Baia & Vice
A visit to the end of the world
The best and worst thing about visiting the ruins of the Roman resort at Baia is that there’s hardly anyone there. My friend Jessie and I arrive by car and search the port’s parking lot where older men idle at cafes, sipping hot espresso in the late morning sun, never breaking a sweat. We had booked a tour of the submerged city on a glass bottom boat, but didn’t see an obvious meeting point other than a brick temple invaded by grass. The port looks like a James Cameron movie about the end of the world.
Baia was imperial Rome’s Miami Beach and its gaudiest, showiest palace of gluttony. Today the old spa complexes and vacation villas of the super rich are paradise for scampering geckos and stringy wildflowers. Laundry hangs from adjacent terraces dangling shadows over mosaic floors. The most opulent villas that once sat right on Baia’s shoreline are now underwater. The tour guide drives up, opens the car door, and a Jack Russell terrier bounces off her lap and trots onboard a boat. Other obvious tourists begin appear; Several Italian families with young kids and the requisite older Belgian couple you find at every archaeological site in Southern Italy, guidebook in hand.
The archaeological site is on the outskirts of Naples in a zone called the Campi Flegrei —the fields of fire. The entire zone is actually the surface of an underwater volcano with diffused vents instead of a cone like nearby Mount Vesuvius. Greek colonists who settled here in the Bronze Age believed sporadic burps of sulfuric steam from fumaroles were portals to the underworld. Romans engineers channeled the terrifying power of underground boiling rivers into the most luxurious spa in the empire. But the earth would reclaim Baia within 200 years with mosquitos and bradyseism, the quiet upward or downward movement of the earth’s crust, which drowned the resort.
After the political turmoil of the early first century A.D., Roman elites began leaving the capital city in large numbers and bought homes in Campania. Life was easier and the Epicurean school of philosophy flourished which professed that modest, sustainable pleasure that comes from tranquility and freedom from fear. People planted grapes and olives in the magical soil of Mount Vesuvius and sought to reconnect with the earth: An attempt to return to a simpler time.
Baia’s resort however was where the richest and most political Romans went to play, plot, get drunk, and have sex. Cicero wrote about political elites dining at each other’s villas to gossip and plot against each other. Julius Caesar had a villa in Baia and Brutus met with Cassius and Octavian on an island nearby to organize his assassination. Nero and Hadrian also had their villas at Baia while Tiberius brooded nearby in his mega-villa at the top Capri island. Caligula’s response to an astrologer’s prophecy that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baia” was to command the Imperial fleet into a floating bridge of boats so he could ride his horse across the bay while wearing a gold vest. The consolidation of boats in one of Rome’s busiest ports caused a supply chain problem and a grain shortage.
The boat tour lasts over an hour though it doesn’t travel far from shore. On deck the spectacular vistas are worth the trip alone. The view below deck of the twinkling mosaics on the sea floor, and schools of anchovies swimming past statuary is my Indiana Jones fever dream come to life. The guide explains how bradyseism is returning the lost city to the beach, maybe even in our lifetime.
We climb up to the above-ground ruins. Victorian archaeologists and writers were fascinated by the excesses of the Romans at Baia and nearby Pompeii and believed that their scandals and vices caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Baia was fertile ground for antiquities hunters in the 18th and 19th centuries though the site was not seriously excavated until the 1940s. The bath complexes were initially called temples because such splendor was assumed to be only for the gods. Most wondrous is the so-called Temple of Mercury had the largest poured concrete dome until the Pantheon was built over 100 years later.
Jessie and I are the only ones among the ruins that day. The pomegranate trees heavy with fruit and the din of cicadas make it seem like a post-apocalyptic Garden of Eden. There’s little signage to guide us and so we wander, fall into conversation, and are periodically hushed by some detail of mind-bending beauty.
The lack of information, commentary, or crowds of tourists is a shame, but leaves space for my imagination to stretch out. It is impossible to spend any meaningful time with Roman ruins without wondering if our fates are similarly tied. The beauty of the sea and sky juxtaposed next to the ruins can suddenly model our existential fears of a future affected by climate change and now a global pandemic. I could feel the ruins begging to speak.
Join me on Friday January 14th at 5pm for “Roman House Hunters International” a virtual tour of the Vesuvius Coast” in the first century A.D.. This class offered through Context Travel covers Baia, Tiberius’s villa at Capri, the Villa of the Papyrus at Herculaneum and the newly discovered villa at Positano.