Today Nemi is synonymous with strawberries, but in Roman times this tiny village in the Alban Hills was the center of one of antiquity’s cruelest religious rites: a regular human sacrifice performed in honor of the local divinity, Diana Nemorensis, also known as Diana of the Woods.
As the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Artemis, Diana had a sanctuary on the northern shore of the lake managed by a high-priest known as Rex Nemorensis, the “King of the Sacred Grove.”
The priest-king could be displaced only by a slave who had managed to cull a branch from a sacred oak tree in the grove, which earned him the right to fight the reigning leader to the death, and step straight into his place.
This violent rite of succession dominated Nemi’s grove at Caligula’s time.
According to historic accounts, the megalomaniac emperor dedicated himself to religious rites — and orgies — while on the ships.
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As they emerged from the muddy depths in the late 1920s, the ships looked like two great barges, but some details, such as exquisite wolf heads adorning the end of the beams and decks covered with marble and mosaics, clearly indicated the galley was a triumph of luxury and grandeur.
Indeed, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote the vessels had "sterns studded with gems and ample space for baths, porticoes, and dining rooms, and a great variety of vines and fruit-bearing trees.”
Reclining on these ships all day long, Caligula “would sail amid choral dancing and singing.”
Floating upon the small volcanic lake, the gigantic ships were clearly stationary. Nevertheless, lead pipes, piston pumps, and other sophisticated mechanisms in the wrecks recovered during Mussolini's time showed advanced nautical engineering.
Finding the third ship, which according to the local mayor Alberto Bertucci would be the “world’s first luxury cruise ship” will add useful information about the naval construction techniques of the Romans.
Hope for the existence of the fabled vessel lies in a 16th century account by military engineer Francesco de Marchi who descended to the lake bottom using a kind of diving bell.
Bertucci told reporters de Marchi brought up relics “on the far side of the lake from where the two other boats were found, and talked of a boat measuring up to 400 feet long.”
De Marchi’s account appeared to be confirmed by local fishermen who caught Roman artifacts in their nets as they fished in that area of the lake.
“According to rumors, the third boat would lean by the west coast of the lake below the town of Genzano,” Dattola said.
Intriguingly, that area of the lake wasn’t drained by Mussolini.
Dattola found evidence of several landslides there, which occurred in antiquity and after the lake draining.
“We focused our survey particularly on that area,” Dattola said. “If the ship is there, we should be able to see it.”
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