Roman Rare Bronze
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What Do Houseboats on Kentucky's Lake Cumberland Share in Common With the Roman Emperor Caligula?
Kentucky's scenic Lake Cumberland, with its 1,255 miles of shoreline, is one of the houseboating vacation capitals of the modern world. Surrounded by picturesque rolling hills, deep forests and waterfalls, over 1,500 houseboats cruise the quiet waters and explore the intimate nooks and coves of the hundred-mile-long lake.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Lake Nemi, a small, volcanic lake near Rome, Italy, was the houseboating capital of the Holy Roman Empire and home to two lavish, recreational pleasure boats belonging to the notorious Roman Emperor Caligula. Even though the ships were deliberately pillaged and sunk soon after the unpopular emperor's assassination, their existence subsequently captured the imagination of historians, archaeologists and, in particular, a 15th century Catholic cardinal during the Renaissance and a 20th century Italian dictator named Benito Mussolini.
Digging up the truth
Through the centuries, Emperor Caligula's floating palaces were the stuff of legends and buried treasure. Lake Nemi fishermen claimed they could see the ships' ghostly underwater outlines.
In 1446, fourteen centuries after the ships sunk, the Renaissance Cardinal Don Prospero Colonna, Lord of Nemi, took on the daunting task of raising the historic ships; unfortunately, his efforts failed. It would take another 500 years before the ships would be successfully raised from their watery grave.
Mussolini and the 2,000-year-old tunnel
In the late 19th-century, the Italian government took charge of private citizens' efforts to salvage the ships. In 1928, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used ancient Roman engineering genius to solve his modern-day problem.
The Romans had built a mile-long tunnel to help control Lake Nemi's water level and prevent flooding. Mussolini used the same tunnel to drain the lake over a three-year period and expose the historic ships.
The Nemi ships, as they are known, are the two largest Roman ships ever discovered and feature craftsmanship and new technology that astounded historians. The ships, an oared galley and a sailing vessel, each measured approximately 240 feet long and were lavishly decorated with mosaic floors, marble columns and bronze statues. Other artifacts uncovered included a bronze lion, leopard and fox heads.
After nearly 1,900 years at the bottom of Lake Nemi, Caligula's pleasure craft were finally rescued. Inside a frame building, teams of historians and archaeologists began a scholarly study of the remarkable ships' artifacts. The thrill of discovery was short-lived when, a mere decade later, the ships and the museum that displayed them burned down amidst the chaos of World War II.
Today a Lake Nemi museum tells the story of Caligula's extravagant houseboats and displays scale models, architectural drawings and rare artifacts that survived the fire. Outside, a life-size reconstruction of the sailing ship's hull is on display.
Meanwhile, back at Lake Cumberland
Throughout recorded history, palatial houseboats have been a favorite indulgence of royalty and the very wealthy. In the modern world, luxurious houseboats have become a favorite vacation getaway for middle class families, too, thanks to the availability of houseboat rentals.
Rare Roman helmet goes to auction
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Roman Rare Bronze