Baiae, Italy (Baia in Italian)

Where is it?

Baiae is located 10 miles west of Naples on the west coast of the Gulf of Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples.  It is part of the Campania region of Italy that is known to be intensely volcanic.   In ancient times this region was referred to as the Phlegraen Fields, meaning “fields devoured by fire.”  This “Almost City” was a dependency of Cumae just 2.5 miles northwest.  It was named after Odysseus’ helmsman, or navigator, who died and was buried there.  Baiae was also known as “Little Rome” due to its popularity among the Roman elite.

map 1                   map 2

Why did people go there?

Baiae became a summer retreat for wealthy Romans because of its natural beauty and manmade luxuries.  It is located just off the Mediterranean coast with a temperate climate, beautiful vegetation, and curative thermal springs.  It became a fashionable bathing and recreation location during the late Republican Era and continued all the way through the Imperial Age.  Emperor Agustus connected the lavish villas with roads and commissioned Baiae’s thermal baths, and his successors followed suit by continuing to develop until Baiae became an “expansive mass of villas and leisure facilities.”  By the 1st century AD, it was as large as Puteoli (modern day Pozzuoli), a leading commercial center of the time.  According to Horace, “No Bay outshines the lovely Baiae!” however, not everyone agreed.  Seneca left Baiae the day after his arrival because, “It is a very dangerous place to visit, certain encounters are contrary to purit behaviour and the wise man would do well to avoid them.  Let him therefore not go to Baiae, the home of vice.”

painting     villas

Who visited Baiae?

  • Roman aristocracy or those who aspired to be wealthy
  • Julius Caesar built his own villa
  • Caligula built his famous “Bridge of Boats”
  • Nero owned a villa and murdered his mother, Agrippina the Younger, nearby
  • Cleopatra was said to have been in Baiae when Julius Caesar was murdered in 44BCE
  • Tiberius died in the Villa of Marius
  • Claudius built a villa for his wife, Messalina
  • Hadrian died in Caesar’s villa in 138AD
  • Alexander Severus built large buildings for his mother

caesar_wikipedia      caesar      hadrian

What else was Baiae used for?

            In 37BC, during the civil war between Octavian and Sextus Pempey, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commissioned architect Lucius Cocceius Auctus to build the Portus Julius for the most important Roman fleet, the Classis Misenensis.  The port, named in honor of Emperor Agustus, connected to Lake Lucrine and Lake Avernus via canal as well as connected to Cumae via a .6mile long underground tunnel chariots could travel through.  Portus Julius offered warehouses, cisterns, dry docks for maintenance, workshops, recreational facilities, the Temple of Poseidon, as well as brothels.  Sadly, due to silting, in 12BCE the Roman fleet was moved to Miseno, and the port was left to civilian purposes.

Mappa - Campi Flegrei (2a)         mapa

So what happened to Baiae?

            Because Baiae is located in such a volcanic region, bradyseism (the gradual uplift or decent in part of the Earth’s surface from magma entering or leaving underground chambers) has caused Baiae to change drastically.  By the 5th century AD the Purtus Julius was in disrepair due to the shifting ground, and eventually the entire port disappeared completely under the sea.  Then, in the 8th century AD Muslim raiders demolished the city.  Later, not only was there a huge outbreak of Malaria in 1500, but in 1538, an eruption created the Monte Nuovo (New Mountain), which diminished Lake Lucrino and destroyed a nearby town.  It wasn’t until World War II that we rediscovered Portus Julius as well as much of the rest of ancient Baiae from an aerial view.  Even some of the ancient ruins exposed today were, at one point, submerged underwater.

Portus Julius (2)

Why visit Baiae now?

            Today you can visit the Underwater Archaeology park of Baiae which is there to protect, research, educate and promote the ruins of Baiae.  Here you can see the ancient ruins of the famous bathing facilities as well as take a diving tour with the Centro Sub Campi Flegrei, established in 1992, to see the sunken city of Baiae.

  • Bathing facilities
    • Consists of 3 large domes referred to as temples.
    • Temple of Mercury (71’ in diameter) was built during the late Republic.  It was a bath’s large swimming pool that resembles the Pantheon and is nicknamed the “Temple of Echo” due to its acoustic properties.
    • Temple of Venus (86’ in diameter) was built during the Hadrianic Period and was also a bath’s swimming pool.
    • Temple of Diana (97’ in diameter) was also built during the Hadrianic Period is assumed to have been a casino.

dome 1           dome 2

  • Underwater Discoveries
    • The Smokey Reef is what the underwater habitat here is referred to.  Active fumaroles are abundant here due to the volcanic activity in this region, creating a unique habitat of organisms.  These fumaroles release gaseous bubbles that deposit sulfur, and it covers the sea floor in a white fluffy mess.

smokey reef           reef 2


  • The Nymphaeum at Baiae was originally discovered in 1959 by Professor Lamboglia, the founder of the Center for Underwater Archaeology.  Ten years after its discovery, two statues were discovered in an apse of one of the buildings.  One of these statues is Odysseus holding a glass of wine and the other is his crew member holding a wineskin, and if you add a missing Cyclops, you get Book 9 of The Odyssey.  Five other statues were also found here; creating a gallery.  The presence of plumbing, the statues, and the shape of the building ensures us this specific location was a nymphaeum probably built during the Claudian Dynasty.  *An above ground recreation of this Nymphaeum can be found in Baiae at the Prince Tower of the Argonese castle.

Odysseus and cyclopse      nymphaeum

  • The Villa Protiro, meaning “collonaded doorway,” is an ancient Baiae road lined with several taverns as well as a private villa.  The entrance to this villa is a porch framed by two long benches, and inside the floor has beautiful black and white marble mosaics.

          villa protiro           villa protiro mosaic

  • The Pisonian Villa discovered here was built in the 1st century BC.  We assume it belonged to the family of Lucius Piso because a lead piping inscription with their name was found on it.  The Pisos were wealthy aristocrats of the time who organized a conspiracy against the Emperor Nero, but when they were discovered, their Baiae villa was taken from them.

pisonian villa

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