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
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
. 3.57; Suet. Tib
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
, Aalen (1963) 176-7; J. D'Arms, Romans
on the Bay of Naples
R. V. SCHODER