Culture Club/Bridgeman via Getty Images, DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty images
- For decades, many believed the Nazis were responsible for the destruction of Caligula’s Nemi ships.
- The massive first-century boats were used for the debauched Roman emperor’s love for partying.
- A new book reveals US artillery was accountable for the burning of the ships, The Times reports
The history behind the destruction of two boats known as the Nemi ships that belonged to the notorious Roman Emperor Caligula has been shrouded in mystery. While many believed the Nazis burned them during World War II, a new book finds that a US artillery unit was responsible for their destruction.
Caligula, known for his taste for opulent luxury and love of outlandish parties, had the “pleasure boats” equipped with artwork – including marble statues and mosaics, archeologists believe. The massive party boats — measuring between 230 and 240 feet — stationed on Lake Nemi in Italy were ahead of their time, as they had a plumbing system for running water, according to Atlas Obscura.
While it is unclear why the boats sank, popular mythology says that Caligula — ruler of Rome from 37 AD until his assassination in 41 AD — sank the ships himself during a “drunken orgy,” according to the travel outlet.
Caligula’s boats were recovered from the bottom of the lake in the early 20th century and kept in a museum by Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini. However, the relics were destroyed during the war in a fire.
At the time, it was widely believed that Hitler’s Nazis were responsible for the burned ships. But a new book shines a light on their history — claiming it was a US artillery unit that burned the vessels.
“It was easier to point the finger at the Germans, and the report was a hurried attempt to blame them,” Stefano Paolucci, a historian and co-author of the forthcoming book “The Burning of the Nemi Boats,” told The Times.
“Whoever is doing the fighting, war is always destructive”
US soldiers with mortar shells scrawled with anti-Hitler chalk messages, 1943.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A report at the time written with the support of US and British officials found that the boats were burned by Nazi troops in 1944, according to The Times, accusing the Germans of committing a “crime against civilization.”
A 1944 New York Times headline read, “NAZIS BURN GALLEYS OF ANCIENT ROMANS.”
“The Germans denied it, but that’s been the view for 80 years before we analyzed the report and realized it didn’t add up,” Flavio Altamura, an archeologist, and co-author of the book, told The Times.
The two researchers believe that US shells hit the museum roof during the war, which likely caused shrapnel to hit the wooden boats and destroy them. Other reports at the time that corroborated their theory were overlooked at the time, they said, because of embarrassment by the Allied forces.
The researchers also argued that an Italian heritage official who led the inquiry into the destruction of the ships was eager to blame the Germans and ingratiate himself with the Allies to overlook his ties to fascism.
“Our research won’t give us back the boats, but we believe we have cleared up the mystery and shown that whoever is doing the fighting, war is always destructive,” Altamura told The Times.