Driving north of Naples toward Formia and Gaeta, you come to sheer cliffs that overlook the sea at Sperlonga. Here, the Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.) created a summer villa which included a grotto.
Suetonius has an other-worldly description of the Emperor:
“Tiberius was strongly and heavily built, and above average height. His shoulders and chest were broad, and his body perfectly proportioned from top to toe. His left hand was more agile than the right, and so strong that he could poke a hole in a sound, newly plucked apple or wound the skull of a boy or young man with a flick of his finger. He had a handsome, fresh-complexioned face, though subject to occasional rashes of pimples. Letting his back hair grow down over the nape seems to have been a family habit of the Claudii. Tiberius’ eyes were remarkably large and possessed the unusual power of seeing in the dark…”
Suetonius explains that as a young man, Tiberius distinguished himself in the military. He married Vipsania whom he loved, but Emperor Augustus forced him to divorce her and marry Julia the Elder, Augustus’ daughter. Tiberius loathed Julia who was known to be very promiscuous.
When Augustus died and Tiberius was his only remaining heir, he at first ruled with equanimity, consulting his senators for every decision and remaining humble to the point of refusing to be considered a deity. He even remained prudish during this period, issuing an edict against promiscuous kissing.
After the death of his son Drusus at Rome and then of his adopted son Germanicus in Syria, Tiberius went to Campania, but he probably didn’t stay here long. Sejanus won the Emperor’s gratitude when the roof of the grotto at these Sperlonga ruins collapsed while Tiberius dined; Sejanus saved his life. Sejanus then persuaded the Emperor to live in Capri, leaving Sejanus to rule Rome as he wished. In Capri, Tiberius’ life took a turn to the darker side.
The villa in Sperlonga lies along the shore of a public beach. Tiberius didn’t worship any gods, believing that the world was ruled by fate, so it’s interesting that this grotto was once filled with marble statues of the gods and also included a naked Polyphemus being speared. The impressive Polyphemus statue still exists in the accompanying Archeological Museum at the entrance to the complex.
Getting There: Drive north of Naples toward Formia and then follow the signs to Sperlonga. After that, signs are everywhere to the Tiberius Villa. Next to the ruins there’s one of the few public beaches where you can swim in the Mediterranean or sit on the sand. While there, you can also visit the city of Formia that boasts, among other things, Cicero’s Tomb. Nearby, the city of Gaeta has Split Rock where the rock is said to have split three-ways on the day that Jesus was crucified. You can also follow the signs to Grotte di Pastena.