Rome’s ultra-wealthy took weekend trips here to party. Powerful statesmen built luxurious villas on its beach, with heated spas and mosaic-tiled pools where they could indulge their wildest desires. One resident even commissioned a nymphaeum – a private grotto surrounded by marble statues, dedicated solely to ‘earthly pleasure’.
More than 2,000 years ago, Baia was the Las Vegas of the Roman Empire – a resort town approximately 30km from Naples on Italy’s caldera-peppered west coast that catered to the whims of poets, generals and everyone in between. The great orator Cicero composed speeches from his retreat by the bay, while the poet Virgil and the naturalist Pliny maintained residences within easy reach of the rejuvenating public baths.
It was also the place where the rich and powerful came to carry out their illicit affairs.
“There are many tales of intrigue associated with Baia,” said John Smout, a researcher who has partnered with local archaeologists to study the site. Rumour has it that Cleopatra escaped in her boat from Baia after Julius Caesar was murdered in 44BC, while Julia Agrippina plotted her husband Claudius’ death at Baia so her son Nero could become emperor of Rome.
“She poisoned Claudius with deadly mushrooms,” Smout explained. “But he somehow survived, so that same night, Agrippina got her physician to administer an enema of poisonous wild gourd, which finally did the trick.”
Mineral waters and a mild climate first attracted Rome’s nobility to Baia in the latter half of the 2nd Century BC, and the town was known to them as the Phlegraean (or ‘flaming’) Fields, so named because of the calderas that pockmark the region.