On the western end of the Gulf of Naples lies the Bay of Bauli. Around the year 39, Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) decided to bridge that bay by linking together the sea towns of Baiae and Puteoli, which were separated by miles of water. In the days of Caligula’s predecessors, if the Romans wanted to temporarily bridge a waterway, they would bind together pontoon rafts to create a floating platform across the water. Caligula had something similar in mind, but mere rafts were too common for this emperor.
Instead of simple pontoon rafts, Caligula allegedly commandeered whole ships from the local merchant fleet in the Naples region and rigged them together into a makeshift bridge. To level out the ships of various sizes, the emperor had the vessels boarded over with planks and covered with soil. When the final ship was put in place, linking Baiae to Puteoli, the bridge of ships and earth reportedly stretched over three miles. After the completion of the bridge, Caligula decided he needed to give sacrificial thanks to the sea deities—to do this, he allegedly lured an unfortunate group of people out onto a deep section of the bridge and had them drowned in the bay.
To celebrate the completion of the bridge, the excited and proud Caligula set aside two days from his busy schedule in order to enjoy the new path across the bay. According to Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Caligula spent the first day trotting back and forth across the bridge on a decorated horse, while wearing a gold-cloth cloak, a civic crown, and a sword and shield. On the second day, the emperor’s extravagance was even greater. That day, the emperor reportedly led a parade of chariots across the bridge. Caligula, at the head of the party, personally dressed up in the wardrobe of a charioteer, possibly looking like a member of the Greens, the emperor’s favorite racing faction.
After the two days of marching back and forth across the bridge in various costumes, Caligula seemingly lost interest in the great floating platform. Historical records rarely, if ever, mention Caligula returning to the spot and the bridge presumably was dismantled not long after its construction.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Right part of a plaque from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus known as the “Census frieze”. Marble, Roman artwork of the late 2nd century BC. From the Campo Marzio, Rome. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.