Experience the Summer Solstice from an Ancient Roman Emperor’s Festive Grotto

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Summer Solstice in Sperlonga

As summer graces us with its warmth, solstice celebrations echo across the globe. In Italy, the essence of ‘la dolce vita’ unfurls in Sperlonga, a charming locale situated between Rome and Naples, nestling in the heart of a picturesque coastal region known as the Riviera of Ulysses.

Nestled atop a promontory, Sperlonga boasts a delightful array of beach clubs clustered below, each offering a vibrant assortment of umbrellas in every hue. Nestling next to the beach is a mesmerizing spectacle: a cavernous opening facing the sea. Recent explorations have identified this Sperlonga cave as the site of a unique astronomical marvel hailing from ancient Roman times.

Roman Festivities

The Sperlonga cave was the epitome of summer leisure in the first century AD, provided you were fortunate enough to be a guest of Emperor Tiberius. The cave was a prominent feature of his grand villa, revamped to serve as a magnificent, al fresco dining hall. Romans would sail there, seeking a refuge from Rome’s sweltering heat, and feast while lounging on benches in the grotto’s dining alcove (the triclinium), bedecked with intricate mosaics and seashells.

The ambience masterfully wove myth into reality. As this coast was believed to be the backdrop for events in Homer’s Odyssey, guests dined amidst grandiose marble sculptures narrating the tribulations of Ulysses (Greek name, Odysseus)—from the gripping imagery of the hero blinding the giant cyclops Polyphemus to the depiction of his ship besieged by the monstrous Scylla. The natural surroundings mirrored the enchantment that captivates modern-day travelers: the glittering sea and Mount Cicero, where Ulysses was entrapped by the sorceress Circe.

A replica of a Roman statue that portrays Ulysses blinding a cyclops is one of the exhibits in Sperlonga’s archaeological museum. The original was crafted for the cave villa of Roman Emperor Tiberius.

PHOTOGRAPH BY EMANUELA DE SANTIS, ANZENBERGER

During the summer solstice, Tiberius’s cave guests witnessed a magical spectacle: The architect and astronomer had engineered the dining alcove to be directly illuminated by the sunset. The revelation of this miraculous alignment was a recent discovery made by archaeologist Marina De Franceschini and archaeoastronomer Giuseppe Veneziano of the Astronomical Observatory of Genoa.

Monuments like Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, and Teotihuacan in Mexico have been long-recognized for their celestial alignment. However, De Franceschini indicates that recent findings reveal that constructions in Imperial Rome were likewise designed in accordance with the sun’s trajectory.

(Learn why summer solstice occurs—and how humans mythologize it.)

“The power of the sun was viewed as a manifestation of divine presence, and when Emperor Tiberius stood bathed in sunlight in his cave’s alcove during the solstice, he was radiating a divine aura, reinforcing his divine origin and role as a mediator between men and gods,” she explains.

In this photograph from the mid-20th-century, workers unearth the Sperlonga cave, once a part of a Roman emperor’s villa.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LEES, GETTY

This discovery unveils another facet of Tiberius, who is often called the “reluctant emperor” by historians. His ascension to the throne was plagued with scheming as it was widely speculated that his mother

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Summer Solstice in Sperlonga

Where is the summer solstice celebrated in Italy?

The summer solstice is celebrated in various places across Italy. One unique location is Sperlonga, a picturesque locale nestled between Rome and Naples.

What was the Sperlonga cave used for in ancient Roman times?

The Sperlonga cave was a prominent feature of Emperor Tiberius’ grand villa. It served as an open-air dining hall where Romans would feast during the summer.

What is unique about the summer solstice in Sperlonga’s cave?

During the summer solstice, guests in the cave would experience a unique spectacle where the dining alcove would be directly lit by the setting sun due to its designed alignment with the sun’s path.

Who discovered the alignment of the Sperlonga cave with the summer solstice?

The alignment of the Sperlonga cave with the summer solstice was discovered recently by archaeologist Marina De Franceschini and archaeoastronomer Giuseppe Veneziano of the Astronomical Observatory of Genoa.

How can modern visitors experience the solstice in Sperlonga?

Visitors can attend a Summer Solstice Event organized at the site where they can enter the museum and the nearby cave after-hours to experience the luminous effects in the niche. The event also includes slide projections recreating ancient banquet scenes.

What does the Sperlonga beach area offer to visitors?

The Sperlonga beach area is adorned with a delightful array of beach clubs, each offering a vibrant assortment of colorful umbrellas. Travelers can also visit the local archaeological museum, enjoy local seafood dishes, and explore the pedestrian-only historic center.

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5 comments

HistLover92 June 20, 2023 - 11:04 pm

Roman history is always intriguing! especially Emperor Tiberius, he’s such an enigma.

Reply
LuciaP June 21, 2023 - 12:53 am

Has anyone been to Sperlonga? sounds like an amazing place, got to add to my bucket list.

Reply
TommyJ June 21, 2023 - 1:37 am

wow didn’t know that romans were so in to astronomy. how cool is that!

Reply
RomeoAlpha June 21, 2023 - 11:11 am

the power of the sun huh? Romans were way ahead of their time.

Reply
MiaTravels June 21, 2023 - 6:26 pm

Been there last summer, its beautiful! the food, the sea… simply stunning.

Reply

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