Beneath the Tyrrhenian sea off the coast of Naples are the remains of an ancient Roman city three times the size of Pompeii – that’s three times the size – where Rome’s ultra-wealthy elite would hang out at the weekend to party and carry out illicit affairs. Yet, despite its historical status, few of us have heard of the underwater city of Baiae – pronounced ‘bye-eye’ – and it remains one of the least explored but most intriguing places in the Roman Empire.
Submerged in the Bay of Naples, Baiae is where powerful Roman statesmen built luxurious villas on its beach, with heated spas, elaborate water features, intricate mosaic-tiled pools, even a nymphaeum – a grotto of pleasure – surrounded by marble statues inspired by Greek art, where they could indulge their wildest desires. Oh my. Part of the city ruins remain intact on land, but most are under water, volcanic activity having eroded the coast over time.
“Some of the greatest names of the Roman republic… Caesar, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Nero, all of these men had villas at Baiae,” says Professor Kevin Dicus, who has spent the last decade excavating the remains around the Bay of Naples, which is the focus of a documentary called Secrets of the Dead.
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.”
Archaeologists have found a network of roads, miles of brick walls and villas with rich marble floors, and splendid mosaics. Among the villas found was a mansion so luxurious archaeologists believe it was the Imperial Villa specially built for the Emperor Claudius. So far, they haven’t found are any identifiable public buildings, no forum, temple or market place.
Lucky for us, local photographer and diver, Antonio Busiello, who lives in nearby Naples, was invited to photograph the excavated underwater city, so we get to have a close-up view. Busiello first discovered Baiae as a curious teenager, when the site was unprotected. “Many divers swam off with ancient amphora and other relics, but now it’s a different situation.” In 2002, the Italian government banned commercial boat trips to the archaeological park and controlled the number of dives allowed.
If you want to see the underwater ruins, you have two choices. On a calm day, visitors can catch a glimpse of the underwater remains from land, or if you fancy plunging in for a closer look, you can join an organised diving tour. I read that you don’t even need to be a qualified diver to swim among the ruins! The Centro Sub Campi Flegrei diving school gets good reviews and its guides speak numerous different languages.
Alternatively, you could take the diving tour from your couch by tracking down a documentary that aired on Channel Four in 2017 called Rome’s Sunken Secrets, which follows a series of dives led by underwater archaeologist Dr Barbara Davidde and involving historians and scientists from across the world.
Find out more about the Baiae Archaeological Park here (although it’s it Italian…)