Secrets of the Dead

Full Episode

Transcript

In the Bay of Naples, just a few miles from Pompeii and Vesuvius, lies one of the world’s most stunning underwater archaeology sites.

This is the lost Roman city of Baiae.

From the first century to the third century AD, it was the most exclusive spot in the Roman empire.

Dr Jerry Toner You can come here, relax by the sea, and really indulge your wildest dreams.

It was a place of fantastic wealth.

But the glitter and opulence hid a dark side.

Rome’s elite came here to scheme and conspire with…

….and against emperors.

…and it was the setting for one of the most sinister murder plots of the Roman age.

Prof. Kevin Dicus How do you get rid of your own mother? Do you poison her?

Baiae played a pivotal role in the Roman Empire.

Then disaster struck. Half the city sank beneath the waves…and lay forgotten for more than a thousand years.

Now, for the first time, a team of archaeologists is investigating every inch of the ruins…

…and new discoveries are helping to shed light on the lives of Rome’s elite.

Dr Jerry Toner You get a real sense as you are coming down here that you are heading back in time.

The team wants to know: what drew people to this place?

What really went on here? And why did it disappear?

For the first time, we build a true picture of what Baiae would have looked like 2,000 years ago.

This is the untold story of Nero’s sunken city.

Rome, the greatest city of the ancient world.

A busy metropolis where emperors and politicians controlled one of the largest empires ever known.

It was a hub for unimaginable wealth, best displayed in its famous monuments like the Colosseum, the Forum and the Pantheon.

Here, the ruling class plotted and schemed their way to the top.

And everything happened under the watchful eye of the Senate.

But a powerful few knew a place where anything and everything was possible.

This is Baiae…

...a resort where the elites could let their hair down, and indulge their wildest dreams.

150 miles south of Rome…the coastal city offered spectacular ocean views… but lay in the dangerous shadow of Vesuvius.

Today, few know about Baiae… It remains one of the least explored, but most intriguing places in the Roman Empire.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Some of the greatest names of the Roman republic…Caesar, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Nero, all of these men had villas at Baiae.

This is where Rome’s elite could come searching for Otium – that is leisure.

Dr Candace Rice It was absolutely a place of pleasure and debauchery and the mere mention of Baiae brought to mind scandal and could ruin your reputation.

Ancient Roman historians chronicled life here.

Dr Jerry Toner In one description we have by the writer Seneca, he’s walking along the port at Baiae and he sees people staggering around they’re so drunk, there are parties on boats and the air is full of loud music.

Varo says Baiae is the place where old men come to become young boys again and young boys come to become girls.

Prof Kevin Dicus This was where aristocrats could come and shed their public persona and pursue pleasures in private. Illicit sex, drunkenness, parties on the beach, parties on boats. What happened at Baiae stayed at Baiae.

Above ground, palatial ruins hint at a glorious past.

But there is more to Baiae than what’s visible on land.

More than half the once-great town now lies beneath the waves…

Ruins three times the size of those in Pompeii.

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There’s a network of roads…

…miles of brick walls…

…rich marble floors….

…and splendid mosaics.

Now, an international team of scientists, archaeologists and historians has begun to map this forgotten treasure.

Prof. Barbara Davidde It’s very important to do documentation of archaeological structure that are underwater in Baiae to have a map of all the town

Before the ancient architecture crumbles in the ocean, underwater archaeologist Barbara Davidde and her team are carefully surveying the ruins, preserving, identifying and logging every inch of them.

Their project will create a 3D map of the underwater city.

Prof. Barbara Davidde The submerged Baiae is very large. It’s about 177 hectares of archaeological structures. So as you can imagine there is work for two or three generation of archaeologist.

Surprisingly, the archaeologists haven’t found any identifiable public buildings.

No forum, no temple, no market place.

Just the remains of one enormous luxury villa after another; a Roman Beverly Hills.

In the rubble, the team has discovered a room containing beautifully preserved marble statues.

This room must have been in a private home of unparalleled wealth and ostentation.

Who owned this villa? And what was this room used for?

To protect these statues from the damaging effects of saltwater, they’ve been brought to surface.

Here, they can be examined in close detail.

Professor Kevin Dicus has spent the last decade excavating Roman remains around the Bay of Naples.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Here for example is a magnificent Dionysus playing with his panther down here. This statue in particular evokes classical Greek statuary. With the slender body and that pronounced S curve and weight shift.

This is precisely the sort of work that these elite Romans were going to copy and display in their own houses.

This fascination with Greek art began in the second century BC when Rome conquered Greece.

Impressed by Greek art, the Roman generals plundered statues and brought them home to Roman sculptors who made replicas for their clients, rich collectors.

Piecing together evidence from the submerged ruins, the room can be recreated as it would have been 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists now believe this was once a nymphaeum: a man-made grotto dedicated to water nymphs, where diners were treated to lavish banquets.

Guests reclined--not around a table--but a large pool of water on which plates of food floated.

This was clearly another display of extraordinary wealth.

But who did this villa belong to?

One statue in the nymphaeum provides a clue.

This is Antonia Minor, the mother of Claudius, and the niece of the first emperor Augustus.

A remarkable discovery: This is THE imperial villa! Owned and lived in by the Emperor Claudius himself.

How opulent were these seaside villas?

The nearby archaeological site of Pausilypon escaped the destruction that submerged Baiae and the ruins here offer a glimpse at the splendor of one of these luxury vacation homes.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Wow. This is magnificent. This is one of the great surviving examples of a Roman maritime villa. The rest have sunk underneath the sea here, but we do have this standing structure.

Maritime villas like this weren’t simply one large structure. It was an entire complex of buildings.

These spectacular Roman villas were massive, like mini-cities unto themselves.

Prof. Kevin Dicus You can see here a large theatre that could seat at least 1400 people….

…over here is the Odeon. Now this would have been covered, used for poetry readings, musical performance. Now wealthy houses today can have home theatres…but how many can say they’ve got home theatres.

This is the conspicuous ostentatious new wealth of this new elite.

The treasures found beneath the waves in Baiae tell us these villas were adorned with fine marble statues and elaborate water features.

But how did the super rich furnish these lavish spaces?

Just a few miles from Baiae, in Positano, the team has been granted exclusive access to a startling new discovery that sheds light on the luxurious Roman life.

Dr. Jerry Toner is an expert in Roman social history.

Dr Jerry Toner You get a real sense as you’re coming down here that you are heading back in time and you also absolutely get a sense of you are in the middle archaeology at work.

Digging down more than 60 feet, archaeologists have unearthed the dining room of a grand Roman coastal villa, each wall decorated with exquisite frescos.

Dr Jerry Toner What strikes you first is really just how overwhelming the use of colour is. I mean there is nothing less is more about this. This is absolutely in your face wealth, luxury.
Paint is a really expensive item in the Roman world and the cheaper colours are whites, reds and yellows and so you can see how they’re used almost as a kind of background effect and the really expensive colours are the blues and the greens.

The frescos echo the views that would have been enjoyed along the shore.

Dr Jerry Toner You’d get glimpses of the sea. You would have glimpses of the of the mountains. There would be curtains up, used to keep the sun out or to allow a nice breeze to come through.

But it’s not just the extravagant use of color that makes this fresco expensive and unusual. Fantasy figures made of stucco adorn the painting.

Dr Jerry Toner We’ve got these kind of stucco sea monsters up here and dolphins and cherubs and err what looks like a Pegasus up there in stucco so that they stand out from the walls. This is a place where you can escape Rome and all its filth and its mess and all the work and all the horrible politics. And you can come here, relax by the sea and really indulge your wildest dreams.

Among the ruins, archaeologist have found incredible artefacts that show no expense was spared in decorating.

Dr Jerry Toner So this is a massive oil lamp.

So you put your, you put your little wicks in here and you fill it up with oil and you can see its got this wonderful Medusa’s head and two horses heads. And just by way of comparison, this is a kind of standard sized lamp err but when you’ve got a big villa like this you need big lamps to to light it. It’s err you know; this little thing isn’t going to get you anywhere.

And you can see it’s got a real translucent quality to it, almost like mother of pearl. The kind of variations in in colour that you’re getting. Very high quality work.

This thing here is a lamp stand. And you get a sense just how heavy this bronze thing is.

And this would have hung on chains held on the end there. This is your ancient reading lamp.

Even the kitchenware is made from the finest solid bronze.

Dr Jerry Toner This is not a villa where you’re going to have cheap pots and pans. These are very very well made err with with wonderful decoration like the little ram’s head here. Err again it’s all part of this kind of ostentation. A lot of luxury. It’s not just pure functionality. There’s a lot of art built into the pots.

And this kind of luxury furniture would have been typical of the kind of villa you, you saw along the coast here all the way to Baiae.

These precious artifacts provide a glimpse of the housewares inside a Roman villa.

Back in Baiae, Barbara’s underwater survey team has found yet another example of the wealth in Baiae.

They noticed what appeared to be common water tanks.

But, these seemingly unimpressive structures were actually ponds for farming fish.

Prof. Barbara Davidde Is not difficult to find fish ponds connected with ancient villas in this place. The area covered by the fish ponds, it’s very large, it’s about 100 square meter, probably more.

The ponds were found on the villa grounds---not in commercial areas--suggesting that the wealthy of Baiae had their own fish farms.

The ponds were filled with seawater, but archaeologists have found channels through which fresh water would have been pumped.

They’ve discovered the ancient Romans’ ingenious solution to a persistent problem.

Roman fish farmers noticed that on hot days, the sea water would evaporate, increasing its saltiness and killing the fish.

The resourceful engineers solved this problem by directing fresh water into the ponds, reducing the salt levels and optimizing breeding conditions.

Expensive to build, and requiring a constant source of fresh water, these fish farms indicate the wealthy vacationers in Baiae could ensure they had a constant supply of their favourite fish.

But not all the seafood could be farmed in ponds.

Prof. Kevin Dicus We’re sailing out into the bay to watch the muscle farmers haul up their load for the day. Shellfish farming was an industry as far back as the Roman times, today they’ve replaced oysters with mussels but incredibly the technology really hasn’t changed that much.

The entrepreneur Sergius Orata is credited with being the first to lay out artificial oyster beds in the bay in the first century BC.

Today, this same technique is used for mussel farming.

Prof. Kevin dicus Now the Romans knew that a good oyster had to be as fresh as possible and you needed to bring the source as close to the consumer as you could.

Sergius Orata claimed that his groundbreaking farming method produced the best oysters around.

Prof. Kevin Dicus The process from the ancient text seems to be much the same, it is written that the oysters at Baia hung undulating in the water, now we can only take this to mean that they were hanging on ropes, much like we see underneath these buoys here in the bay.

So collection today is much more mechanical than it was 2,000 years ago but it really is incredible that this tradition has lasted for 2,000 years.

The ancient Roman cookbook Apicius suggests how the rich prepared their farmed seafood.

It features a recipe for a Baian casserole:

Oysters, mussels, sea urchins and vegetables.

Topped with garum, a concoction of fermented fish and salt, the Roman version of ketchup.

Delicacies like this casserole were affordable for only the wealthiest residents.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Thank you.

To prove their wealth, the rich would sometimes eat 100 oysters in a one sitting.

Prof. Kevin Dicus There’s such a great balance, the sea food is so fresh, it’s possibly even the muscles that we saw drawn out of the sea this morning.

You can imagine these wealthy Romans enjoying this, this is a great reason to be at Baia, this food is wonderful. Oh.

But there was a dark side to this excess. And one emperor more than any other was famous for his hedonism:

Nero.

He was a cruel, eccentric psychopath who persecuted Christians and, it’s said, burned Rome to the ground.

Baiae was his escape…where he could indulge in his sadistic fantasies.

Nero spent a fortune on indulgent banquets here.

Prof. Kevin Dicus This is exactly the sort of food that Nero sought when he came to Baia, in fact we have passages from this historian, Tacitus, talking about this very thing

But these banquets weren’t just about food. They featured sex and debauchery.

Prof. Kevin Dicus He wouldn’t have sat in these hills as we are today, so much as sail around the coast in these well outfitted barges, rowed, not by sailors but by young male prostitutes. Along the coast he set up taverns and inns run by very respectable matrons who played the part of innkeepers and even prostitutes and he invited the entire town to participate as if inviting them to his own house to enjoy in this party and the spectacle

Nero felt such a connection to Baiae that he began to covet the villas of others, including those of his family.

Prof. Kevin Dicus He couldn’t wait to get his hands on his Aunt Domitia’s villa for example, with its magnificent fish ponds.

The Roman historian Suetonius recorded the extraordinary measures Nero was willing to take to gain possession of his aunt Domitia’s villa.

When she fell ill, an opportunity presented itself.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Sick and bed ridden, she summons Nero to her bed chamber, stroked his beard and said, “When you shave this off… at you’re coming of age. Send it to me and I will die a happy woman.” He looked at her and said, “Well, I’m gonna shave it off right now.”

The following morning, she was dead, and Nero occupied her villa.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Did he really murder his aunt for the villa? It’s, it’s difficult to say but it is easy to see that he gained substantially from this tragic event.

Nero was now the owner of two villas: his aunt’s as well as the imperial villa inherited from Claudius.

Baiae became Nero’s favorite playground, where he could rule the empire while indulging in a lifestyle of extreme decadence.

There were no limits to its decadence until a catastrophic event hit the town in the fourth century AD.

Over half of Baiae gradually sank beneath the waves. It was destroyed by its very location in one of the most seismically active landscapes on earth.

Baiae is surrounded by 24 volcanos, including Vesuvius and Solfatara.

The pressure from the lava and the gases underground caused the earth to move…with devastating consequences.

Formed around 40,000 years ago…Solfatara is still active today.

Prof Dougal Jerram
You can see all around the ground is literally, it’s almost like it’s on fire, it’s breathing. Just coming up here, just look at one of these fumaroles. Wow! Come a bit closer, this is brilliant. It’s like a window. Look at that. Look just down there. You can see that this is almost like a window down into the earth. You see all of this rock has been covered in a yellow precipitation. This is sulphur, this is sulphur gasses coming off from deep within the earth.

Prof Dougal Jerram
Below us in this volcanic system, maybe about three or four kilometres there’s a magma chamber. And that magma chamber is heating the ground, but also gasses are coming off that magma giving us this mineralisation and that tells us that the system is still pretty much active.

You can hear it, it’s like the volcano breathing. That is absolutely awesome isn’t it? Wow! Incredible!

In the fourth century, underground chambers of hot molten rock and gases emptied, causing the ground above to sink some 60 feet.

It’s a process known as Bradyseism – a gradual rise or fall in the earth's crust.

Half of the seaside town sank beneath the waves.

In the millennia since, the underground chambers have slowly refilled with lava and gasses, causing the land to rise and bringing Baiae’s ruins closer to surface of the water.

In the local fishing port, there is clear evidence of this phenomenon.

Prof Dougal Jerram
Now the first thing is…this first part of the ladder’s clearly very old. It’s probably been here for several…maybe hundreds of years even. But as you go down, what you can see is they’ve actually had to put a new ladder in place of the old one. And that’s because if you look at this natural line in the rocks. This is where the old shoreline used to be and in fact, they’ve actually put bricks in place to try and stabilise that shoreline from erosion of the waves.

The bricks mark the level of the shoreline 30 years ago and one can see the land has risen by 6 feet since then.

Prof Dougal Jerram There we go. My foot is now on the present day shoreline.

This evidence that the sinking that took place in the 4th century…is now reversing, driven by volcanic forces.

These same forces made Baiae so attractive in the first place.

Prof Dougal Jerram
Whenever you’ve got areas like this that are sort of rich in hydrothermal activity you get natural hot springs, you get the ground water heated up to the point where it can actually flow as rivers of hot water and if you can tap into that you can make hot baths.

Heat from these volcanic springs was harnessed by Roman engineers to create thermal baths in spa complexes.

Dr. Candace Rice is an expert on Roman engineering.

Dr Candace Rice What we have here is a channel that’s been quarried down through to access the steam vents from the natural landscape and the steam would’ve come into the room into what is known as a hypocaust, err these are a standard feature of Roman baths. The floor is raised err so that the steam can circulate and provide heating throughout the entire room.

Outside of Baiae rooms like this are heated through the use of artificial furnaces, but the beauty of Baiae is that they’re tapping into a natural resource.

The area’s volcanoes created many hot springs where Romans would build heated baths.

Many are now just ruins.

Only one, the Stufe di Nerone, or Nero’s Boiler, is still functioning 2,000 years later.

Dr Candace Rice They’ve maintained the plan of a standard Roman bath, so you progress from a cold room into the room I’m standing in now which is the tepidarium, so moderate temperature and we can go through here into the caldarium or the hot room.

In many Roman baths the caldarium was the final stage of the bathing process but a few had an additional room, a wet or a dry sauna and here we have an example of a still functioning Roman Sauna.

Dr Candace Rice You can really feel the heat coming off this. Oh gracious. Wow, it is truly hot in here, very effective sauna, you start sweating immediately. So over here you can actually see the original Roman passageway which allows the steam from the hot springs under my feet to heat the room.

This water comes in at 85 degrees Celsius. And it’s the heat is all natural so there’s a limited amount that you can control.

It’s actually unbearably hot in here, of course you wouldn’t come in fully clothed [LAUGHS] but I think it’s time for me to leave.

Baiae is home to the ruins of what, for centuries, was known as the Temple of Mercury.

A splendid dome stands above what was once the Frigidarium, the room where bathers cooled off after a hot sauna.

Dr Candace Rice Wow. In antiquity this room would’ve looked very different, the walls would’ve been faced perhaps with marble, it would’ve been very bright, and teeming of course with naked men and women. The Romans ideas of nudity were not the same as ours tend to be today and it would’ve been a very busy and loud atmosphere.

The echoing even. You can imagine if there were many people in here all talking at the same time, it must’ve been quite noisy.

The bath’s revolutionary architecture demonstrates Baiae’s importance in the empire.

The temple was covered by what was the largest concrete dome prior to the construction of Rome’s famous Pantheon.

Dr Candace Rice Here in the playground of Rome’s elites they wanted to experiment and see what they could do with spaces and with concrete and this is a beautiful example of that and if we think of modern resorts, say Las Vegas or Dubai and think about the kinds of buildings that appear there err people are trying to outdo each other, people are trying to produce crazy buildings and this is a design which then sticks and makes it into standard Roman architecture

Like the Pantheon, there is an opening at the top of the dome known as the oculus.

Dr Candace Rice Its main purpose is of course to let in light and here in this space, the light would reflect off the water and create a very visually stimulating environment. It would’ve been quite spectacular.

It mimics a bit a grotto or a natural cave but it’s of course completely artificial which is a very Roman thing.

Despite the endless supply of hot, sulphurous water, in Baiae, potable water was scarce.

Clean water was essential for drinking, cooking and bathing but it was also needed for the grand fountains and water features that symbolized Baiae’s wealth.

Dr Candace Rice Isn’t this fantastic? Wow.

To guarantee a constant supply of fresh water, the Romans built an incredible structure: the Piscina Mirabilis.

In the first century AD, it was the largest cistern in the entire empire…

Dr Candace Rice The cistern would have held approximately 12,600 cubic metres of water. Which is really quite a lot.

The fresh water was channeled in from the Apennine mountains 90 miles away and stored here before being piped to Baiae.

Dr Candace Ricwe The Piscina Mirabilis is fed by the aqua Augusta, which is one of the longest running aqueducts that we know from the Roman period. And it then fills the cistern, this massive space and we’ve got four pillars across, twelve pillars down. This floor and the walls are lined with a waterproof lining that’s made out of crushed ceramics, so that the water doesn’t soak through the building materials.

It’s particularly nice and visible here in the wet. Ah, yeah so you can see the brick and tile that would have been crushed up to form the waterproof lining.

The fact that we have such a massive cistern here is very indicative of the importance of Baiae and the bay of Baiae. The water kept in this cistern would have supplied the villas of Rome’s rich and famous and of course all of the emperors.

The Piscina Mirabilis and the Aqua Augusta were vitally important structures for the area.

Nero’s appointee to manage these waterworks offers an insight into how he operated politically.

Prof. Kevin Dicus The inscription is dedicated to Lucius Cassius Cerealis.
He was eventually the cvrator, Aquai Agustai. The curator, the caretaker of the Augustan aqueduct. Now this office was incredibly important. It held great power. Why? Essentially, you control the supply of water for all of the cities around the bay of Naples, including Baiae.

The Emperor would normally appoint a high-ranking senator as curator.

But the inscription reveals Nero gave the job to someone of a much lower status.

Prof. Kevin Dicus He is the son of Lucius from the Palatine tribe. Immediately we know that Cerealis is not Roman. He’s not from this old noble Roman stock. This is a foreign name. He is the son actually of a freed slave.

Why would Nero give such an important and powerful job to someone outside Rome’s inner circle?

Prof. Kevin Dicus Nero was increasingly becoming opposed by his senate – both his policies and his person. Why not surround yourself with people you can trust? Whether they be free born or freed slaves, it doesn’t matter. And if you trust them, you reward them with high offices, great power. And this is what he seems to have done with Cerealis.

Here in Baia, Nero was promoting people he could control to positions of power.

But was Nero really able to govern the entire Roman empire from 150 miles outside the capitol?

Underwater, archaeologists discover runis that show Baiae wasn’t as isolated as it first appeared.

The remains of a cobbled Roman road, the Via Herculanea, have been identified.

Reconstructing the route, the road leads out of Baia over a dam across the bay to the town of Puteoli.

Today, Puteoli is a tranquil fishing village but 2,000 years ago it was the main commercial port of Rome.

Rome’s harbor couldn’t dock large transport ships so Puteoli’s natural harbor was essential for importing goods into the capitol city.

Dr Jerry Toner Rome is heavily dependent on grain, it imports about 250,000 tonnes a year of grain to feed its huge population. About a third of it comes in from Egypt, across the Mediterranean err and about the other two thirds come in from North Africa, all of it flowing into this great port. But it’s not just grain and boring stuff that comes in, all kinds of exotic spices come in, in particular pepper which they come from, they import from India and it comes up the Red Sea into Egypt and then again onto Italy.

But also in from China, in the silk route, so it comes in all the way into Syria and then again across the Mediterranean into here. So this is a port where all kinds of luxury items come in, as well as the fundamentals of wheat and grain that keep people alive.

This was a hub of international trade with enormous amounts of wealth and people passing through.

And, the Flavian Amphitheatre shows how strategically important the area was.

Seating more than thirty thousand people, it was the third largest theater in the entire Roman Empire.

Dr Jerry Toner What you really get a sense of here is just the sheer size of this amphitheatre.

If you went to a games, in perhaps a backwater province like Britain then you would expect to see some fairly low, low budget animals, you might get a couple of bears or some wolves or perhaps a few, a bit of deer hunting.

An amphitheatre of this size would stage the very best the Roman entertainment industry had to offer.

Spectacular gladiator shows were free to the public, staged by wealthy senators hoping to buy public opinion and votes.

Dr Jerry Toner You got spectacular lions, perhaps even giraffes or antelopes, even hippopotamuses.

The floor itself would’ve had sand all over it so there was better grip for the hunters and the gladiators when they’re fighting but also of course to soak up the blood and there were gallons and gallons of blood.

Down below, the scale of the operation is impressive.

Dr Jerry Toner Up above, the crowd only saw the end product of all this lavish entertainment, but down here you get a real idea of the huge logistical effort that went into providing all of this fun, these caves would’ve been full of cages, with animals, wild animals that would be lifted up into the arena and the cages would go up by an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys and levers that took them up into the arena.

Dr Jerry Toner And as you walked through here in the gloom you would’ve seen nervous gladiators, praying to the gods before they went up for their, what could’ve been their final fight.

And every so often the air would be filled with the cheering of the crowd above as they applauded another victim of their love of gruesome entertainment.

The success of the Roman empire depended on Puteoli.

Nero’s ambition was to connect the port of Puteoli and Baiae to Rome with a 155-mile canal.

Known as the Fossa Neronis, it was one of the grandest engineering projects of the ancient world.

It would have provided a much needed transport link and given Nero a direct route between Rome and his Baian villas.

Dr Jerry Toner It requires so much labour that Nero says that all criminals in the whole of Italy have to be sent here to work on the plan to dig the ditch.

The ancient authors all condemn Nero’s plan as being absolutely ridiculous, they say it’s against nature, it is impossible to build such a long canal.

And in the end it’s perhaps just another sign of his increasing megalomania

Although Nero’s canal was started, it was never finished.

Nero’s megalomania caused alarm in Rome’s ruling class.

To escape their watchful eyes, Nero was spending more time here in Baiae.

He often chose to stay with a friend who reputedly owned the finest villa in the area.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Gaius Calpurnius Piso was a wealthy nobleman and, like Nero, a passionate supporter of the arts. With this in common the two men were on friendly terms and Nero was often a guest at Piso’s Baian villa.

It was perhaps more for the venue than for the company. This was a magnificent villa. Nero bathed here, he ate, he drank. This was another home away from home. He felt so at ease here and so comfortable that he often walked around without his guard, leaving himself open to attack.

But Nero didn’t know about his friend’s treacherous plot.

Piso wanted to kill the emperor right here in his own villa…and claim the throne.

While Roman texts describe the murder plot, they do not reveal the location of Piso’s villa.

The underwater archaeologists were determined to find it.

Prof. Kevin Dicus With so many villas submerged and so many others lost to history, this seemed like a fruitless task.

But they uncovered a decisive clue.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Found in the courtyard of a massive villa was this lead water pipe. Now it’s just not any water pipe, it has an inscription on it, L Pisonis of Piso. This is the mark of the Piso family. With this we can actually identify the very villa of Piso.

This was where Nero was a guest and this was where the conspirators planned to kill him.

Barbara is now mapping the villa to get a sense of its scale and grandeur.

Prof. Barbara Davidde The garden of the Villa de Pisoni is very big garden and this is only the garden of the villas.

We are swimming in the structure near the wall.

Here we have found the villa Pisoni, the wall of the villa Pisoni, the thermal complex and a private jetty of the villa and this is important for us because thanks to this information, these remains, we now know that the villa was in front of the sea, just on the coast.

The mapping of the ruins reveals a spectacular villa with opulent buildings decorated by the finest mosaics and frescos.

Set on vast grounds, it had two bath complexes…

…fish ponds…

…and a private jetty to the sea.

Within the walls of his splendid villa, Piso plotted the assassination and coup.

But at the last minute, he had a change of heart.

Prof. Kevin Dicus After some reflection Calpurnius Piso rejected this plan, shedding Nero’s blood in such a manner in his home would defile this magnificent space, the assassination would have to take place somewhere else.

The delay cost Piso dearly. When Nero learned about the conspiracy, he ordered Piso to commit suicide.

This wasn’t the first time Nero got blood on his hands. Six years earlier, he took care of another rival: his own mother.

Agrippina was a ruthless and ambitious woman who schemed and murdered to get her son on the throne.

When it finally paid off, she had no intention of fading into the background.

Prof. Kevin Dicus This coin was struck in the first months of Nero’s reign. It’s remarkable in that it expresses brilliantly the relationship that Nero had with his mother. Now Nero at the beginning referred to her as ‘optimum mater’, the best of mothers. They here are represented as equals. They’re of the same size. They’re looking at each other eye to eye. There’s a communication between them.

Of course in Agrippina’s mind, she didn’t see this relationship as equal. She thought she was the one in change and if it had been up to her, it would have been Nero in the background while she was alone sitting on the throne.

Five years into his reign, Nero had had enough of his mother’s interference.

And they become locked in a brutal power struggle.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Relations between Nero and his mother had become so bad that Nero had to do something drastic, she had to be out of the picture permanently but how do you get rid of your own mother? Do you poison her? Well this was obviously the family way, but it had to look like an accident.

So Nero devised an ingenious murder plot, here in Baiae.

He invited her as a guest of honor to a sumptuous banquet at his villa.

Prof. Kevin Dicus At the end of the banquet Nero embraced her and escorted her down to the port of Baiae, she boarded this boat that Nero had rigged to fall apart as it sailed away.

Once at sea Agrippina’s boat began to break apart and she struggled to stay above the water.

But her luck hadn’t run out…yet.

Prof. Kevin Dicus Agrippina was picked up by a passing boat, dropped off on shore and she made it to her villa.

Meanwhile, Nero waited for news of his mother’s death.

Prof. Kevin Dicus When he found out that she had lived he was in a panic, what would happen if the Roman empire found out that he had tried to assassinate his own mother?

Nero acted quickly. He sent soldiers to her villa to finish her off.

Prof. Kevin Dicus They break into her bed chamber, strike her on the head and she falls to the ground. As they approach her she opened up her shirt and said if you’re gonna strike here, strike me here, pointing to the womb from which Nero came.

A soldier stabbed her in the womb. The deed was done.

Prof. Kevin Dicus When Nero found out that the assassination was successful he rushed to the body of his mother, stripped it naked and sort of pawed at the limbs, analysing something, complimenting, criticising this dead body in front of him, eventually coming to the conclusion, so the historians say, I never knew I had such a beautiful mother.

Ultimately, Nero’s murderous and debauched lifestyle in Baiae caught up with him.

In 68 AD, after a turbulent 13-year reign, the Roman senate ran out of patience and declared him a public enemy.

Nero fled and on June 9th, 68 AD, at the age of 30, he committed suicide.

Piecing together the clues, it’s clear to see how grand Baiae really was. For the first time, we can imagine the sunken villas…and rebuild the resort as it would have been 2,000 years ago.

It was a place dedicated to hedonistic pleasures….…with thermal bath complexes…
…ponds for breeding fish…

….and sprawling villas set in beautiful gardens…

Inside, the villas were decorated with magnificent water features, Greek statues…
and brilliantly coloured frescos.

This is Nero’s Sunken City

Prof. Kevin Dicus To Nero, Baiae represented everything he wished Rome was. This was much more than a second home. Now he could bring the pleasures that he experienced here and try and replicate them in Rome, but really there was no comparison. At Baiae, Nero could engage in his hedonistic lifestyle. He could take to the baths, enjoy the hot springs, eat fresh oysters, have boat parties, get drunk, have sex, all of this away from the drudgery of daily politics of Rome


URL: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/neros-sunken-city-full-episode/3471/
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