Getting Away the Roman Way: Drama, Death, and Debauchery in Baiae 

To witness persons wandering drunk along the beach, the riotous revelling of sailing parties, the lakes a-din with choral song, and all the other ways in which luxury, when it is, so to speak, released from the restraints of law not merely sins, but blazons its sins abroad, – why must I witness all this? – Seneca the Younger (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Letter 51)

Go to hell, waters of Baiae, you crime against love! – Sextus Propertius (Cynthia Monobiblos, 1.11)

[A statue from the submerged nymphaeum of Baiae, built by Claudius during his reign (photo credit: Alisha Postma)]

Practically from its founding until the imperial relocation to Constantinople, unless they were Virgil, there seemed to be little the Romans loved more than their eponymous city. But just because Rome had become the center of life in the Mediterranean, that didn’t mean its citizens didn’t need a break from its hustle and bustle occasionally. Just like modern folks, Romans enjoyed a good vacation and particularly for those could afford it, that usually meant traveling south into the Campania region (situated on the western side of the “ankle” part of Italy’s boot) and its delightful seaside towns. These days, Pompeii and Herculaneum get all of the attention, but from the end of the Roman Republic through the 6th century AD, the city of Baiae was where the elites of Rome gathered to put the pressures of the north behind them for a while.

Located northwest of those towns on the westernmost peninsula on the Gulf of Naples, Baiae would spend nearly six hundred years cultivating its place as the place to see and be seen away from Rome. Herculaneum, Neopolis, Pompeii—even the island of Capri—were considered the places your grandmother (or Tiberius) stayed at. Baiae was for the rich, gorgeous, and unscrupulous. Just like any popular coastal town nowadays, the elites built fabulous summer villas and far from the strictures of Rome, both they and the lower classes let their hair down frolicking in this part of Italy’s world-famous felicitous climate. The result was that the premiere resort on the Latin coast would become as infamous for its scandalous goings-on as for the beauty of its geography. So let’s take a look at the Ibiza of the early Empire before any more of it is reclaimed by the relentless erosion of the Mediterranean!

The area around Baiae, like most Latin locales, had a lively mythological past. The town itself was supposedly named for Odysseus’ helmsman, Baîos (Greek: Βαῖος), who was believed to have been buried nearby, but the area’s roots were usually portrayed as much older. Records from the 2nd century BC also refer to the town as Aquae Cumanae (“Cumaean Waters”) because Baiae was at the southern tip of Cumae, the ancient Euboean Greek settlement famous as the seat of the legendary Cumaean Sibyl, perhaps the most well known of Apollo’s oracles besides the Pythia of Delphi. Virgil claims that the Cumaean Sibyl was born as Deiphobe, a daughter of Glaucus, a sea god with the gift of prophecy himself (though not apparently enough foresight to guess pissing off Circe was a bad idea). Existing between mortal and divine, as well as the present and the future, was what enabled the Sibyl to guide Aeneas through the underworld in the Aeneid. Back in her seat on the Neapolitan plains, she “sang the fates” to man by writing her visions on oak leaves that she placed at the mouth of her cave, but notoriously would refuse to reorder them when they were inevitably scattered by the wind. This loose concern with the reception of her prophecies mirrors the story of the books of prophecy she sold to King Tarquinius.

But the most complete mythological origin story we have for the Sibyl is from—where else?—The Metamorphoses. So let me pull Ovid out of whatever Baiaen beach party he’s eyeball deep in to tell us about it.

[Come on, puella! Don’t be a party pooper!]

Ovid, in contrast to Virgil, says that the Sibyl is mortal rather than a demigoddess, though he places her story hot on the heels of Glaucus’ and during his treatment of Aeneas, so Virgil’s influence is clearly present. He has her explain to Aeneas in Book XIV that she is simply very, very old, as opposed to immortal. She received this gift in the usual mythological way: her master, Apollo, was trying to get in her pants and was willing to horse trade. The Sibyl scooped up a handful of sand and asked the god to grant her as many years as were grains of sand in her palm. But like Cassandra, the Sibyl reneges on the deal as soon as the gift is in hand (man, does himbo Apollo keep falling for that gambit…), so Apollo refused to amend his gift with the eternal youth it would require to be optimally useful to his priestess.

Ovid compares the Sibyl’s story with that of Tithonus (Τιθωνός), the prince of Troy beloved of Eos, the goddess of dawn, who gets Zeus to give Tithonus immortal life, but also neglects to ask for immortal youth. Tithonus eventually becomes so dry and brittle, he turns into a cicada, who are known to be especially noisy at sunrise, supposedly the prince greeting his lover. Like Tithonus, eventually the Sibyl dries out and shrinks until she can be placed in an ampulla, and after a thousand years, only her oracular voice remained. And just as Tithonus largely curses his long life, the Sibyl does too—both in The Metamorphoses and in later works like the 1st century AD poet Petronius’ Satyricon, where his hero, Trimalchio reports “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumīs ego ipse oculīs meīs vīdī in ampullā pendere, et cum illī puerī dīcerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondēbat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.” (“For I indeed once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die’.”).

[Michelangelo’s Cumaen Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel]

Besides the echoing presence of the Cumaen Sibyl, Baiae also abutted the Phlegraean Fields (from the Greek phlego (φλέγω), “to burn”), a large volcanic region of over twenty-four craters and edifices circling a main caldera, separate from Vesuvius to the south. While the famous volcano was associated with Hercules and his twelve labors, where the hero encountered a large group of giant bandits living in it, the Phlegraean Fields were believed to be the home of the Roman fire god Vulcan (the Latin equivalent of Hephaestus). Also unlike the currently dormant Vesuvius, the Phlegraean Fields are still an active volcanic region, particularly at the caldera center near the modern town of Pozzuoli (Roman Puteoli), where volcanic inflation and seismic activity have been steadily increasing over the last decade. Additionally, the collapsed caldera has been a source of significant bradyseismic activity in the entire Cumaen region, including historical Baiae.

Bradyseism is when underground magma deposits or geothermal air levels beneath a caldera, especially a collapsed one, experience periodic cycles of inflation and subsidence. Because of where Puteoli and Baiae are located on the coast of the bay known in ancient times as the Gulf of Baiae (today as the Gulf of Pozzuoli), the bradyseism would raise the ground level of the towns at certain times, and plunge them underwater at others. We have an unexpectedly excellent marker of these changes over time in Pozzuoli, where surviving columns from the so-called Macellum of Puteoli, a Roman market district, display bands of boreholes made by local mollusks at a certain position roughly 7m (~30 ft) up the columns, but nowhere else, showing when the columns were submerged underwater and when they were subsequently raised above sea level again by the activity of the caldera. Incidentally, bradyseism is why the lower portion of ancient Baiae is currently underwater.

[Columns from the Macellum of Puteoli]

But before Baiae took the plunge into its own bay (a process that was well underway by the 3rd century), it was, as I said, the premier vacation spot on the Italian peninsula. Baiae’s (non-calderic) rise began at the end of the republican period, with major players on the political scene of the Social Wars such as Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius and Sulla partisan Lucius Licinius Lucullus building estates in town. Later on, both Julius and Pompey would also build villas in the hills above the coast, and by the end of the civil wars, Octavius would convert much of Baiae and its environs into imperial property, presumably for the economic benefits. Because he might have bought up a lot of the land, but by then, Baiae had already achieved much of its salacious reputation so Octavius was not really a fan of actually being there. Which is just as well for everyone else, seeing how having the adamant author of the Lex Iulia morality laws around would have probably been a real buzzkill.

[Have fun in Herculaneum, Grandpa!]

So what were Romans getting up to in Baiae? Pretty much all the things people do on Spring Break: boating, late-night beach parties, alcohol-fueled garden keggers. The volcanic activity in the area also meant Roman elites could avail themselves of the numerous fashionable baths built over the natural hot springs and all the naked fun that implies. Basically it’s ancient Cancun, and as you might expect, it comes up a lot in the poetry of Rome’s naughtiest scribblers. Clodia Metelli, thought to be Catullus’ muse, Lesbia, was denounced for “living as a harlot” in Baiae on the floor of the Senate during the trial of her ex-lover Marcus Caelius Rufus, while an anonymous wit of the same era remarked that the town was “where girls went to play at being girls, old women as girls, and some men as girls.” In the elegy quoted in my flavor text, Ovid’s friend Sextus Propertius is in one of his jealous moods with his own muse, Cynthia, who’s gone off to Baiae without him and whom he automatically assumes is cheating on him. “It’s not that I’ve spied on you, or rumors have reached me,” he whines to her, “but in the Bay of Naples no love is safe.” (1.11) Even adventurous Ovid is wary of how quickly the romantic tables of Baiae can be turned, mentioning in his Ars Amatoria meeting a tourist whose only souvenir from his visit was “a nasty hole in his heart” (I, line 257). A tourist who definitely, one hundred percent could not possibly have been the poet himself with sour grapes. For sure.

[You know that we had sarcasm in ancient Rome, too, don’t you puella?]

If scrapegraces like Ovid and Propertius thought Baiae a den of iniquity, you can only imagine the contempt a true moralist like Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC-65 AD) would have held the shenanigans happening around town. As a Stoic, Seneca mostly derides Baiae’s luxury because luxury is a vice and vice by nature cannot bring man anything but a false happiness, and because vice corrupts virtue by making a man too soft for it. In his fifty-first epistle to his friend, Lucilius the Younger, that I also quoted in my flavor text, Seneca literally blames Hannibal’s stopping in the vicinity during the Second Punic War to rest in Baiae’s luxurious embrace for his ultimate defeat. Even though the town was barely a thing at that point. But histrionics aside, Seneca had cause to distrust Baiae’s façade of sophistication because he damn well understood that lust and gluttony weren’t the only sins parading through its haute couture streets. Seneca’s former pupil, the emperor Nero, was a frequent visitor to Baiae, and he would ultimately have his mother, Agrippina the Younger, murdered at his opulent villa in town when she proved too interfering in the government; a fate the philosopher would share less than five years later in his own more modest house.

Indeed, death and derangement were never far behind decadence in Baiae; perhaps they were even fueled by the sort of no-consequences atmosphere derided by Seneca. Agrippina was arguably not even the first Julio-Claudian of the imperial family to die under a cloud in Baiae. That honor belonged to her great-uncle (or second cousin, if you go from the other side), Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Octavius’ nephew and one-time son-in-law/heir, who died abruptly and semi-mysteriously in his uncle’s villa in Baiae in 23 BC. The first of Octavius’ many succession crises. Cassius Dio reports that Marcellus had caught the same fever that had nearly killed his uncle earlier in the spring, except the younger man died of it (Roman History, LIII, 30), but as his death came suspiciously hot on the heels of his alleged involvement in the provincial misconduct of proconsul Marcus Primus, there has always been a modicum of doubt surrounding Marcellus’ unexpected exit stage left; especially since it happened away from Rome and in such a generally notorious place like Baiae. The death of his beloved nephew and plans for the future certainly did not help the town make any inroads with the princeps who already didn’t like it.

[My DoE readers are familiar with all of this…]

But even if Marcellus did in fact die of perfectly natural (albeit unfortunate) causes, Nero and his mom were still not the first Caesars to turn to Baiae to work out some of their psycho-familial issues. Because of course Baiae has a good Caligula story, and it even involves someone else who should be familiar to my readers, at least those of you who’ve made it to Children of Actium—Tiberius’ astrologer par excellence, Thrasyllus. According to Suetonius, Thrasyllus once made the prediction that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae” (Life of Gaius, IV, 19), so naturally once he was in fact emperor, Caligula decided to go to whatever lengths necessary to prove the (now dead) astrologer wrong. An over three-mile long weighted pontoon bridge was subsequently erected over the gulf stretching from Baiae to Puteoli and upon its completion, the young emperor spent two days riding back and forth over it in parades wearing both traditional military dress and as a charioteer leading the Praetorian Guard to really drive the point home. Cassius Dio even reports that the bridge was large enough to have rest stops along its length with lodging and potable water (Roman History, LIX).

Now, some contemporary historians have made the argument that building a bridge across any part of the large Bay of Naples was actually a smart military strategy and a sound commercial decision, and the mockery of the endeavor comes from Suetonius’ deep and well known dislike for Caligula. But I think arguing whether the bridge was a good or bad idea is entirely beside the point. Because if (and yes, I know it’s a big “if”) Suetonius is recalling this story correctly (which he heard from his grandfather, who had been friendly with men in the emperor’s confidences), I think Caligula misunderstood Thrasyllus’ intentions when he made his deliciously catty prediction. Because, rather than being in opposition to Caligula’s inheritance of the throne from the aging and increasingly unstable Tiberius, Thrasyllus was a known supporter of Caligula’s claim. His granddaughter, Ennia Thrasylla, was one of Caligula’s earliest mistresses and that wouldn’t change until long after her grandfather was dead.

[The Phlegraean Fields as seen from Naples]

But one must remember that by the late years of Tiberius’ reign—when the succession was in doubt—Thrasyllus was in serious damage control mode. Faced with a boss who had begun to see treachery everywhere and mass executions among Tiberius’ supposed assassins were becoming de rigor, Thrasyllus increasingly turned the emperor’s faith in his abilities away from the truth and toward whatever might stem the bloodshed. In 36 AD, he famously told Tiberius, who would be dead in less than a year, that he would live for another decade simply to talk the emperor out of moving against a group of innocent patricians Tiberius was convinced meant to depose him. What I’m saying is, that if Thrasyllus ever said that Caligula would never be emperor, it was as likely meant to be a ploy to keep him off his paranoid great-uncle’s radar long enough for him not to get murdered as it was a bad prediction. But hey, raucous Baiae got a crazy bridge that 18th century tourists were still being shown chunks of long after Rome’s party capital had partially sunk beneath the waves. And in the end, Caligula’s folly might have turned out be the perfect monument to a town built more on audacity and excess than the cool Stoicism espoused by his erstwhile fortune-telling skeptic.

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