1. Before there was Vegas, there was Baia
When we think of party hot spots, we think Vegas, New Orleans, or Miami—cities where you let your inner beast run rampant. There’s just one golden rule: what happens there, stays there. In the ancient world, things worked a bit differently. Along the southwestern coast of Italy, just a stone’s throw away from Pompeii and Herculaneum, was once the resort metropolis known as Baia(e) (pronounced “bi-ah” or “bi-eye”).
The sea city resort was the Beverly Hills or Las Vegas of Ancient Rome. It was the vacation spot for the wealthy and the elite. Many (in)famous figures visited the resort for complete hedonistic splendor, some of which you may know.
2. Baia was a place for pure hedonism
Living in the ancient world, the mere mention of Baia meant debauchery. For those who found pleasure in such a place, to announce it publicly was to risk their reputation. It was a place to flaunt wealth and one’s innermost desires, and boy did the wealthy love to party. Famous figures such as Claudius, Caesar, Cicero (anyone whose names start with the letter “C”), Brutus, Mark Antony, and Nero.
Baia was a place where “old men can be boys, and young boys can be girls”; vice versa for women. And you could drink to your heart’s content. The streets were crowded with inebriated patrons, loud music, and boat parties. The Ancient Romans knew how to party and party hard. The story doesn’t start here—no, it starts with murder.
3. Tired of corruption? Just take a spa day
The luxury resort metropolis wasn’t only known for its parties, it was also known for its spa services. Rome was the hubbub of political activity and the heart of corruption. For many, it was exhausting having to combat (or contribute to) the shaky foundation that made up the Roman government.
They treated Baia as a vacation getaway where natural steam saunas, hot springs, and fine cuisine was indulged. It was no wonder that Emperor Nero, the most infamous of all Roman rulers, found himself diving straight into the fanciful and drunken world of Baia. Unfortunately for Nero, it was in Baia where he met his demise.
4. Nero’s mom was his stepdad’s niece
Nero came to power by manipulation, seduction, and homicide. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, became Claudius’s fourth wife after he executed his third wife for planning a coup against his empire. Agrippina was 33 years old when she married the 58-year-old emperor, and their marriage was completely illegal.
How? Agrippina was Claudius’s niece. Ugh, right? But this is Rome, and to Rome, the concept was simply this: if it’s beautiful, well, why not? And Agrippina was a rumored beauty. Thankfully, Nero was not a product of their genetics. Agrippina was married before Claudius, and Nero was merely his stepson. She pretended to be the perfect bride, but it was all a farce.
5. She was a ladder climber
What would Agrippina gain by being the wife of an emperor? Total power. Ambitious and bold, she wanted her son to become next in line to receive the throne. She played the diligent wife and got what she wanted. Once the deal was sealed, Agrippina poisoned Claudius by sprinkling something deadly in his porridge.
Claudius died a slow death in A.D. 54, and Nero took the throne soon after, between the tender ages of 16 or 17 in A.D. 54. Mother and son would rule Rome. Agrippina refused to be pushed aside, and for the first five years, she would manhandle her way into power by using her son as a puppet.
6. All he wanted to do was wine, dine, and be divine
The first five years of Nero’s rule were easy for the power-hungry mother and son. They even had coins minted in their images where they were facing each other eye to eye to symbolize their “equal” power in Rome. However, it was all a part of the show. During his rule, Nero spent a majority of his time giving in to the temptations Baia had to offer.
Who wouldn’t? Women, booze, power: It was all bread and butter to the teenage ruler, and it was clear during the first five years of his reign where the empire was heading. Come on, who trusts ruling an empire to a sixteen-year-old boy? It’s bound to be a total train wreck.
7. Nero was a complete megalomaniac
Nero was a megalomaniac. He spent copious amounts of money to cater to his lavish lifestyle, and when he was running low on funds, he would often take religious treasures in various parts of the Roman empire. British Ancient Historian Richard Duncan-Jones (LiveScience) states in his book, “Money and Government in the Roman Empire”:
“Nero took votive offerings from temples in Rome and Italy as well as hundreds of cult statues from temples in Greece and Asia, after the fire of Rome in A.D. 64.” Support lessened from Rome, and Nero continued to bathe in the fruits of Rome’s prosperity. Seriously—the man had his own villa and bathhouse in Baia. In fact, none could challenge the opulence of the nymphaeum.
8. The wealthy lounged by the pool in the nymphaeum
To give you a little taste of what it meant to kick back at Rome’s luxury seaside escape, villas had what was called a nymphaeum, a grotto dedicated to depictions of water nymphs, or an enclosure inspired by nymph imagery. Not sure what a nymph is? Hint: beautiful nature-women of myths. They embody a beautiful maiden who lives in the trees, forests, rivers, or oceans.
This intimate space was dominated by a pool of water, where the wealthy would lounge. Not impressed? Try this on for size: They used the pool as a floating dinner table where a lavish banquet was situated. Floating in water-buoyant plates were sumptuous dishes such as Baian Casserole.
9. It ain’t your mama’s casserole
And before you start wrinkling your nose at “casserole,” let us be frank: This ain’t your mama’s tuna casserole. Ancient Roman cookbooks give us a little insight into the complete splendor of Ancient Roman dishes that are over 2,000 years old. We dare you to imagine a sauté pan steaming with oysters, muscles, sea urchins, and vegetables in olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Once transferred into a bowl, garum, or fermented fish sauce, was sprinkled on top. Whoa, fish sauce? Ugh! On the contrary, you see words such as “fermented” and “fish” and wonder how that is appetizing. Well, for one, it didn’t have an intense fish smell or taste.
10. Someone’s in the kitchen with Zeus
Instead, it’s salty and meant to enhance the flavors in the seafood dish that makes it savory, similar to the Asian fish sauce. The elite would eat this dish by the bowl, eating 100 oysters a sitting just to show off their wealth and stature (what a bunch of pretentious bums). And of course, the entire plate is straight from the very sea circling their overly extravagant villas and private jetties.
They even had their own fish ponds that housed their seafood supply…did we mention that they also had their own amphitheaters? It is worth mentioning that, like those with a home theater, the Baian villa lifestyle wasn’t complete without everyone having their own personal theatre.
11. Art was strictly for the elite
Nero had all of this and more. No wonder he wouldn’t leave. While Rome was figuring out how to feed their people, Nero was out hot-tubbing and gorging himself on seafood, wine, women, and entertainment. Not such a bad lifestyle. But I suppose when you’re one of the most resented men in Rome, there is room for some R&R.
Especially if your villa had the most drop-dead gorgeous art and mosaics this side of the Mediterranean. Let’s put it this way: Sure, obtaining any form of art is easier thanks to technological advancements and manufacturing, but back in Ancient Rome, art was reserved only for the wealthy. You had to be Kylie Jenner and the Carters combined…and then some.
12. The Romans stole art from Greece
By A.D. 60, Greece had been under Rome’s thumb for a couple hundred years, and therefore some Greek influences carried over into Rome’s art world. The Greeks were well-known for their temples and statues. Made of pristine marble and metals and often painted in vibrant colors, their cities were alive with a culture and refinement.
Of course, what the Greeks had the Romans absolutely needed to have as well. Statues of youth, gods, and beautiful women were carefully placed in every villa and street corner. Frescoes breathed life into dining halls and bedrooms with cherubs, Pegasus, and other mythical creatures. They even had the privilege to have colors such as blue and green.
13. You had to have fat stacks for green and blue
Color was expensive. And yes, to those of you shrugging your shoulders and muttering “Eh, just mix a little yellow, a little…oh.” Yeah, “oh.” Red, yellow, and white were cheap. You want a painted sunrise on your bedroom walls, that’s doable; want the goddess Hecate dressed in the color of a twilight sky? That’s gonna cost a kidney.
Green and blue were often found in rare imported plants, or in expensive minerals such as lapis lazuli. Of course, for the elite, and certainly for the emperor of Rome, this was a tiny expense, paid for by the good taxpayers of Rome. Thanks, fam! You can only find this kind of audacious and embarrassing display of wealth in Baia.
14. Nero and his mom started to butt heads
Alas, some things are just too good to be true. Especially for Nero, who by A.D. 59 was spiraling into a world of paranoia and murder, both against him and those around him. As said before, Agrippina wasn’t the kind of woman to step aside and let men take care of her business.
She was the boss, but of course, Nero didn’t see it that way, and the two bumped heads. There were violent disputes; power struggles between mother and son. It got so bad that Nero had reached the end of his rope. Something needed to be done. Permanently.
15. He murdered his own mother
Yes, Nero would go as far as murdering his own mom to get her out of the way. It’s not surprising. The emperor before him, Claudius, had a legitimate son named Britannicus who “died” in A.D. 55, a day before he was to be proclaimed as an adult and be a successor to the throne. Coincidence?
Sure, if you want to believe what Nero said. Many believed the poor kid was poisoned, but Nero claimed he had a seizure. Smells fishy. Regardless, Nero was no stranger to the company of death. And in A.D. 59, he did some thinking in his oceanfront villa and devised a plan to off his mother.
16. Mothers were revered as sacred in the Roman household
Now, to murder your mom, in general, is the biggest taboo ever committed. This was no different in Rome. The mother was the most highly regarded figure in the household, so can you imagine if it were the mother of the emperor? Might as well call her a goddess incarnate. For Nero to openly murder his mother would mean becoming the enemy of the people.
So, he schemed and devised what he thought was a clever plan. He invited Agrippina to his villa, where the pair had a sumptuous banquet for two. Thereafter he escorted her to his personal jetty, where a boat was waiting for her. He embraced her lovingly as if they never had a dispute in their lives.
17. He sabotaged her boat
He helped her into the boat and sent her off with an ominous smile, then turned back to his villa. For you see, he rigged his mother’s boat to fall apart when sailing over the water. Surely he wouldn’t be a suspect of interest should his mother have a little accident that led to her drowning. However, the gods had other plans.
As Agrippina’s boat came apart, a fisherman’s vessel was coming in late and saw the royal mother stranded in a sinking vessel. He kindly picked her up and took her to shore. As Nero awaited the news of his mother’s death, he instead received news that drained the color from his face. His mother was very much alive.
18. He had to finish the job
Scared into a panic, Nero needed to act fast. What if word got out that he tried to kill his mother? Would she talk? Without thinking another thought, he sent his soldiers to finish the job. They traversed toward his mother’s villa, where they discovered her sleeping in her room. They knocked her on the side of her head, waking her with the blow.
She saw her son’s soldiers with anguish. She was rumored to have pulled her night robes apart to bare her body and said: “If you’re going to kill me, stab me here.” She was pointing to her stomach, her womb from which she bore Nero. The soldiers dealt her the blow.
19. He was creepy about his mother’s death
When Nero heard that the deed was done, it was time to put on a good show. The young emperor raced to his mother’s villa and inspected her body, pawing at her limbs and body. It was rumored that he looked over her and said: “I never knew I had such a beautiful mother.” That’s totally normal; checking out your mom’s dead body…
This is Baia, so, sure, why not? Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time that Nero’s hands would be covered in blood. He would thereafter murder his first wife, and was rumored to have killed his second wife, too. Nero was obviously out of control the more he was pushed into a corner by his own people.
20. Baia was sinking like Nero’s reputation
As Nero’s reputation began to sink, so did the city. Slowly but surely, the seaside village of Baia was doomed to become swallowed by the sea, thanks to a chain of twenty-four surrounding volcanoes, including Vesuvius and Solfatara. For those of you who recognize the name Vesuvius, it was the volcano that completely buried the city of Pompeii in A.D. 79 (getting pretty close to that date, yeah?).
When a string of active volcanoes surround nearby cities for over 40,000 years, the seismic activity of shifting rocks, gases, and lava creates a platform that lowers and raises land masses. This includes the area surrounding Baia. However, it did have its perks.
21. Twenty-four volcanoes lined up around Italy’s shores
Though Baia was sitting on a volcanic plate of continuous seismic activity, there was a bonus to be had for living near volcanoes. Because of the molten rock and built gases, thermal energy was cultivated, and this created natural springs. This is what made Baia so attractive to many vacationers in Rome.
Roman baths were architecturally brilliant. Sloping tunnels were carved to bring in steam, and geothermal heat would heat water and act as a sauna. Men would wear their birthday suits and sit on ledges where they could get in a good soak and sweat, converse on political affairs, and network. They even built the famed Temple of Mercury. And no, this was no place of worship.
22. They relaxed at the “Temple of Mercury”
Like the Roman bath establishments, the Temple of Mercury was something to marvel at. It was meant to mimic a grotto, or cave-like environment, and was covered by a huge concrete dome. Building materials were made by mixing lime and volcanic rock to create mortar. Mix it with seawater (specifically) and you get a chemical reaction that hydrates the lime and bonds it with the ash, solidifying it into a hard substance.
Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the dome had a round skylight that, when sunlight filtered in, would reflect in the space, creating an ethereal glow. However, there was a problem: If the Romans used the local water, it would be tainted by sulfur. So how did they get water into the city?
23. Fresh water came from an aqueduct nearly 100 miles long
When the elite were done marinating in their own juices, many came to the Temple of Mercury for a cool soak. But with all that volcanic activity in the area, we’re left to wonder how the Romans acquired clean water. This is where another architectural miracle was born: the Piscina Mirabilis, a cistern that was the largest water storage facility in the entire empire.
The water came straight from the Apennine Mountains 90 miles away, and was transported by an aqueduct known as the Aqua Agusta. The cistern provided water for the entire city of Baia, such as its baths, fountains, fish farms, and drinking water. However, none of that mattered as the city declined.
24. Rome burned
The city sinking and his reputation tanked, the frat boy emperor was at a loss as to what to do next. However, since he accumulated more enemies than allies, some plotted his own murder in Baia. The sands in his hourglass were lessening and thinning, coming to an end. Then, the mother of all calamities occurred.
Rome burned. In A.D. 64, three of Rome’s fourteen districts were burned to the ground, and only four districts remained unscathed by the flames. The city was overrun by looters and left thousands homeless. And for those of you wondering, no, Nero didn’t start the fire, nor did he play the fiddle while watching Rome succumb to a fiery hell pit.
25. Nero wasn’t in Rome when it went up in flames
Contrary to popular belief, Nero didn’t burn Rome to the ground. In fact, scholars believe he wasn’t in Rome when the fire started (History). Rome was a pyre waiting to be lit. Everything was highly flammable and it was only a matter of time before disaster struck. Although there are rumors he played the fiddle while the city burned, that is also false.
For one, the fiddle had yet to be introduced, and two, Nero played the lyre, a small lap-sized harp. If that’s not enough, it was even recorded that he opened his palace as a shelter for the homeless. Still, Nero was basically a waste of human space.
26. He took advantage of the situation
How did the rumors come about? Simple. According to History.com, it was due to two reasons: For one, Nero disagreed with the city’s aesthetics. He created new buildings in his image with buildings that instilled new building codes. He planned to build a grand palace for himself known as the Domus Aurea, or the “Golden House.”
He raised taxes and sucked temple funds with his project, which angered many Romans. If that wasn’t enough, the second reason (and here’s the kicker), is that he blamed Christians for the burning of Rome. He accused the Christian community of directly causing the fire and prosecuted, tortured, and executed hundreds of Christians.
27. He was named enemy of the people
Rome was bleeding dry while Nero sat happy as a fat cat in his Baian villa, but eventually, he would be forced to return to the city, giving up the splendors of his treasured resort city. He left its shores, and he would finally be seated in the tipping plate of liberty’s scales.
His own soldiers renounced their loyalties to their emperor, and the Senate made Nero an enemy of the people. He was stripped of his title as emperor and was kicked to the curb. On Jun 8, A.D. 68, (PBS) Nero committed suicide at the age of 30, bringing about a dark period for the Roman empire.
28. He was free game
Now, we have to understand, being labeled as a public enemy of the Roman Empire was basically a death sentence. Anyone could kill Nero without punishment, and everyone had it out for the frivolous ex-ruler. A coward shaking in his boots, he took a handful of servants and fled the state, however, his paranoia caused him to take his own life.
Without an heir, Nero’s throne was up for grabs, a free-for-all that had generals from all sides of the empire making their way to Rome to make a claim. This eventually led to a civil war and governmental corruption, and corruption always needs a vacation.
29. There were no markets or temples in Baia
Today, an international team is slowly uncovering what remains of the Gomorrah-like city. There are over 177 hectares of archaeological structures to explore, which leaves enough work for three generations of archaeologists. What they found was simply a place of complete hedonism.
There were no markets, temples, or public structures. Instead, there were only villas, statues, and frescoes of illicit acts of debauchery, as well as evidence of frivolity and brothels. Oh yes, Baia was exactly where the Romans wanted to be, a place where they could let their morals slip through the cracks of their personal and selfish desires.
30. A city beneath the waves
All that is left of the once-glittering city in southern Naples are rings of roads, brick walls, impeccable mosaics, and ghostly statues that once stood in front of their master’s homes. However, this isn’t the end. The ground is rising after centuries of being underwater, and in a few centuries, Baia will once again be exposed to the world above.
Until then, the luxury seascape of opulence remains a makeshift reef for fish. For now, the city is silenced by the impossible blue of the sea and soberly reminds us that no matter how grand, sophisticated, advanced, and popular a city may be, nature will eventually take its toll.