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The woman next to me was complaining that "the ruins we saw in Libya are much better preserved than these." We were standing in what amounts to ruins of ruins of ruins at Miseno, at the extreme western end of the Gulf of Naples, in the middle of what used to be Portus Iulius, the home port for the western Imperial fleet under Caesar Augustus. She was right, of course, but then antiquity holds up pretty well in the desert air. Libya, too, is about six times larger than all of Italy and has fewer people in it than I can see from my balcony in Naples.
The specific ruins she was groaning about are a theater, at one time an amphitheater with the spectator seats—row upon row—set in the side of the cliff overlooking the outer harbor of the port—now called "Lake Miseno," such that the spectators had their backs to the hillside and, beyond the cliff, the water. Of course, we couldn't see any of that because the concave recess that was once the amphitheater is full of modern houses, some of which actually incorporate Roman masonry. We were actually in the man-made cavern beneath the theater, a passageway running the perimeter of the semicircular structure above and—two-thousand years ago—allowing entrance from the waterfront, itself. In order to get in there, we walked through someone's front yard and down some stairs by the driveway and garage. (Presumably a concession the owner has to make to the Ministry of Culture for being permitted to have his bathroom take up aisle IV, seats XII through XXVI.)
Part of the problem—no, all of the problem—is that very little of this was discovered until the 1960s, when overbuilding went absolutely wild, what with everyone wanting to ride the Italian economic miracle to the outskirts and live high up overlooking the bay where, yea, brave Ulysses sailed, and only a few hundred yards from where some of the juiciest parts in The Aeneid are supposed to have played out.
discovered and excavated what is left of a sacello
(a small shrine, see photo, above) built to Caesar
Augustus, but any appreciation of that, as well, has
to contend with adjacent apartments. Certainly, in
an area of Italy with abundant and open displays of
ancient Rome, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, and
even ancient Greece, such as Cuma and Paestum, it is
strange to prop yourself up against a bus-stop so
you can try to shoot around the rubbish bin for a
good shot of a shrine to the emperor.
however, and high at the top of the cliff over the
bay is the Cento Camarelle —the One Hundred
Little Rooms— (entrance in photo, right) a group of
cisterns arranged on two levels oriented at
right-angles to each other. Whether or not there are
really one-hundred chambers, I don't know, but the
entire labyrinth is impressive and cut out of the
tuff of the cliff. The passageways between the
individual cisterns are narrow and none of the
entire affair is for the claustrophobic. The walls
are still plastered with the waterproof plaster
called cocciopesto and there are graffiti on
those walls from those who have visited before you.
One I saw was from "1737". Besides the two
accessible levels, there is evidence of another one
even deeper. The great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, suggested
that much of the structure was originally a basement
of sorts for a private villa, possibly that of the
orator Quintus Hortensius Ortalus (114–50 b.c),
public-speaking rival of Cicero, himself. That is
speculative, of course, but, in any event, that
would place any private villa on the spot well
before the time at which the premises were
eventually given over to the service of the later
imperial port under Augustus.