The Statue of Caligula from Lake Nemi

At the start of the year a colossal statue of a seated man, in pieces, was found near Lake Nemi in Italy. It was identified as Caligula because of the “caligae” or military boots the statue wore, and after which the emperor was nick-named. (Caligula's biography makes phone hacking victims of 9/11 seem 'nice')

The Guardia di Finanza have now released more information about the find: a press release and the video below. They are involved because the site was targeted by looters before they were caught and real archaeologists moved in.

I can't see enough of the head (2.22 onwards), which is in poor condition, to make out who it could have been: it's not not Caligula, and it is damaged enough, and markedly more so than the rest of the statue, to have possibly been deliberately defaced, which would make sense if one assumes that the statue was subject to damnatio memoriae. The back of the head was not fully carved, showing that it was designed to stand against a wall or in a niche, which suggests a man rather than a god. The size of the head works with the statue, but they were not found together: the head is believed to have rolled downhill into a water tank soon after it had been deliberately damaged in antiquity.

The style of the statue strikes me as first century AD, probably Julio-Claudian and made in Regio 1 but a leading sculptor, although it's difficult for sure to tell without seeing it in the flesh. The marble is said to be Greek, from Paros.

Certainly the colossal size shows that it has to be either an emperor or a god: it was originally 2.5 m high. I am not sure that the boot must indicate it was Caligula. The throne backs up the imperial or divine attribution, and the iconography depicted suggests links to Zeus.

But if it did suffer from deliberate defacement soon after production - and its excellent condition would suggest this rather than destruction by the Christians, with the emphasis on the statue's face not the pagan figures on the throne - then this supports the theory of it having represented Caligula. Although we use the Latin term damnatio memoriae, the Romans termed this abolitio nominis. It was the posthumous fate of 'bad' emperors from Caligula onwards, including Nero, Galba, Vitellus, Otho, Domitian (died AD 96), and then revived after the usurper Avidius Cassius for a good half of the emperors. Women, particularly executed wives, also suffered this fate regularly. In many cases this did not involve the destruction of statues, but simply meant that the person had not been deified.

Lake Nemi has long been associated with Caligula, and is known for his palatial ships, probably based on Ptolemy's famous one, which were recovered some years ago. (I love this very evocative old article with tales of his orgies and murders there). The lake itself was dedicated to Diana, so if we see the statue as being a god it would have to be her brother Apollo - but because of the way first Tiberius then Caligula tried to assimilate themselves to her cult here, this makes it unlikely unless it represented Caligula as Apollo. The statue was found, and the excavations in the video took place, on the north-west side of the lake.

The statue was found in two large pieces and hundreds of smaller ones. It was cut into large 'chunks' by the looters to make it easier to transport, then more fragments were recovered by real archaeologists.

Around it were found fragments of what seems to have been a semi-circular architectural framework, possibly a nymphaeum, which stood some seven meters high. It was originally thought to be a mausoleum, but given Caligula's murder and infamous after-life, this was soon poo-pooed by scholars. Other remains suggest some sort of a thermal bathing complex, presumably part of an Imperial villa yet to be discovered.

The link to the Nymphs is because of the find of a lead stamp with the name of a previous owner, Caius Julius Silanus (a man of this name appears in CIL VI.2065 in AD 19). The family has strong ties to the Julio-Claudians, and Lucius Julius Silanus was possibly a suffect consul in this period. There continue to be confusion between the old Republican noble Junii Silani, and the newer Julii Silani who became consuls and prominent at the end of the first century. In the period covered by these excavations these two families overlap, and even ancient sources cannot decide whether Aemilia Lepida was married to a Julius Silanus (Cassius Dio) or a Junius Silanus (other sources) ...

The Guardia have released many photos, see above, and La Reppublica has an article about the find:  
Caligola, ritrovata la statua colossale svela il vero volto dell'imperatore


  1. I am the most excited about these recent photos, I am a Julio Claudian enthusiast and appreciate your blog coming out with the photos so soon. The head is in bad condition, and the physiognomy will be hard to tell if it is Caligula or CCAESAR, but it may be. I wish we could match your nice profile portrait with Caligulan numismatics, and I looked forward to seeing the typical hairstyle you would see for Caligula as well as his brothers Nero Julius and Drusus Julius, Caligula and the sons of Germancius are the hardest to deduce in my opinion, unless and this never happens, it they had an inscribed bas, that is why numismatics plays a crucial role. Thanks.

    Joe Geranio
    Julio Claudian Iconographic Association


    Joe Geranio
    Julio Claudian Iconographic Association

  2. ARCHEOLOGIA: Roma, Lago di Nemi – Caligola, ritrovata la statua colossale. MIBAC Roma; La Repubblica; Corriere Della Sera (12/07/2011); Patrimonio Archeologico della Guardia di Finanza: (31/01/2011); Treasures Recovered from Lake Nemi Believed Secretly Sold to Metropolitan Museum of Art. Washington Post.: Dec 8, 1907.


  3. I think the head is in too poor condition to ever be certain whose it was - and as you pointed out, so many of the Julio-Claudians look like versions of Augustus and are difficult to tell apart (the same way not all men with leonine locks are Alexander the Great). The photos are miss-leading in terms of scale, and it seems to fit the statue.

    I guess this is another example where context is key. Without an excavation, the statue on its own could have been anyone. Because of the excavation, we know it can from the Lake, so is linked to Tiberius or Caligula, and because the head was then found, it's probably Caligula.

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  5. We'd like an update on this, if anyone has one.

  6. We would love an update on this statue, and the site at Nemi, as it's been almost three years now.

  7. We'd like an update on this, if anyone has one.


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