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SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Nero's Sunken City

Statue in underwater nymphaeum, Baiae.
Courtesy of ©B&B Films, Alberto Vitale
Statue in underwater nymphaeum, Baiae.

Encore Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 (This episode is no longer available to stream)

—Follow archaeologists who are mapping underwater ruins of ancient Rome’s version of Las Vegas—

Beneath the turquoise waves of the Bay of Naples lies an extraordinary underwater archeology site, the ancient Roman city of Baiae. From the first century to the third century AD, Baiae was the exclusive playground for the rich and powerful among Rome’s elite. What made Baiae such a special place? What really went on there? And why did it disappear? For the first time, an international team of scientists, archaeologists, and historians is meticulously mapping the underwater ruins and piecing together evidence that could provide answers to these questions. SECRETS OF THE DEAD chronicles this investigation uncovering what life was like in “Nero’s Sunken City.”

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Preview | Nero’s Sunken City

While some of Baiae’s ruins remain intact on land, more than half of this coastal city is submerged under water. These underwater ruins are three times the size of those in Pompeii. Archaeologists have found a network of roads, miles of brick walls and villas with rich marble floors, and splendid mosaics. But what they haven’t found are any identifiable public buildings, no forum, temple or market place. The remains consist of one vast luxury villa after another – a Roman Beverly Hills – with elaborate spas and water features, marble statues inspired by Greek art, ponds for farming fish, and more. The villas were like mini-cities. No expense was spared to create these seaside vacation homes where barges floating in the bay were the site of raucous parties.

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Nero's Banquets in Baiae

“Some of the greatest names of the Roman republic…Caesar, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Nero, all of these men had villas at Baiae,” says Professor Kevin Dicus, who has spent the last decade excavating Roman remains around the Bay of Naples. “This was where aristocrats could come and shed their public persona and pursue pleasures in private. Illicit sex, drunkenness, parties on the beach, parties on boats. What happened at Baiae stayed at Baiae.”

Professor Kevin Dicus, who has spent the last decade excavating Roman remains around the Bay of Naples, at Archaeological Park, Baiae.
Courtesy of ©Lion Television, Stuart Elliott
Professor Kevin Dicus, who has spent the last decade excavating Roman remains around the Bay of Naples, at Archaeological Park, Baiae.

More than any other emperor, Nero was infamous for his hedonism and Baiae was his escape. Here, he could indulge in his sadistic fantasies.

“To Nero, Baiae represented everything he wished Rome was. This was much more than a second home. Now, he could bring the pleasures that he experienced here and try and replicate them in Rome, but really there was no comparison,” says Professor Dicus. “At Baiae, Nero could engage in his hedonistic lifestyle. He could take to the baths, enjoy the hot springs, eat fresh oysters, have boat parties, get drunk, have sex, all of this away from the drudgery of daily politics of Rome.”

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: What Happened at Baiae, Stayed at Baiae

But Baiae was more than a place of opulence, the Las Vegas of its day. It was also the site of some of the most treacherous political dealings of ancient Rome with Emperor Nero and his enemies hatching deadly plots against each other. What lengths was Nero willing to take to gain his Aunt Domitia’s villa? What plans did Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a wealthy nobleman, have for the emperor as he vacationed at his villa? What scheme did Nero devise in Baiae to end the power struggle with his mother? In the fourth century AD, seismic activity caused half of Baiae to sink into the bay. Located 150 miles south of Rome, Baiae remains one of the least explored places in the Roman Empire, until now.

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Baian Seafood Casserole and Oyster Farming in Baiae

This episode is no longer available to stream.

SECRETS OF THE DEAD is on Facebook #SecretsDeadPBS


A production of Lion Television/An All3Media Company with B&B Film and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with Channel 4 and ZDF. Narrator is Jay O. Sanders. Writer and director is Stuart Elliot. Executive producers for Lion Television are Richard Bradley and Caterina Turroni. Executive producer for B&B Film is Raffaele Brunetti. Executive-in-Charge for WNET is Stephen Segaller. Executive Producer for WNET is Steve Burns. Supervising Producer for WNET is Stephanie Carter.