Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

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The Imperial Port of Baia

Not long ago, a piece of an oar was dredged up from the mud of Lake Lucrino, the small body of water near Baia in the bay of Naples. Well, you say, the Mediterranean is brimming with such bits of antiquity. What's so special about this one? This one, it seems, was from a Roman ship, a fighting vessel that was part of a fleet built nearby and that trained here for its subsequent role in one of the most important naval engagements in history. There are three such bodies of water in the area that were crucial in Roman naval history and subsequently in the rise of the Roman Empire: namely, Lake Lucrino, Lake Averno and the harbor of Miseno.

Roman history in the first century before Christ was marked by civil war and unrest. The tumult came to a head with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, an event that set the stage for the struggle to determine who would rule Rome. That struggle was between Octavian, a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. The latter was in league with Egypt (and very in league with Cleopatra!), so the struggle could be said to be between the forces of Rome and those of Egypt. The struggle was decided in 31 BC at the Battle of Actium, a small dot on the Balkan coast in northern Greece opposite the heel of the boot of Italy. 

To fight effectively at sea, the Romans had to change their traditional thinking. For centuries, during the Punic Wars, the Macedonian Wars and endless adventures against piracy in the Mediterranean, Rome had been content not even to have her own real navy. Instead, she relied on using —renting— small squadrons of vessels from her maritime allies, such as the Greek city-states on the Italian mainland and on Sicily. It was a policy that had worked but one that had more than once almost proved disastrous, such as when Sextus attempted to cut off all supply routes in 40 BC, almost succeeding in blockading Rome into submission.

Lake LucrinoOctavian, thus, chose to build a fleet from scratch, and he chose his very able deputy, Agrippa, to build and command it. Four-hundred ships were built from the wooded areas near Naples and they trained on Lake Lucrino, a few miles north of Naples. (The lake at the time of the Romans was much larger than the pond you see today [photo, left]. The violent seismic activity in the 16th century that formed the hill of Montenuovo right next to it also emptied most of the water.) Agrippa joined Lake Lucrino to the adjacent Lake Averno and to the gulf of Cuma by canals in order to form a single large naval base, portus Iulius. (A chariot tunnel from Averno to Cuma was built at the same time and has partially survived the ravages of time.)

The Roman vessels were somewhat smaller than those of Marc Antony. The Roman fleet that trained at Lucrino and Averno was made up of small, fast triremes (sailing ships with three banks of oarsmen) as well as "fives" and "sevens" (here, the number refers to the number of rowers on each oar). The Romans specialized in speeding into close quarters and boarding by grapnel to let their superb infantry swarm onto enemy vessels. Antony's fleet, on the other hand, was the last great one in history built along lines pioneered by the Greeks. Some of the ships were monsters, virtual sea-going cities with boarding towers, artillery and large infantry forces on board. They were propelled through the water by sail and as many as ten rowers on a single oar.

The two fleets, each of 400-500 vessels, met off of Actium. The Roman fleet had been in battle a few years earlier. Marc Antony's fleet was green. The battle, itself, was somewhat of an anticlimax. The Romans succeeded in bottling up the Egyptians along the coast and picking them off little by little until Queen Cleopatra decided to make a run for it. She got away —and her fleet commander and lover, Marc Antony, sailed right after her, deserting his men and ships! The disheartened Egyptian fleet surrendered to the forces of Octavian, effectively ending the dispute about who was going to rule Rome. Antony and Cleopatra did the Liebestod thing, Octavian changed his name to Caesar Augustus, and all was right with the world.

The third important small body of water in the area (after Lucrino and Averno) was Miseno, the natural harbor sheltered by Cape Miseno near Cuma. Misenum actually referred to the pair of harbors behind the cape: inner and outer, to the west and east, respectively. They had been used for centuries by the Greek city-state of Cuma just beyond the gulf. Caesar Augustus formed his first imperial fleet shortly after the Battle of Actium. He had two main bases built in Italy: one at Ravenna at the mouth of the Po river, and the other at Miseno. To make Misenum suitable for its new role as an Imperial home port, the Romans built new breakwaters and a freshwater reservoir of unparalleled size. The outer harbor served the active vessels of the Roman navy and provided room for training exercises, while its inner counterpart (to which it was connected by a canal crossed by a wooden bridge) was designed for the reserve fleet and for repairs, and as a refuge from storms. The complex remained connected by canal and tunnel with Averno and Lucrino. 

Because of its location, Misenum controlled the entire Italian west coast, the islands and the Straits of Messina. The Misenum fleet had a number of secondary ports along the Tyrrhenian coast, probably at Ostia, Centumcellai (modern Civitavecchia) and Calaris (Cagliari) in Sardinia. Eventually, the Roman Empire would extend its Imperial fleets, with 'home ports' at Alexandria, in Syria and Britain, as well as a river fleet in Germany. The Misenum fleet, however, being one of the two Imperial fleets of the Italian homeland, is referred to—as is the Ravenna fleet—in Roman records as classes praetoriae, a prestigious term, indeed, putting them on a par with the Imperial Guard, the Praetorians. The importance of the Misenum fleet waned with the integrity of the Roman Empire, itself. The fleet survived the periods of unrest in the third century and was reorganized, but later proved ineffective in keeping Constantine's ships from seizing Italian ports in the struggles that led to the ultimate division of the Roman Empire into two parts, east and west. 

(See related article on the Serino aqueduct that supplied this area.)

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