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The Las Vegas of Ancient Rome

The rich and powerful of today can enjoy the luxuries of spas, tile lined pools, and villas on a beach, but this isn’t remotely new. The ancient Roman elite had their own sin city that was furnished with all these things. It was called Baia, the Las Vegas of ancient Rome.

At its peak, Baia was the ultimate vacation location, with several notable visitors from important statesmen to famous poets and prime real estate about 18 miles from Naples along Italy’s west coast. Among the recognizable figures that were recorded as having gone to Baia were Nero, Cicero, Vergil, and Caesar. History was recorded at Baia, with tales that Cleopatra fled from Baia upon the news of Caesar’s death and that Baia was where Julia Aggripina plotted Nero’s ascension to the throne. It is from stories like these that Baia’s notoriety comes from, topping off the general illicit affairs that the city was known for. Many upper class visitors ended up commissioning vacation houses there, a sign of their love for the spot. Unlike Las Vegas, Baia’s appeal came from its position atop hot springs, perfect for building spas. Fortunately, modern technology allows Vegas’s desert to surpass the glory of Baia’s boasted natural springs by adding far more entertaining promises to a visit.

Baia was a coastal city, so its comparison to the dryness of Las Vegas is quite ironic. The irony runs very deep because Baia’s downfall came in the 8th century when the city was sacked, and its remains left behind. Volcanic activity in the area (the same activity that allowed the city to prosper by taking advantage of the natural springs) eventually caused the ocean to overtake the city, turning it into what is today an underwater archaeological park. Visitors can see the foundations of the ancient city both above the waterline and by diving under. After the excavation by Amedeo Maiuri, many pieces of the remains are in exhibitions in modern Baia, just on the edge of the waterline. Interestingly, Nevada’s soil used to be the sands of an ocean floor, as proven by local fossils of sea creatures found throughout the valley (and hence why the state dinosaur is the ichthyosaur, a Mesozoic marine reptile). It almost seems as if the idea of cities like Baia and Las Vegas had been drowned centuries ago but seemed to have survived to see another, albeit more modern, era. While it doesn’t seem that Las Vegas is in any danger of being completely submerged anytime soon, it serves as a good reminder that history repeats itself, and the cities and peoples of the ancient world are reflected today.

Information from the Atlas Obscura’s “The Sunken City of Baia” and BBC’s “Ancient Rome’s sinful city at the bottom of the sea”

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