Other Roman emperors lived longer, had more fame, conquered more lands and ended more lives, but Caligula remains the favorite of many because of short reign of cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversion made famous by Malcolm McDowell in the cult classic, “Caligula.” While parts of the movie are fiction, new facts have emerged about Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, nicknamed Caligula (“little boot”) by his father’s soldiers, in the form of his extravagant house and garden, which has finally been excavated in central Rome and set to go on display.
“The beauty of this place was legendary. Archaeologists call it the Domus Aurea of Caligula. Gardens animated by terraces connected by stairs, exotic gardens, pavilions covered with marble from all over the Mediterranean and brightly colored paintings. These were the Horti Lamiani, a residential complex set on the hill in front of the Palatine Hill, known only from literary sources, but which is now revealed through a vast underground archaeological area near Piazza Vittorio.”
Il Messaggero reports on the excavation of what archeologists call the Domus Aurea (Golden Dome) of Caligula. Found under the offices 19th-century of Enpam, a company that manages doctors’ pensions, the excavation was long and tedious because the office had to be propped up on columns and the extraordinary amount of artifacts that were uncovered. The main house and gardens were built by Lucius Aelius Lamia, a wealthy senator, who bequeathed the property to the estate of the emperor. Caligula moved in in 37 CE but didn’t get to spend much time in debauchery there before his untimely yet inevitable demise.
“From the bowels of Piazza Vittorio, a monumental staircase that connected the terracing system has re-emerged, and here it is easy to imagine that Caligula was walking enjoying the spectacle of a palace built on the Hellenistic and oriental model , which combined architectural splendor and decorative flair, with the virtuosity of nymphaeums, fountains and water games.”
Archaeologist Mirella Serlorenzi, who was in charge of the excavation, describes the structures and artifacts that will be on display at the new Nymphaeum Museum in Piazza Vittorio. Besides the decorated walls, columns and pieces of the pavilions, there are thousands of artifacts – amphorae (narrow-necked jars with two handles), ceramics, sculptures, marbles, tools, jewels, gems, glass, coins, brooches, gems and bronze buttons. Then there’s the Horti Lamiani (Lamian Gardens) which the emperor’s home was famous for.
“Bones of lions, bears and ostriches, but also deer and fawns. We have to imagine in this place animals running free as if it were an enchanted landscape, but also animals ferocious that were used, as in the Colosseum, for private circus games. The great variety of seeds testifies, then, that the gardens collected plants imported from the East and Africa."
According to Serlorenzi , it took three years to remove about 30 thousand cubic meters of archaeological stratification and five years of cleaning and restoration. (Photos here.)The end result shows the beautiful home and garden enjoyed by Roman emperors before and after Caligula. Unfortunately, Caligula didn’t have much time to enjoy it himself – he was assassinated at age 28 by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators, and courtiers. He couldn’t even enjoy it in death -- his sisters (some of whom he was accused of having sex with) dragged his body there to honor him, but had to burn it to protect it from avenging citizens.
Roman karma? While the Nymphaeum Museum in Piazza Vittorio will showcase the beauty and extravagance of Horti Lamiani, it will not show much of the perverted side of Caligula. For that, rent the movie.