"Secrets of the Dead" Reveals the Untold Story of “Nero’s Sunken City”

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23 March 2017
Nero’s Sunken City
Courtesy of B&B Films, Alberto Vitale
"Secrets of the Dead: Nero’s Sunken City” 
Premieres Wednesday, March 29, 10 p.m. on PBS
(Check your local listings)
          Beneath the turquoise waves of the Bay of Naples lies an extraordinary underwater archeology site, the ancient Roman city of Baiae. From the first century to the third century AD, Baiae was the exclusive playground for the rich and powerful among Rome’s elite.  What made Baiae such a special place? What really went on there?  And why did it disappear?

          For the first time, an international team of scientists, archaeologists, and historians is meticulously mapping the underwater ruins and piecing together evidence that could provide answers to these questions.  Secrets of the Dead chronicles this investigation uncovering what life was like in Nero’s Sunken City.

         While some of Baiae’s ruins remain intact on land, more than half of this coastal city is submerged under water.  These underwater ruins are three times the size of those in Pompeii. Archaeologists have found a network of roads, miles of brick walls and villas with rich marble floors, and splendid mosaics. But what they haven’t found are any identifiable public buildings, no forum, temple or market place. 


         The remains consist of one vast luxury villa after another – a Roman Beverly Hills – with elaborate spas and water features, marble statues inspired by Greek art, ponds for farming fish, and more. The villas were like mini-cities. No expense was spared to create these seaside vacation homes where barges floating in the bay were the site of raucous parties.

          “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 Roman remains around the Bay of Naples.  “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.”

                More than any other emperor, Nero was infamous for his hedonism and Baiae was his escape. Here, he could indulge in his sadistic fantasies. “To Nero, Baiae represented everything he wished Rome was. This was much more than a second home. Now, he could bring the pleasures that he experienced here and try and replicate them in Rome, but really there was no comparison,” says Professor Dicus. “At Baiae, Nero could engage in his hedonistic lifestyle. He could take to the baths, enjoy the hot springs, eat fresh oysters, have boat parties, get drunk, have sex, all of this away from the drudgery of daily politics of Rome.”

         But Baiae was more than a place of opulence, the Las Vegas of its day. It was also the site of some of the most treacherous political dealings of ancient Rome with Emperor Nero and his enemies hatching deadly plots against each other.

Nero’s Sunken City
Statue in underwater nymphaeum Baiae Credit: Copyright Films, Marcello Adamo
         What lengths was Nero willing to take to gain his Aunt Domitia’s villa? What plans did Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a wealthy nobleman, have for the emperor as he vacationed at his villa?  What scheme did Nero devise in Baiae to end the power struggle with his mother?

         In the fourth century AD, seismic activity caused half of Baiae to sink into the bay. Located 150 miles south of Rome, Baiae remains one of the least explored places in the Roman Empire, until now.


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