuse and Ptolemaic Egypt. Recovered from the lake bed in 1929, the ships were destroyed by fire in 1944.


  • Location 1
  • Recovery 2
  • Construction 3
    • Prima nave 3.1
    • Seconda nave 3.2
    • Technology 3.3
  • Destruction 4
  • Project Diana 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9
  • External links 10


View of Lake Nemi from the Sacred Way

Lake Nemi (Italian: Lago di Nemi, Latin: Nemorensis Lacus) is a small circular volcanic lake in the Lazio region of Italy 30 km (19 mi) south of Rome. It has a surface of 1.67 km2 (0.64 sq mi) and a maximum depth of 33 meters (108 ft).

There is considerable speculation regarding why the emperor Caligula chose to build two large ships on such a small lake. From the size of the ships it was long held that they were pleasure barges, though, as the lake was sacred, no ship could sail on it under Roman law (Pliny the Younger, Litterae VIII-20) implying a religious exemption.[1]

Caligula particularly favoured the Egyptian Isis cult which he had established in Rome and also supported that of Diana Nemorensis whom, in the Roman tradition of syncretism, he likely viewed as an aspect of Isis.

Situated on opposite sides of the lake and atop the crater walls, are the towns of Genzano which was dedicated by the Romans to the goddess Cynthia, a cult associated with that of Diana Nemorensis and Nemi, which did not exist in Roman times. The name Nemi derives from the Latin nemus Aricinum (grove of Ariccia), Ariccia being an important nearby town associated with the worship of Diana and the god Virbius.[note 1] Located at Nemi are the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Diana, which was connected by the Via Virbia to the Via Appia (the Roman road between Rome and Brindisi).[2]

During the Roman empire the area around Genzano was used by wealthy Roman citizens for its clean air, uncontaminated water and cooler temperatures during the hot summer months. The lake has its own Lord Byron and Gounod all lived in Nemi and saw the magical reflection of the Moon seen in the center of the lake during summer. This phenomenon is the source of the Roman name for the lake, Speculum Dianae (Diana's Mirror).[2]


The museum where the ships were exhibited from 1936 to 1944

Local fishermen had always been aware of the existence of the wrecks, and had explored them and removed small artifacts, often using grappling hooks to pull up pieces, which they sold to tourists. In 1446, Cardinal Prospero Colonna and Leon Battista Alberti followed up on the stories regarding the remains and discovered them lying at a depth of 18.3 meters (60 ft), which at that time was too deep for effective salvage. They caused significant damage to the ships by using ropes with hooks to tear planks from them. Alberti learned little more than the type of wood and that it was covered in lead sheathing. In 1535, Francesco De Marchi dove on the wreck using a diving bell. His finds included bricks, marble paving stones, bronze, copper, lead artefacts and a great number of timber beams. He had all of the wood made into items such as walking sticks and boxes. De Marchi apparently sold everything he collected to the nobility and foreign visitors who visited the site to watch his work. From material recovered he added the knowledge that mortise and tenon joints had been used in their construction. Despite the successful salvage of entire structures and parts, there was no academic interest in the ships so no further research was performed and the objects recovered were lost and their fate remains unknown.[2]

By 1827, interest had revived and it had become a widespread belief that earlier material recovered had either been part of a temple to Diana or was from the villa of Caesar cited by Suetonius. Annesio Fusconi built a floating platform from which to raise the wrecks however, several of his cables broke so he called a halt until he could find stronger cables. When he returned, he found that the locals had dismantled his platform to make wine barrels leading to him abandoning the project.[2]

In 1895, with the support of the Italian Navy surveyed the site to determine the feasibility of recovering the two ships intact and concluded that the only viable way was to partially drain the lake.[2]

In 1927, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered Guido Ucelli to drain the lake and recover the ships. With the help of the navy, army, industry, and private individuals, an ancient Roman underground water conduit linking the lake to farms outside the crater was reactivated. After connecting the conduit to a floating pumping platform, on October 20, 1928, the lake level began dropping. By March 28, 1929, the water level had dropped 5 meters (16 ft), and the first ship (prima nave) broke the surface. By June 10, 1931, the prima nave had been recovered and the second ship (seconda nave) was exposed. By this time the water level had dropped more than 20 meters (66 ft) with over 40 million cubic meters of water removed. As a result of the weight reduction, on August 21, 1931, 500,000 cubic meters of mud erupted from the underlying strata causing 30 hectares (74 acres) of the lake floor to subside. Work ceased and, while the risks of continuing the project were debated, the lake began refilling. As the seconda nave had already partially dried out the submersion caused considerable damage. On November 10, 1931, the Minister of Public Works ordered the project and all research abandoned.[2]

On February 19, 1932, the Navy Ministry, which had been a partner in the recovery, petitioned the Prime Minister to resume the project. Joining with the Ministry of Education they received permission to take over responsibility and pumping to drain the lake recommenced on March 28. Around this time a small boat was found, about ten metres long with a pointed bow and a square stern. It had been loaded with stones in order to sink it. It is believed to be contemporaneous with the ships. Due to technical problems the seconda nave could not be recovered until October 1932. A purpose built museum constructed over both ships was inaugurated in January 1936.[2]


Stern-mounted rudder of a Roman boat, 1st century AD (RG-Museum, Cologne)
Brass rings recovered in 1895. These were fitted to the ends of cantilevered beams that supported each rowing position on the seconda nave.
Nemi ships museum.

Both vessels were constructed using the Vitruvian method, a shell first building technique used by the Romans.[1]

  • Step 1: construction of the profile.
  • Step 2: construction of the keel and the flat bottom up to the second order of cincti, in two phases.
  • Step 3: construction of the shell up to the third wale (topgallant bulwarks).
  • Step 4: Insertion of the ribs, first those with trabes (crossbeam bracing) and then those without.

The hull had been sheathed in three layers of lead sheeting to protect the timbers from shipworms; as there are none in fresh water lakes, this design feature was not only useless but costly. It is evidence that the ships hulls were constructed following standardized Roman shipbuilding techniques rather than being purpose built. The topside timbers were protected by paint and tarred wool with many surfaces decorated with marble, mosaics and gilded copper roof tiles. There was a lack of coordination between the structure of the hull and that of the superstructures, which suggests that naval architects designed the hulls, while civil architects then designed the superstructure to use the space available after the hulls were completed.[1] After their recovery, the ships hulls were found to be completely empty and unadorned.

They were steered using 11.3 meters (37 ft) long quarter oars, with the seconda nave equipped with four, two off each quarter and two from the shoulders while the prima nave was equipped with two. Similar pairs of steering leeboards appear frequently in early 2nd century depictions of ships.[3]

The seconda nave was almost certainly powered by oars, as structural supports for the rowing positions protrude along the sides of the hull. The prima nave had no visible means of propulsion so was likely towed to the center of the lake when in use.[2]

A lead pipe found on one of the wrecks had Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus stamped on it while many tiles had dates of manufacture. Together it leaves little doubt as to when the ships were built or for whom.[3]

Seutonius describes two ships built by Caligula; "...ten banks of oars...the poops of which blazed with jewels...they were filled with ample baths, galleries, and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and fruit trees." It is reasonable to speculate that the Nemi ships were equipped to a comparable standard. One year after being launched, the ships were stripped of precious objects, ballasted and then intentionally sunk following the assassination of Caligula.[2]

Prima nave

The first ship recovered was 70 meters (230 ft) long with a beam (width) of 20 meters (66 ft).

The hull was divided into three "active" or main sections. The general shape of the hull appears wider at the stern and narrower at the bow; in fact, the main section is not amidships but is displaced towards the stern. The superstructures appear to have been made of two main blocks of two buildings each, connected by stairs and corridors, built on raised parts of the deck at either end. This distribution gives the ship a discontinuous look and has no similarity to any other ancient construction.[1]

Seconda nave

The second ship recovered was the larger at 73 meters (240 ft) in length and with a beam of 24 meters (79 ft).

The superstructure appears to have been made with a main section amidships, a heavy building at the stern and a smaller one at the prow. Although nothing remains of the stern and prow buildings their existence is indicated by the shorter spacing of the decks supporting cross beams and distribution of ballast.[1] The arrangement of the seconda nave superstructures is comparable to that of the shrines depicted on an Isian lamp held by the Museum of Ostia. If not coincidental, this is further evidence of Isis worship rather than Diana.[1]


Wooden Nemi anchor with iron tipped flukes and lead stock

The discovery proved that the Romans were capable of building large ships. Before the recovery of the Nemi ships, scholars often ridiculed the idea that the Romans were capable of building a ship as big as some ancient sources reported the Roman grain carriers were.[4]

For centuries large numbers of lead bars have been found on the Mediterranean seabed, and there was debate over whether they were anchor stocks or not. It was argued by some that iron tipped wooden anchors secured by ropes were not heavy enough to be effective so they had to have metal stocks and there was considerable academic controversy over the issue. The Nemi ships, constructed during the transition period when iron anchors were replacing wooden ones, were the first Roman wrecks found to have intact anchors, and confirmed that the lead bars were indeed anchor stocks.[5] Two types of anchor were found, one of oak with iron-tipped flukes and a stock of lead while the other was of iron with a folding timber stock that closely matched the design of the Admiralty pattern anchor re-invented in 1841. In the 1960s, a similar anchor was found in Pompeii and in 1974 another was found buried near Aberdarewllyn in Gwynedd, Wales. These further discoveries confirmed that these technologically advanced anchors were a standard Roman design.[5]

Both ships had several hand operated bilge pumps that worked like a modern bucket dredge, the oldest example of this type of bilge pump ever found. The pumps were also operated by what may have been the oldest crank handles yet discovered;[6] the reconstruction of the cranked pump which was assembled from fragments, including a wooden disk and an eccentric peg, has been dismissed as "archaeological fantasy".[7]

Piston pumps (ctesibica machina: Vitruvius X.4?7) supplied the two ships with hot and cold running water via lead pipes. The hot water supplied baths while the cold operated fountains and supplied drinking water. This plumbing technology was later lost and only re-discovered in the Middle Ages.

Each ship contained a rotating statue platform. One platform was mounted on caged bronze balls and is the earliest example of the thrust ball bearing previously believed to have been first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci but only developed much later. Previous Roman ball bearing finds (used for water wheel axles in thermal baths) had a lenticular shape. The second platform was almost identical in design but used cylindrical bearings. Although consensus is that the platforms were meant for displaying statues, it has also been suggested that they may have been platforms for deck cranes used to load supplies.[8]


The ships were destroyed by fire in World War II on the night of May 31, 1944.[9] Several US army shells hit the Museum around 8 pm, causing little damage but forcing the German artillery to leave the area. Around two hours later, smoke was seen coming from the Museum. There are conflicting views on which side was responsible for the destruction:

At that time, Allied forces were pursuing the retreating German army northward through the Alban Hills toward Rome. On May 28, a German artillery post was established within 400 feet (120 m) of the museum … An official report filed in Rome later that year described the tragedy as a willful act on the part of the German soldiers. A German editorial blamed the destruction on American artillery fire. The true story of what happened that night will probably never be known.[9]

Only the bronzes, a few charred timbers, and some material stored in Rome survived the fire. Due to the destruction, research effectively stopped until the 1980s. The museum was restored and reopened in 1953. One-fifth scale models of the ships were built in the Naples naval dockyard and these along with the remaining artifacts are housed there.

Project Diana

Photographs, the drawings made for the Italian Navy survey, and those made by the archaeologist G. Gatti survived, allowing reconstructions to be made of the two ships.

In 1995, the Association Dianae Lacus (Lake of Diana Association) was founded to preserve the cultural and history of the Nemi Lake area. The Association initiated Project Diana, which involved constructing a full-size replica of the Roman prima nave (first ship) of Lake Nemi. Since no record is known to exist of the shape and size of the buildings and temples built on the deck, the replica was to be constructed to deck level only and when completed would be moored on the lake in front of the museum.

On 18 July 1998, the town council of Nemi voted to fund the construction of the forward section and work commenced in the Torre del Greco shipyards. This section was completed in 2001 with the section transported to the Nemi museum where the rest of the vessel was to be constructed. The estimated final cost of the reconstruction was 7.2 million Euros (US$10.7 million).[2]

On 15 November 2003, Assimpresa, the second largest confederation of employers and businesses in Italy, announced it would sponsor the project by supplying all the timber required. No press releases have been made since 2004. The Dianae Lacus web site was deleted on 1 October 2011.

See also


  1. ^ Virbius is the Latin name for Hyppolytus, a young man whom Diana loved.


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Notes on the Architecture of Some Roman Ships: Nemi and Fiumicino pdf" (PDF). Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition. Aug–Sep 1985. Retrieved October 29, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Purtell, John (March 18, 2001). "Project Diana". Association Dianae Lacus. Retrieved October 29, 2009. 
  3. ^ a b Lucas, Alan (March 2005). "The Lake Nemi Ships". Afloat Magazine. Retrieved October 29, 2009. 
  4. ^ "Caligula's Nemi Ships". Nordic Underwater Archaeology. Retrieved October 29, 2009. 
  5. ^ a b Muckelroy, Keith (1978). Maritime archaeology: New studies in archaeology. Pages 148-149:  
  6. ^ Bunch, Bryan H. (2004). The history of science and technology. Page 81:  
  7. ^ White, Jr. 1962, pp. 105f.; Oleson 1984, pp. 230f.
  8. ^ Russo, Flavio & Ferruccio (2009). Ancient Engineers' Inventions: Precursors of the Present. Page 171: Springer.  
  9. ^ a b Deborah N. Carlson, "Caligula's Floating Palaces." Archaeology. May/June 2002, Vol. 55, Issue 3, p. 26



External links

  • Nemi Ships
  • "Mad Emperor's Galley Emerges after 2,000 Years." Popular Science, November 1929, p. 59.

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.