A Roman emperor's tunnel vision

The inhabitants of a plain in south-west Italy are unlikely to forget what the Romans did for them. Never mind the usual spas, roads, aqueducts and theatres, in Fucino they saved them from the inundations of a huge lake. And are the people grateful? Well, sort of.

The plain, which is in mountainous Abruzzo, was once a lake - Italy's third largest, in fact. It was 20 metres deep with a surface area of about 150 square kilo-metres. Unfortunately, it was prone to terrible flooding, particularly when the mountain snow melted. Local farmers, who were tired of being driven from their land, turned to the Emperor Claudius and in 41AD he ordered his civil engineers to tame Fucino.

More than 10 years later the imperial roadshow arrived to open a six-kilometre tunnel known as the Cunicoli di Claudio. A total of 30,000 slaves had driven an outsize overflow pipe through mountain rock into a neighbouring valley.

To celebrate, Claudius staged the biggest naumachia (or naval battle) of all times. Fifty warships manned by nearly 2,000 criminals were to fight in front of a crowd of 500,000 - not counting the soldiers guarding the emperor in case the "sailors" turned nasty, or the 15 babies that were allegedly born during the show.

It all went horribly wrong when Claudius opened the floodgates. The tunnel was not big enough for the volume of water and spectators, soldiers, and the emperor had to scramble for safety.

Two more emperors tried to tame the lake and the scheme was eventually made to work, operating until the sixth century.

In 1240, Frederick II tried and failed to reopen the Cunicoli di Claudio. It was not until 1875 that Duke Allessando Torlonia drilled a new tunnel and emptied the Fucino, making it the largest lake to ever be drained.

Alas, the climate has grown humid and misty, and mosquitoes are rife. Some say that a lake for tourists might have been better than a potato-growing plain for farmers.

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