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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Nov 2011, last edit Dec 2014
Everything is Related to Naples
Number 157 in this series. Link to all items here.
Land of the Cimmerians
View to the south-west from Monte Nuovo in the Flegrean Fields on the Bay of Pozzuoli. The body of water on the right is
Lake Lucrino. (Just out of sight beyond the right-hand border of the photo is Lake Averno.) The group of
white buildings across the bay (top center) at water's edge is the town of Baia. The island of Ischia is
at the upper right in the background. The flat promontory on the left is Cape Miseno, the end of the Gulf of Naples.
Baia, Baths, Cimmerian Darkness, Peter of Eboli and the Stufe di Nerone
The Cimmerian SibylOn first looking into Chapman's Homer, John Keats and I both found this:
by 'il Guercino'
...where people dwell/Whom a perpetual cloud obscures outright/John got more out of that than I did. I turned to the wonderfully modern translation by Robert Fagles:
...where Cimmerian people have their homes—their realm and city/ shrouded in mist and cloud. The eye of the sun can never/ flash his rays through the dark and bring them light/...I think I learned the phrase "Cimmerian darkness" when I was quite young—no doubt from a Classic Comic Book (#81, as a matter of fact). Other sources tell us that there was, indeed, an historic people called the "Cimmerians"; however, they were equestrian nomads from the region north of the Caucasus in the 7th century BC. These were probably the people Robert E. Howard was thinking of when he created his Conan the Barbarian (also known as Conan the Cimmerian: "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet." Presumably, they were a different people than our home-grown Cimmerians, but I wish them well. Especially Conan.
Our Neapolitan Cimmerians were the ones of whom Homer spoke in Book 11, "The Kingdom of the Dead," in The Odyssey. They lived in an underground city in the Flegrean Fields and sought sooth from an oracle, a Sibyl, a sorority sister of the Cumaean Sibyl just a short stretch up the road. There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but the Cimmerian Sibyl was said to be venerated by the pre-Hellenic native populations. After Homer, Greek historians repeated the story. Strabo [64 BC-24 AD], in describing for Agrippa the geography and customs of the Campania, writes in Book 5 of his Geography (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1923):
Strabo does say that the Cimmerians were "destroyed," so who knows? Maybe some of their lost city is still down there! The literature on "lost worlds" and "lost races" is vast. There is admitted fun & fiction in the novels of H. Rider Haggard, which deal with lost kingdoms in Africa; there are also mythical lost worlds such as Atlantis, accounts of which may or may not have basis in fact; and interestingly, there are also places long thought to have been mythical—until they were discovered (!), such as the ancient Greek city of Helike that sank in one night into the sea in 373 BC and was discovered in 2001. So far, no one has found the ancient underground city of the Cimmerians, but one (Paget, below) claims to have found the Antrum, the seat of the oracle, the chamber from whence she spake. (She talked like that, too.)
Those facilities were fed by thermal waters from underground mineral springs found everywhere in the area as well as by the Augustan aqueduct; it passed directly above on the hill on its way to provide water to the Piscina Mirabilis, the giant reservoir at nearby Bacoli that supplied fresh water for the western imperial fleet. The bath complex was even bigger than it looks today because seismic activity has caused a change in sea level, submerging some of the buildings. The Cimmerian connection is a long tunnel explored by archaeologist Robert Paget and described in 1967 (reference below). He claimed to have discovered the underground temple of the Cimmerians: their Oracle of the dead. That is disputed, and more recent archaeology says that the tunnel had no religious function at all, but served merely to channel vapors issuing from the earth.
(added in Jan 2012)
Peter of Eboli and the De balneis puteolanis
Peter of Eboli was a Benedictine monk from Eboli (about 70 km/45 miles SW of Naples). Not much is known about his biographical particulars. He was born after 1150 and probably died around 1220. For a while, he may have resided at Monte Cassino, the principal Benedictine monastery in Italy, and then at Eboli and Palermo in Sicily. He was a poet in the court of Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI (the father of Frederick II). He is remembered for some rather (according to some) sycophantic verse in praise of Henry as well as what might be described as the first guide book to the thermal baths of Pozzuoli and Baia. The work is entitled De balneis puteolanis [The Baths of Pozzuoli], one illustration from which is seen here (image, right). Peter did the illustrations, himself.
Thermal baths had been widely touted since the times of the Romans to have curative properties. They still are; there are today baths in Pozzuoli, Baiai and on the island of Ischia where you can pretty much enjoy the same waters as did the Romans (except that they ran the risk of electrocution by using their computers in the water. You have wireless.)
Peter's De balneis puteolanis praises the baths lavishly; it is written in verse and contains 35 illustrations. At least of few of them are probably the work of his imagination, but others are certainly attempts at authentic description. There have been various critical commentaries on De balneis puteolanis (see Clark) and there has been a recent facsimile edition published by Editalia.
-Clark, Raymond J. 1989-90. "Peter of Eboli, 'De Balneis Puteolanis': Manuscripts from the Aragonese Scriptorium in Naples," in Traditio, vol. 45, (1989-1990), pp. 380-389. Fordham University. New York.
-De balneis puteolanis. 1994 facsimile reprint published by Editalia Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato. Rome.
-Friese, W. 2010. "Facing the Dead: Landscape and Ritual of Ancient Greek Death Oracles" in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, Volume 3, Issue 1 March 2010 pp. 29–40 Berg Publishers, London.
- Howard, R.E. (1932) "The Sword on the Stone" in Weird Tales (May, 1932). Ed. Farnsworth Wright, Chicago.
-Maiuri, A. 1958. I Campi Flegrei. Rome: Libreria dello stato.
-Paget, R.F.E. 1967. In the Footsteps of Orpheus; the Discovery of the Ancient Greek Underworld. Roy Publishers. London.
-Rucca, G. 1850. Interpretazione di un luogo di Strabone. Stamperia Reale. Naples.
-Salvi, S. 2011. "Sito archeologico di Baia," & "Tempio di Mercurio" on the Napoli Underground website.
-Sorrentino, Francesco. 1994. "Bagni alle Porte dell'Inferno." in Medioevo, cultural monthly, year 8, n. 9. Sept. 1994. De Agostino, Milan.
photo credits: Land of the Cimmerians, Temple of Mercury and the Ruins of the Baths at Baia courtesy of NUG (Napoli Undergound).