Watery spirit of Caligula lives on

April 26, 1996

A group of Italian academics and enthusiasts are planning to reconstruct a 230-foot ship from the 1st century ad reign of the Roman emperor, Caligula. It will be the largest ancient ship to be rebuilt, much bigger than the Greek trireme launched in 1995. If the project is successful a second ship will also be rebuilt and both vessels will be used on Lake Nemi, east of Rome.

The two ships were originally built by order of Caligula around 40ad and were used on Lake Nemi for celebrations of the goddess Diana, whose temple stood on the lakeshore. On nights of the full moon in August, when the moon appeared to be vertically over the lake, the ships with the emperor and his retinue sailed out onto the lake to worship Diana, goddess of hunting.

The ships sank in the lake long after Caligula's death. They were recovered between 19 and 1931. In an unprecedented feat of engineering most of the lake was drained. The ships were hauled to the shore and a museum was built around them. In 1944, German troops retreating northwards set fire to them. Today only a few charred remains and prewar photographs and diagrams can be seen in the museum.

The plan to rebuild the ships originated with a group of local enthusiasts who have brought in historians, archaeologists, and specialists in naval engineering.

Academics already working on the project are Piero Gianfrotta of Viterbo University, an expert in naval architecture, Maria Grazia Siliato, an archeologist at Rome's La Sapienza University, and Patrice Pomey, a naval architecture specialist from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France, who worked on a Roman ship raised off Marseilles.

The organisers are also interested in consulting academics from outside Italy and may get in touch with the team from Oxford that worked on the Greek trireme. The project will cost around Pounds 3 million.

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