Science: Caligula's Barges

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For centuries fishermen on little (one square mile) Lake Nemi, 20 miles from Rome in the Alban Hills, reported mysterious fouling of their nets and shadowy hulks beneath the blue-grey water on clear days, told tall tales of two legendary floating palaces once belonging to monstrous Emperor Caligula, now rotting in the mud. In 1446 curious Cardinal Prospero Colonna made the first attempt to raise the pleasure barges, succeeded only in irreparably damaging their superstructures with the iron grappling hooks.

Ninety years later a military engineer in a primitive diving apparatus descended to the lake floor, described what he had seen in glowing terms: "There were pegs veined so darkly they seemed of ebony ... a pavement of bricks three palms each way, red as carmine, and also enameling. . . ." Still other grapplings yielded slabs of terra cotta, mosaics and porphyry, but the vessels themselves remained stuck in the ooze. In 1928 Mussolini, interested as always in reviving the spirit of the ancient Roman conquerors, brushed aside all the piecemeal methods of salvaging theretofore used and imperiously ordered the lake drained.

Through a Roman-style aqueduct tunneled under the surrounding mountains, electric pumps began sluicing 4,500,000 cu. ft. of water per day. Nearly three years later, the level of the lake lowered some 60 feet, two crumbling skeleton frameworks lay exposed. Made of oak, pine and fir, covered with woolen cloth and sheathed outside with lead studded with bronze, the saucer-bottomed ships were 220 and 235 feet long. To facilitate navigation on the tiny lake, a pair of rudders could be fixed to either end of each barge. Lead piping indicated that fountains and gardens had once decorated the broad decks, but all this grandeur had fallen through into the mud which filled the holds.

Purpose of these oversized pleasure craft on the tiny lake remained largely a matter of speculation. Best bet was that tyrannical Caligula used them to escape political or physical heat in Rome, taking with him his debauched court for protracted binges. Legend had it that from just such a party the catastrophe-loving emperor slipped ashore, amused himself by having the ships sunk with all on board. More probable, in view of the paucity of precious metals found on them, was the contention that succeeding rulers, sick of anything remotely pertaining to the hated Caligula, stripped the ships and allowed them to rot.

Last week on April 21, 2,695th anniversary of the birth of Rome, the ships, beached and mounted on concrete, housed in a specially constructed museum on the shores of the lake in which they had lain for 1,900 years, were placed on exhibition by Benito Mussolini.