Nero's Sunken Ship
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 5/20/2019


I returned to the PBS series Secrets of the Dead to see if another ancient Roman investigation that mentions Emperor Nero also shows pro-Nero bias. Unlike The Nero Files, which I reviewed earlier, Nero’s Sunken City appears to have been made for the series rather than previously being shown elsewhere. As before, I watched the documentary twice all the way through, first just to watch it, and then to take notes and look into it more deeply.

The sunken city explored in this 55-minute documentary is Baiae, located along the northeast coastline of the Gulf of Naples, approximately 150 miles south of Rome. For six centuries (ca. 100 BCE to 500 CE), the rich and famous of the Roman world vacationed here and turned it into a resort town. To serve vacationers’ desires, the city was home to a wide range of entertainment and services. Some of the most elite Romans even built villas so they could return time and again. While we may think of Pompeii as a great lost Roman city, Baiae was much larger and closer to Rome itself.

Just doing a basic check into Baiae raised an immediate question about this documentary: Why is it called “Nero’s Sunken City?”

Did Nero build it? No, the city existed well before his time, since it seems to have been constructed as a port for Cumae, a former Greek colony dating back to the eighth century BCE.

Could the city have suffered damage and been rebuilt by Nero as he rebuilt large sections of Rome after the Great Fire there? The sinking of over half the city happened in the fourth century CE, long after Nero was dead. His own holdings were not targeted by the disaster, nor did all of his creations sink.

Nero did have an elaborate villa here, but most of the city had become imperial property under the emperor Augustus decades before. Years after Nero’s suicide, new villas were created and old ones remodeled under emperors such as Hadrian and Septimius Severus. Hadrian even died here. So why does the documentary call it “Nero’s?”

Approximately 40% of the way through the documentary we get to Nero. Throughout the remaining minutes we examine Nero’s relationship to Baiae using literary and archeological records. In effect, the show is claiming that Nero valued the city more than other emperors, and thus the city could be called his. But that ignores the emperors that came after him and the people who vacationed and lived there for hundreds of years after his suicide. Is that claim correct, or does it show a bias in this episode?

At any rate, this documentary is really about something else: exploring the sunken part of the city, which is more than half of it, by following an international team of underwater archeologists led by Barbara Davide. They are carefully mapping out the sunken parts of the ancient city using 3-D scanning to help create digital images of what remains. You can currently see the ruins from the water, but since the area is still volcanically active – surrounded by 25 volcanoes, in fact – mapping it is important for future scholars. For decades, archeologists have been studying and removing artifacts as well, because the land around the bay is rising and may fall again with the cycles of the volcanoes.

Davide is not the only expert who shows us the current research going on in Baiae. Kevin Dicus, an archaeologist who has been reclaiming artifacts from Baiae, and Jerry Toner, a historian who studies the social history of Rome, both use artifacts and ruins to discuss the wealth and importance of the city. Dicus also calls upon the words of ancient authors like Seneca, Varro, Tacitus, Suetonius, and even Apicius’ cookbook to draw out fuller information about Baiae, though often without questioning the biases that those texts might contain. Of the five experts in the show, Dicus captures the most screen time.

But vulcanologist Dougal Jerram and Roman engineering expert Candace Rice both seem to be having a lot of fun, too. Jerram shows us the still-active volcanoes in the area and talks about how they both damaged and built Baiae. The show does an excellent job of handing us over to Rice, who walks us through Nero’s Boiler, the only functional ancient Roman baths left in Baiae. Unlike the other structures covered during the documentary, Nero’s Boiler did not sink, but I believe it is discussed because it ties into other finds and subjects of importance. The visual and textual connection, along with the intercutting of different experts, is entertaining and informative.

During the documentary, we are told about several important discoveries that have been made through the collaboration of different teams. This is how good research is done into history regardless of the period, but this is particularly necessary when we are looking further into the past and need every bit of evidence we can gather. I was pleased to see the interconnections between specialists and teams repeatedly turned to in the course of the show.

The now-underwater imperial villa of Emperor Claudius is identified by a statue of his mother. The documentary shows the remains of fish farms with fresh water feeds in the luxury areas of the city, then segues into looking at the Piscina Mirabilis, the largest fresh water cistern in the empire, and finally it presents the Augustan Aqueduct that fed it from mountains 90 miles away. The Via Heraculeum is discussed as a means of connection to major ports and roads that led to Rome. The Flavian amphitheater of Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli), just across the bay from Baiae, also sank in the fourth century CE. When it was in use, it was the third-largest amphitheater in the entire empire, indicating that people vacationing or doing business in Baiae and Pozzuoli demanded the best. The underwater team and artifact research confirm the location of Piso’s villa, where ancient sources say a plot was hatched against Nero. Historians aptly call it “the Pisonian conspiracy.”

Tales about Nero’s hedonism and violence are accepted in Nero’s Sunken City. It is stated by narrator, archeologist, and historian Dicus that Baiae may have been more important to Emperor Nero than to other emperors or members of the Roman elite. However, that isn’t proven – the show just exclusively focuses on Nero and his holdings as soon as they encounter anything connected to him. By doing so, the producer is undoubtedly attempting to cash in on a “big name” that most people today will recognize in order to increase his audience share.

Yes, during his lifetime, Nero did spend a good deal of time in Baiae, and he made investments in it. He acquired his aunt’s villa as well as controlling Claudius’, giving him two massive estates. Evidence of Nero’s playing political favorites survives, and there are examples of his wanting to build far more in Baiae, but without comparison to other villas and business owners, how can we say that this was of the highest importance to Nero? Nero probably did enjoy the fact that people came to Baiae to get away from Rome and indulge, but he certainly wasn’t the only person to do so.

Picking Nero as the common thread allows the documentary to craft a narrative for the experts and the audience to follow, certainly, but it also risks misrepresenting Baiae and limiting the scope of its importance to the movers and shakers of Roman world. It is clear that research is ongoing in Baiae, and I hope that PBS will follow up on this to help us get a fuller view of what the show kept calling “the Vegas of the Roman Empire.”

Secrets of the Dead: Nero’s Sunken City originally aired on PBS stations on March 29, 2017. You can stream it for free for a limited time on PBS here until March 27, 2021.


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