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MISENUM Campania, Italy.

A high promontory forming the NW termination of the bay of Naples, S of Baiae, Avernus, and Cumae. Vergil ascribes its name to Aeneas' trumpeter Misenus, who was buried there “monte sub aerio”—and its shape is indeed rather like a great tumulus. It served as the harbor of Cumae for centuries, an asset to the city's power and wealth. Hannibal devastated the port in 214 B.C. when repulsed by Cumae. Several splendid Republican villas were built in its panoramic setting, most notably that of Marius, appropriated by Sulla and later bought by Lucullus for two and a half million sesterces, then taken over as imperial property—Tiberius died in it on his way to Naples in A.D. 37.

Augustus turned the area into a large military complex, the chief naval base of the Roman fleet in the West, stationing there the ships which defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium.

The steep headland, 167 m high, provides a fine view of Ischia, Puteoli, Naples, and far-off Vesuvius. Ruins of a mediaeval lighthouse at its base are probably on Roman foundations. An immense cistern (Grotta Dragonara) hollowed out of the W cliff, with cruciform galleries and 12 pillars supporting its vault, probably functioned as water supply for the fleet base and perhaps also for the great Villa of Lucullus, which was probably in this sector. On the lower slope to the N are remains of a theater fitted into the hillside, with a passage cut through the hill behind for easy access from the port. Nearby are ruins of baths and of buildings which probably housed naval officers; a small town spread beyond. Recently discovered is a sacred complex dedicated to the cult of the Emperors. The Templum Augusti is at the back, with three halls—the central one (the best preserved) perhaps being the chapel, with a tetrastyle marble facade. On both sides of its courtyard are porticos with small rooms behind. Statues of divinities stood here on bases bearing dedicatory inscriptions and honorific decrees relating to the Augustales. Other statues found inside the halls include a bronze of Nerva on horseback and two colossal statues: of Vespasian and of Titus.

Here in A.D. 79 Pliny the Elder was Admiral of the fleet when Vesuvius erupted; he lost his life aiding Pompeii.

A fine double harbor lies N and W of the promontory. In 31 B.C., Agrippa developed this for Augustus into a major naval base in conjunction with the Portus Julius at nearby Lucrinus and Avernus, and the status of colonia was granted. The outer (E) harbor was improved by construction of two breakwaters—a double one from the S running toward the projection opposite (Punta Pennata), where some ruins may mark a sumptuous villa of Mark Antony and his ancestors. The N mole was shorter, with three pillars jutting southward from the Punta Pennata arc. This outer harbor was for the active fleet and for training exercises.

To the W, behind a dividing strip of land, lay the inner harbor, a circle wholly enclosed except for the canal cut across the dividing strip for access from the main harbor. An inscription refers to a wooden bridge across this gap. Here in complete protection was the reserve fleet and ships undergoing fitting or repair, and refuge for the rest from winter storms. Around its edges must have been the arsenals and barracks. Over 400 inscriptions record names of sailors, officers, and ships of all sizes from this Classis Praetaria Misenensis.

A most impressive adjunct is the great Piscina Mirabile, a fresh-water reservoir cut into the hillside N of the outer harbor, toward Bacoli. This is like a huge subterranean basilica, with 5 naves and 48 arches 15 m high in 4 rows of 6 supporting the vaulted roof. A sunken channel (piscina limaria) across the middle was for settling impurities, periodically cleaned out. Stairs lead down at both ends to reach the water at whatever level it stands. Some windows above provide light and air. The walls are faced with opus reticulatum and coated with waterproof opus signinum (ground terracotta mixed in cement). This vast underground tank (25.5 x 70 m), had a capacity of 12,600 cubic in—providing 315,000 gallons of drinking water for the fleet. It is one of the more awesome Roman structures.

Strabo thought that the Laestrygonians of the Odyssey inhabited Misenum. The Saracens destroyed what remained of the great Roman fleet base in their 915 attack.


Verg. Aen. 6.162-235; Strab. 1.2.9; 5.4.3,5,9; Plin. Ep. 6.20; Pompon. Mela 2.4.9; Tac. Ann. 6.50; Hist. 3.57; Suet. Tib. 72-73.

V. Chapot, La Flotte de Misène (1896); A. De Franciscis, Atti Taranti (1920) 631ff; C. Starr, The Roman Imperial Navy (1941) 14-20, 36-7, 84-6; A. Maiuri, The Phlegraean Fields (3d ed., 1958) 91-100P; K. Lehmann-Hartleben, Die Antiken Hafenanlagen des Mittelmeeres, Aalen (1963) 176-7; J. D'Arms, Romans on the Bay of Naples (1970).


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