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Just north of the city of Naples lies ancient Baia. It is a quiet little town on the Mediterranean with a small bay of sailboats and motor yachts. Life is laid back and simple here. Families gather at the waterfront park to cheer on a game of water polo while friends and couples share a meal of pizza and espresso at a small cafe. The single lane roads wind up and down over the hilly terrain accompanied with walkers more often than cars. A mecca of peace. But this wasn’t always so.
Did you know that Baia was the playground of the extremely rich and wealthy from the first to the third century AD? Baia far surpassed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri as a desirable resort full of hedonistic temptations. Rumours of scandal and corruption filled the palace halls and baths. Julius Caesar, Nero, Hadrian and Caligula had spacious pleasure palaces built along the shoreline. Much of the town was considered imperial property under Augustus.
What was the big attraction to Baia? To begin with, Baia sits on an active volcanic area known as the Phlegrian Fields. During the Roman empire, engineers constructed a complex system of chambers that brought heat beneath the surface into bathing facilities that became saunas. These baths were used for medicinal purposes as well as relaxation. Remains of a thermal bathing complex can be seen today close to the water where the land rises on a hillside.
Remember the Trojan Horse? It was Baius, also known as Oddysseus, who came up with the whole strategy of building and hiding his Greek warriors inside the wooden horse. After they entered Troy, they came out from hiding and fought. Baia was named after this heroic figure, who is believed to be buried there.
Have you heard the legend of Baia? It was in 39 AD that the new emperor Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built from Baia to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Roman historian Suetonius states that the bridge was over three miles long. Sand was poured from various ships in the area to make the bridge passable. It is said that Caligula, clad in a flowing gold cloak, crossed the bridge on his horse in defiance against the Roman astrologer Thrasyllus who predicted that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baia.”
Whether the legend is true or not, what became of Baia? Where are all those luxury palace ruins?Because of the volcanic activity of the area, most of Baia is now underwater in the Bay of Naples. Very little is left of these palaces, but a glass bottom boat operates regular excursions out to view these ruins in shallow water.
Today Baia is an archaeological playground. It was here the renowned Roman writers Virgil, Cicero and Horace hobnobbed with the wealthiest. Baia, the metropolis of hedonism, washed away by the waves of time.
Welcome to the ancient sunken city of Baiae (Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baiae), just 30 minutes northwest of Naples.
Seneca called Baiae a “resort of vice,” while Ovid referred to it as a “favorable place for love-making.” Famous for its prestigious baths and thermal springs, the ancient city of Baiae was a fashionable bathing and recreation area of the rich and famous. But today, much of Baiae is underwater. Remains of Roman streets, Imperial Villas and tottering statues lie submerged in just a few feet of water. Sea life weave in among the ruins, the only live occupants of what used to be the summer playground of the emperors.
Parts of the ancient cities of Baia and Puteoli (Pozzuoli) became submerged during the 16th century when the ground sank and the sea level rose, known as bradyseism. Volcanic lava from underneath the ground found a way of escape, causing a drop in the elevation.
Today, hoary life-size statues tilt precariously on the sea floor, remains of ancient Roman roads lead nowhere, floors of black and white mosaic attest to a long forgotten villa, bits of ancient amphorae that once held an emperors wine are scattered across the ocean floor. The first century sunken Roman seaside resort of Baiae, built during the time of Emperor Claudius, remains today as a shrine for the fish that dart about its contours and crumpled columns.
Emperors Nero, Caligula, Hadrian and Gaius Julius Caesar once owned elegant summer villas in Baiae alongside the areas famous epicurean thermal baths. Cicero entertained them during Saturnalia feasts. Known as the ‘Italian Riviera’ of its time, the pleasurable coastal resort gives evidence of high living. Below the surface is an ancient Roman road hemmed in by taverns, leading up to Villa Protiro and its colonnaded entrance and rooms with mosaics. Claudius Nymphaeumstill remains embellished by once-elegant statues now covered with algae.
Submerged Baiae is flanked by Portus Julius, Rome’s most important fleet of the time. Commissioned into existence in 37 B.C. by the famous military leader and engineer Agrippa, remains of docks, cisterns and repair workshops are evident today.
This underwater city can be observed by glass-bottom boat or scuba as well as snorkeling from the town of Baia.Some of the water over the ruins are shallow, making snorkeling a great way to get up close and personal. As a Marine Protected Area, you are sure to notice various sea life that have taken up permanent residence in the sunken city. Notice the purple sea urchins and sleek little fish darting in and around the arches and statues.