Photo by Marka/UIG via Getty Images

The search is on for Caligula's lost pleasure ship.

Jess McHugh
April 04, 2017

Long before anyone set foot on a luxury liner for a cruise vacation, the notorious Roman Emperor known as Caligula took to the water for his leisure time.

Researchers are set to dredge Lake Nemi in Lazio, Italy in search of the remains of one of the emperor's pleasure ships—a 400-foot vessel that is now over 2,000 years-old, the Times of London reported.

“If it’s down there, and it’s that long, then we are talking about the world’s first luxury cruise ship,” said Alberto Bertucci, the mayor of the local town of Nemi who is organizing the search, according to the Times.

A drawing shows the remains of another of Caligula's ships found in Lake Nemi.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Caligula was known for his taste in excess, and ancient historians wrote of the emperor’s pleasure ships, complete with mosaics, bountiful food and drink, and even warm, running water. No one knows exactly what took place during the pleasure cruises, but historians say there are a few activities that are safe to assume occupied the ruler's time.

“One can assume a lot of eating, a lot of drinking — that was the normal Roman way of having fun — and probably various sexual escapades,” said Anthony A. Barrett, a scholar of ancient Rome and author of a biography on Caligula.

Caligula commissioned these particular boats himself, but he did not invent the pleasures of cruising. People as early as ancient Egypt sailed for pleasure on similar cruise boats, according to Barrett.

Fishermen and divers have long told tales of the enormous ship, and the mayor of Nemi is planning on using sonar technology to look under the mud at the bottom of the lake.

Former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini first discovered two of Caligula’s pleasure boats in Lake Nemi in the early 20th century, where they had been extremely well preserved for nearly 2,000 years.

Both were destroyed during World War II, with accounts differing as to whether a fire in the museum engulfed them or whether U.S. troops may have shelled the museum where they were housed.

Barrett expressed skepticism as to the existence of this third pleasure ship, saying it might be a way to drum up interest for the surrounding town. If the boat does exist and is uncovered, however, scientists can expect to find it in good condition.

“Wood can last for centuries,” Barrett said, adding, “If the environment is completely stable the wood will survive.”

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