By the time of his assassination in 41 A.D., the Roman emperor Caligula was infamous for his violent streak and extravagant amusements, including a huge compound featuring a bathhouse adorned with precious colored marble and space for exotic animals. Now, reports Franz Lidz for the New York Times, the remains of this pleasure garden—known as Horti Lamiani—are set to go on public display beneath the streets of Rome.
Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Cultural Activities and Tourism plans to open the subterranean gallery, dubbed the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio, this spring. Visitors will be able to see a section of the imperial garden, complete with artifacts including a marble staircase and elaborate frescoes.
“The ruins tell extraordinary stories, starting with the animals,” Mirella Serlorenzi, the ministry’s director of excavations, tells the New York Times. “It is not hard to imagine animals, some caged and some running wild, in this enchanted setting.”
Archeologists began excavating the site in 2006. Digging beneath crumbling 19th-century buildings, they found a wealth of jewelry, coins and pottery, as well as seeds from imported Asian plants like citron and apricot plus the bones of peacocks, lions and bears.
Speaking with the New York Times, historian and author Daisy Dunn says that the art discovered at the site is surprisingly tasteful.
“The frescoes are incredibly ornate and of a very high decorative standard,” she adds. “Given the descriptions of Caligula’s licentious lifestyle and appetite for luxury, we might have expected the designs to be quite gauche.”
Per Philip Willan of the London Times, wealthy Roman senator Lucius Aelius Lamia commissioned construction of the estate’s main house and gardens. He originally bequeathed the property to then-emperor Tiberius; Caligula inherited it when he assumed power in 37 A.D.
Serlorenzi tells the Times that the site contains some of classical Rome’s most remarkable artifacts, including rooms in which marble surfaces were inlaid with carved pieces of different colors.
“The walls really were ‘painted’ in marble,” Serlorenzi says.
Caligula, originally known as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, was born in 12 A.D. His father was the famous Roman general Germanicus. Troops at the army post where the young Gaius grew up gave him the nickname Caligula, meaning “little boot”—a reference to the child-sized military sandal-boots he wore, according to History.com’s Jennie Cohen.
Declared emperor at age 24, Caligula started suffering from a severe illness just seven months into his reign. Some observers and historians say the bout of ill health contributed to his erratic and cruel behavior in the years that followed. In 38 A.D., for instance, he executed Naevius Sutorius Macro, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who had helped him become emperor, per Encyclopedia Britannica.
Caligula was known for his extravagant spending, including the construction of a two-mile floating bridge. He’s also said to have forced senators to run for miles in front of his chariot and carried on affairs with his allies’ wives. It’s worth noting, however, that much of what modern scholars know about the emperor was written by historians who disliked him and may have distorted the record. As researchers at Encyclopedia Britannica point out, contrary to a popular story, Caligula probably never intended to appoint his pampered horse, Incitatus, as consul.
In 41, the reviled emperor was stabbed to death in a conspiracy organized by members of the Praetorian Guard, the Senate and the equestrian order. His sisters brought his body to Horti Lamiani and burned it. Per the New York Times, the Roman historian Suetonius claimed that Caligula’s ghost remained behind to haunt the gardens. Still, they remained in use at least until the time of the Severan dynasty, which ruled from 193 to 235 A.D. By the fourth century, the gardens had been abandoned, only to be rediscovered in 1874.
Today, the property belongs to pension management company Enpam, which paid for the $3.5 million archaeological project. Researchers investigated the underground site at the same time the company was having a new office building constructed above it.
Dunn tells the New York Times that having the old pleasure garden on display may provide the public with a new window into Caligula’s life.
“I doubt these new discoveries will do much to rehabilitate his character,” she says. “But they should open up new vistas on his world, and reveal it to be every bit as paradisiacal as he desired it to be.