Booze Cruises and Bacchic Orgies: This Beach Resort was the Party Capital of Ancient Rome

Booze Cruises and Bacchic Orgies: This Beach Resort was the Party Capital of Ancient Rome

Alexander Meddings - September 4, 2017

It’s for good reason Rome is called “the eternal city“, for although millennia have passed, certain things remain remarkably unchanged. I’m not talking about architecture. Sure a lot of it still stands, stripped of its color but impressive nonetheless, weaving a monumental narrative back through the ages of the Popes, the Caesars, and the Republic. I’m not talking about the atmosphere of the city either; true the noise and the chaos remains, but it’s hard to imagine today’s city captures much of the ancient caput mundi: head and center of the world.

What hasn’t changed over the last two millennia are some of the practices and routines of the Romans themselves, specifically how Romans of any wealth do whatever they can to get out of the city when the oppressive August heat hits. Roman summers are scorching; it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach the high 30s or even 40s. And we know the ancients felt the heat just as much 2,000 years ago as they do today because they told us themselves.

The satirist Juvenal, writing in the late first and early second century AD, tells us that when August came around, and poets filled the city’s streets en masse to give tedious public recitals, it meant time to shut up shop and leave the city. The Younger Pliny too tells us that July marked a holiday from the law courts, presumably because it was too unbearably hot to litigate for hours on end. Spend time in Rome during this month today, and you’ll understand his reasoning.

Booze Cruises and Bacchic Orgies: This Beach Resort was the Party Capital of Ancient Rome
Modern reimagining of Ancient Baiae. Jean Claude Golvin

But where did Rome’s ancient citizens go when they wanted to get away? Like today’s Italians, some headed to the mountains to enjoy some peace and quiet while soaking up the fresh air. Others, especially those of some money, fled to their country houses or villae. We know that the great orator and politician Cicero had dozens of them, some in the middle of nowhere, others on various coastlines where he would constantly be interrupted from his relaxation by passing friends and acquaintances. Cicero was at one of his more remote country estates when he was murdered, in fact, beheaded by centurions on the orders of Octavian—later the first Emperor Augustus.

Many of Rome’s ancient inhabitants opted for the coast, especially the long stretch near Naples in the modern region of Campania. And we have a great deal of written and archaeological evidence that they liked most was a beach resort around 20 miles west of Naples known simply as “Baiae” (the Latin word for bay). Situated in a volcanically active area, the resort was rich in warm natural springs, and their healing properties weren’t lost on the ancients who would travel here to soak up their holistic benefits. But it wasn’t its reputation as a spa that earned Baiae its fame, but its reputation for hedonism and debauchery that earned it its notoriety.

Booze Cruises and Bacchic Orgies: This Beach Resort was the Party Capital of Ancient Rome
Statue of Bacchus in Claudius’s Triclinium. SasMap

One of our best descriptions of this side of Baiae comes from Seneca the Younger. A great stoic philosopher and tutor to the somewhat deranged Emperor Nero, Seneca spent much of his later life either trying to hold Nero back from murdering people or trying to survive himself (an endeavor in which he ultimately failed). When he had a moment’s respite, however, Seneca liked to spend his time sermonising, particularly to a friend of his, Lucullus, in a series of letters that have come down to us today.

In one such letter, he complains about the fact that he’s found himself stuck in Baiae. It’s a resort of some natural beauty, Seneca confesses, but it’s mainly a resort Luxury has claimed for itself, where pleasure-seekers from the capital come to let loose and indulge in their vices. Seneca describes how the resort is constantly full of people wandering drunk up and down the beach, on their way from (or indeed to) one of the many bars and taverns lining the strip.

Nor was it just land where the resort’s ancient revelers ran amok. Seneca also describes how any peace and quiet in the bay would be drowned out by the “riotous revelling of sailing parties”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what this “riotous revelling” consisted of. But if you picture a modern-day booze cruise, switch “Despacito” for the din of flutes, and imagine groups of wealthy, wasted Romans screaming incomprehensible Latin or Greek at one another, you probably get the picture.

Seneca goes on: He rails against gangs of lewd women sailing past on brightly colored barges shouting obscenities at those on the shore. Curiously, he also describes roses being strewn across the bay. Who threw them we don’t know; perhaps the lewd women he describes, perhaps other revelers out in the bay. But their symbolism is important. Roses in the Roman world represented dedication to Venus, goddess of love, beauty and most importantly sex. That their sweet smell wafted the resort day and night seems to suggest there was no shortage of the latter, and that the supply of orgies was positively blooming.

Baiae was also immensely popular with some of the big political names of the time. During the time of the Republic, Gaius Marius, Gnaeus Pompey and Julius Caesar had holiday houses overlooking the bay; under the Empire, Augustus, Claudius, Nero and Hadrian had coastal homes there. It was at his villa in Baiae where Hadrian died, probably of heart failure, at the age of 62. But it’s Claudius, and the sunken remains of his villa which because of volcanic activity now lie some five meters underwater, who gives us our most intimate picture of how the rich and famous lived in this resort.

There are extensive archaeological remains of Claudius’s villa, but the most well preserved are those of a triclinium, a long rectangular dining room lined with statues on all sides. There’s Bacchus, the god of wine, theatre and ecstasy, a headless kneeling statue of Odysseus offering the Cyclops a goblet of honeyed wine (after drinking it he would go on to have his one eye gouged out) and a member of the imperial family who historians identify as Claudius’s mother, Octavia. The theme connecting most of these statues seems to have been heavy drinking, something we know Claudius, and his guests, indulged in liberally. But the archaeological record can’t really prove this. Instead, we’re forced to turn back to the ancient literature to find evidence of the Roman elites indulging themselves.

Booze Cruises and Bacchic Orgies: This Beach Resort was the Party Capital of Ancient Rome
“The Bay of Baiae with Apollo and the Sibyl” by J.M.W. Turner (1823). Wikipedia

Our best evidence for this comes from of a court speech given by Cicero in 56 BC in defense of the young aristocrat Marcus Caelius Rufus. He had been accused of civil violence, a serious charge that roughly equated to treason against the state. At one stage, Cicero gives a shortlist of some of the character-assassination charges that have been brought against him: “orgies, love affairs, adultery, Baiae, beach parties, banquets, parties, singing, concerts and boat trips”.

The way he drops Baiae’s name so seamlessly into this list of thoroughly disgraceful, thoroughly un-roman activities and doesn’t bother to mention what goes on there tells us two things: Firstly, that it was precisely those things—orgies, beach parties, banquets, boat trips—that went on there; Secondly, Cicero’s audience knew it. In bringing up Baiae, there was the small problem that Cicero opened himself up to accusations. He did, after all, have a house there. But Cicero, of course, was more interested in the natural and intellectual pursuits around the area. Or at least that’s what he said.

Baiae had its heyday at the turn of the first millennium, drawing many more pleasure seekers than nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum or Capri. As time went on its reputation waned, and by the late Roman Empire it had transformed from a decadent and fashionable resort to the port of the Western Roman Navy, the Portus Julius. It was sacked several times after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, first by the Goths and later by the Muslims in the 8th century. It fell into a derelict, uninhabitable wasteland, rife with malaria, slowly sinking away into due to bradyseism: the falling of land caused by volcanic activity.

A few years ago, all of the remaining sites opened to the public. There are temple remains on land, but the real gems—imperial villae, towers and artificial sea grottos—lie hidden under the sea. You can visit them by booking onto one of the many scuba diving or snorkeling tours run by companies in the area, and see where the ancients went to let loose for their summer holidays 2,000 years ago