Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Feb 2015

The Roman Cemetery for the Western Imperial Fleet (the Classis Praetoria Misenensis )

Archaeologists call it the Cappella necropolis at Monte di Procida, but I think my title is better in that it tells you what the site really was and also gives it some of the respect that it must have had two thousand years ago. The recently (2003) excavated site is on the slopes of Monte di Procida in a section called Cappella, over the waters of the old imperial port of Miseno (photo, right). That is at the edge of the area known as the Campi Flegrei (the Fiery Fields); the Monte di Procida ridge, itself, is the remnant volcanic rim of the cataclysmic Archiflegrean caldera collapse of some 40,000 years ago of which the Greeks and Romans knew nothing, of course. It was just a fine natural harbor, a great place to moor your ships. The climate was mild, the soil was fertile, and there were thermal springs eager to soothe your body and spirit. And so it was that the whole area in that part of the bay was a true hub of activity, civil and military, when the city of Naples (Neapolis) further to the east was still asleep. Because of that long early urban history, you come across vestiges of the ancient past in amongst the modern fabric of the area, sometimes on the surface, and sometimes right below the surface.

The necropolis was originally a mausoleum dated to the late Republican period (i.e., around 100 BC). As such, there is certain to have been a further underground chamber in addition to what has already been excavated. So far, beyond the main chambers, they have found four spaces that were collective or  “group” tombs. They are dated to the first Imperial period (first century AD). They were built in the brick design known as opus reticulatum and faced directly on the road, making them easily accessible. On the front wall of these spaces there is a votive shrine mounted by a triangular pediment (or gable) and a semivault decorated in stucco and representing a shell. There are niches (columbaria) along all of the walls to hold the ashes of the deceased (image, right).

Various things speak to the site as being a naval cemetery. One is the presence of frescoed figures representing the cult of Isis and Dionysus, the mystery divinities whose followers practiced initiation rites and believed in resurrection after death, a belief that was very much in vogue in military circles at the time. Also, some of the epitaphs show the presence of the remains of sailors of the imperial fleet quartered at Miseno. There is one that carries a dedication of Lucius Vibius Valentus, non-commissioned officer aboard the trireme, Capricorn, to his heir, ordinary seaman on the trireme Virtus, one Tiberius Claudius Phoebus. The inscription tells us that Tiberius was originally from Asia Minor and that he lived 30 years and served 14 of them in the Miseno fleet. Towards the beginning of the 2nd century AD the Romans started burying their dead (as opposed to cremation) such that, with time, the earthen graves encroached upon the earlier tombs (about one-hundred of these have been found in the area). The necropolis does not seem to have been used after the end of the 4th century.

[I am indebted to NapoliUnderground for both photos on this page as well as to their own article on this same subject. They have additional photos as well as a video at this link.]

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