Welcome to the Roman city of Baiae, where everything centers around pleasure and money is no matter. Anybody who was somebody would be found in this ancient adult fantasy land. Established around 37 BCE and just 30 minutes northwest of Naples, it is said to have trumped many wealthy hotspots at that time such as Pompeii, Herculaneum and Capri. Famous for being a city of scandal and hedonistic temptations, it was definitely not for the faint hearted. As the saying goes “What happens in Baiae, stays in Baiae”.
Glitz, Glamour, Action
When visiting Baiae, one had to prepare to be starstrucked. Its guest list consisted of royalty and celebrities all year round. It has been often compared to modern day Las Vegas. With its large swimming pools and domed casino, it was often a getaway for the Roman elite. Emperors like Caligula, Nero and Julius Caesar frequented the resort for events such as Saturnallia, a holiday to worship Saturn. Elaborate villas, resorts and summer houses were built there, including those of Caesar and Nero. In fact, a large part of the town became imperial property under the rule of Augustus and later Emperors.
Baiae was also famed for their public bath houses, where the wealthy Romans liked to congregate, despite having baths in their own homes. These bath houses were not just an area to bathe, but rather a place for the rich to socialise, relax and meditate. It was even a place where important decisions were made by the elite! (hmmm...)
Looking for some juicy gossip?
Alongside the glitz and glamour, Baiae was also notorious for its hedonistic culture. According to ancient records, it was a city of scandals, corruptions and temptations. Seneca, a major philosophical figure of the Roman Imperial Period called Baiae a "resort of vice" while the Roman poet Ovid referred to it as "a favourable place for lovemaking". Sure, Caesar may have had his own summer villa there, but it really was a pleasure house. The elite often lived the life of a harlot and indulged in beach parties and drinking sessions (think Hamptons on steroids...). Fun fact: the city was so scandalous that apparently, Emperor Nero had his Mother Agrippina murdered there (shudders).
Of Hot Springs and Spa Days
Baiae lying nestled by the emerald sea helped itself grow into a major port needed for trade, communications, and tourism for the rich. The city was located above volcanic vents, thus water that flowed into the cities were often warm as the Roman engineers managed to construct a complex system of chambers (hooray for their creative minds!) that channelled underground heat into facilities that acted as saunas, bathhouses and hot springs - which were common in the city. The water in these bathhouses were slightly acidic as they were directed from underground sulfur springs. Later, these springs were used by physicians to treat their patients of their illnesses as it showed beneficial to symptoms. So, if you had lived during that time and was someone who enjoys a day at the spa - this was definitely a must go for you!
Temple of Mercury (but it is not really a temple)
Do not be fooled by its name, this was not a place of worship but rather the name of a hot spring! This was one of the most popular hot spring sites, believed to be the largest dome in the world prior to the construction of Rome’s Pantheon in 128 CE. The temple was constructed using wedged shaped blocks of tufa limestone that were aligned in concentric circles and then cemented in place. It provided acoustical properties as a result of the oculus in the dome roof.
Downfall of Baiae: why do all good things come to an end?
Sadly as with all great things, this surreal getaway had to come to an end too. It declined as the Roman Empire did and was invaded by the Saracens otherwise known as Muslims today in the 8th century. It was then vacated and abandoned as Malaria became a problem. By the Renaissance period (c. 1300 - 1500 CE), it was largely sunken underwater due to volcanic activity. (It was only in the 1920s where it was recovered once more). What we are left with are reminisces of what it once was.
Modern Day Remains
This once-lost underwater city, now found, is a treasure to behold. If you are looking for adventure (with a touch of history) - forget about the Maldives or any other islands around Indonesia and the Philippines: today, the ancient remains of Baiae has become one of the world's few underwater archaeological parks. Visitors can view the amazingly preserved crumbles and structures of the city through glass-bottomed boats. Fans of the underwater can even snorkel or scuba dive as people are allowed to swim amongst the copious ruins and experience first-hand how life may have been like among the elite Romans! If there is one takeaway from this, it is truly the appreciation of history in our modern society. The famous thermal bathing complex may be a mere shadow of the grand and elegant Roman Baiae at the height of its glory, but with such a rich history down under still waiting to be uncovered, its waters definitely still hold wonders.