A couple of weeks ago, like moths to a flame, we set off by car to find the lighthouse at Capo Miseno, on the north-westerly tip of the Bay of Naples. The dog in the back was beyond excitement.
Within a few miles he could smell the sea to our left and the fresh trees and orchards around the lakes, and down the hillsides to our right.
The road itself was narrow and direct. First through Baia and then on through Bacoli with its villas, restaurants, crowded marina and the chat of families heading to the beaches.
In Misenum the roads became closer and narrower and the direction upwards. The nerves started to tingle. There is something about a steep blind corner that rattles … however well-travelled, or Alfa Romeo your wheels might be. Once committed though there is nothing to do but carry on …
The first viewpoint we came to swept out to the curve of the bay below, one of the bays that used to harbour the Roman fleet. The evening light spread gold through the low rocks and the sea was quiet. I found it hard to fill the picture with the noise, the ships and the men required to keep one of Rome’s most important fleets operational, but it wasn’t hard to see why the naturally sheltered site had been chosen.
On the viewpoint walls couples kissed and whispered. Somehow it felt right – the glorious naval years of Misenum were connected to one of the greatest love affairs in history – that of Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
It didn’t end well though. The worst of it was after Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.
Years of political turmoil followed Caesar’s murder but the real crunch came when Rome learned that the relatively recently entwined Antony and Cleopatra had their eyes on Rome. Immediately Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, with his right hand man, Agrippa, set about trying to defeat the threat.
In 31 BC at Actium, just off the coast of Greece, there was a terrible naval battle which Octavian won. Antony and Cleopatra fled, eventually committing suicide rather than face capture.
That wasn’t the worst of it – Octavian also killed the couple’s children and the son Cleopatra had had with his own adoptive father, Julius Caesar.
It was a brutal victory with many consequences for world history: it ended the line of true pharaohs in Egypt; it swept away the Roman Republic; it brought about the birth of the Roman Empire; and it created Rome’s first emperor – Emperor Augustus (formerly Octavian).
The chaos and change also taught Rome some lessons, one of which was a new appreciation of naval power. As a result it became Agrippa’s task to develop the bay and the natural lakes at Misenum into one of the Roman Empire’s two main naval bases.
The day we visited there was little sign from where we were of all this other than the lakes, and reports say even they have changed over time thanks to the local volcanoes and sudden land shifts. Apparently when nearby Monte Nuovo erupted in 1538 land that had been slowly dropping for years suddenly rose by up to seven metres.
We peered around the clinging couples and tried to imagine the area below us as it must have been when a great naval base. It was possible but only by a thread … and the dog was not impressed. He needed more than a car park.
So we headed on through a long tunnel with squeezing space for one and a half cars. It opened out on another view point and what was very definitely the end of the road. The lighthouse was fenced off behind a closed gate to our right whilst to our left a path headed up through the flowers towards the evening sky.
It was only us and a few other walkers there that evening. We set off into the scent of flowers with views in all directions. The dog could not have been happier.
We were in the land of myths and legends but he didn’t care. He wasn’t bothered by the story in Virgil’s Aeneid about Misenus, the conch player, who was drowned by the Gods in the waters below.
He was untroubled by the historical accounts of Pliny the Younger about the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. He had no interest whatever in Pliny the Elder’s courageous expedition towards the eruption, nor that he never made it home.
What interested him were the rustling sounds in the banks of wild flowers, and what he loved was the cool that came with the last of the sun across the twisting paths.
We were at the very tip of so much history but in the end it was the beauty of the location that left its mark on all of us.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016
Here are some of the sources I used to research this article:
The Romans on the Bay of Naples – an Archaeological Guide by Lawrence Keppie (published by History Press 2009)