Time has not been kind to Cuma. In Rome, for
example, it is no problem at all to wander among
Imperial relics and be awed by antiquity. Indeed, even
in Naples, itself, if you criss-cross the historic
center of town, you are still very much in physical
contact with downtown Neapolis of 400 BC. Cuma, however,
is different. Today, it is an "archaeological park,"
where you get the impression that, well, here is where
the Greeks and Romans maybe built a temple or something.
There is little to remind the average visitor that Cuma
was one of the truly important Greek city-states of the
ancient world, just like its more famous cousin, Athens.
photos, above, by Napoli Underground)
Cuma plays a
large role in many of the myths handed down to us as
part of our classical heritage: Ulysses and Aeneas both
landed here, the Cyclopes roamed here, and here was the
entrance to Hades through the Averno
swamp. Cuma, of course, is best known as the abode of
the sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, one of many in the
Greek world, and the most famous (see entry below this
one on this page). In the fifth century BC, she is said
to have offered to sell the Etruscan king of Rome,
Tarquin, nine books of prophecy. Twice, the king
refused. Each time the sibyl tossed three of the books
into a fire and doubled the price on those remaining.
Tarquin bought the last three books; they contained
instructions for gaining the favor of foreign gods.
Perhaps Tarquin sensed, rightly, that his Etruscans were
about to need all the help they could get in the face of
the impending revolt of their Roman subjects. The
Sibylline books were used to invoke divine help in 431
during an epidemic, and thus did the foreign god,
Apollo, make his way into the Roman pantheon, the first
of many Greek deities to do so.
Legend has it that the sibyl was a priestess who forgot to mention eternal youth when she bargained with Apollo for eternal life, thus winding up an old hag dispensing prophecy from within her many- chambered grotto (photo, right). If you don't believe that, you are free to hold that popular imagination of the day synthesized into a single person what was a long succession of priestesses of the cult of Apollo. This figure of the Sibyl of Cuma later found great favor among the Romans. In the Aeneid,Virgil uses the sibyl to introduce his hero the netherworld, and, indeed, we owe to Virgil our only description of the grotto of the sibyl:
| But good Aeneas
Makes for the hill-top, where aloft sits throned
Apollo, and a cavern vast, the far
Lone haunt of the dread Sibyl, into whomThe Delian bard his mighty mind and soul
Breathes, and unlocks the future
The Mighty face of the Euboean rock
Scooped into a cavern, whither lead
A hundred wide ways, and a hundred gates;
Aye, and therefrom as many voices rush,
The answers of the Sibyl.
Fascination for the figure of the sibyl continued even into the Renaissance, where she puts in an appearance in Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
The Cumans came
from Eubea in Greece to settle on the Italian mainland,
although they apparently settled first on Pithecua, the
island of Ischia, before moving across to the mainland
to displace an Italic people known as the Opici. This happened sometime
around 700 b.c., although there are questions about the
precise date. In any event, the Cumans built themselves
into a formidable power in this part of the
Mediterranean, contending over the course of three
centuries with other powers such as the Etruscans from the north and,
later, with the Samnites from
the interior. [See Ancient
Ischia/Pithecusa] The city-state of Cuma was at
its height roughly between the years 700-500 BC, ruling
much of present-day Campania. The city, itself, spread
out well beyond the simple site of the acropolis we see
today into the surrounding area of Miseno and Baia. In
680 the Cumans helped to found modern Naples, in the
sense that they moved in to displace settlers from
Rhodes, who were then forced to desert their own
original town of Parthenope
and move inland to set up a new city, a neapolis
-- Naples. The two populations eventually mixed, as did
the old and new cities.
("Parthenopean" still remains a common synonym for
"Neapolitan" in local usage.) The Cumans also reached
out farther south to found Zancle, modern-day Messina.
At its height, Cuma was a bulwark
against Etruscan expansion from the north and played a
part in the defeat of the Etruscans in the waters off of
Cuma, hastening the demise of Etruria. Then, in 420, the
Cumans, themselves were annexed by another great early
Italic power, the Samnites,
fierce warriors from the rugged territory near
Benevento, who later battled the Romans for two
centuries for hegemony in southern Italy, a battle the
Samnites ultimately lost.
The Roman road, the via Domiziana,
passed through Cuma.
When the Romans annexed Cuma, it flourished once again, this time as a sort of an early version of the Riviera. Here is where the "beautiful people" of the Empire rubbed elbows. Cicero, Lucullus, Julius Caesar, and Pliny, among others, built villas and took the waters in the famous thermal baths of the Flegrean fields. Further growth took place when Caesar Augustus turned the entire area of Miseno into a mighty port for the Western imperial fleet.
After the fall of Rome, Cuma was
apparently used as a base by the invader Goths. It then
turned Greek again for a brief period under the
short-lived Byzantine reunification of Italy,
subsequently falling under the dominion of the Duchy of
Benevento. It was sacked a few times during Saracen
incursions and, finally, Cuma, this first great city in
Italy, was little more than a nest for itinerant pirates
when it was destroyed by Naples in 1207. Yet,
fascination with Virgil's description held sway over the
centuries. In the Middle Ages they searched for the
Sibylline grotto and even thought they had found it a
few times. (Today there is still another "grotto of the
sibyl" at nearby Lake Averno. It was long thought to be
cave but, apparently, is not. See "The
Pseudo-Grotto...", second item below this one on this
It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that the real thing was brought to light, uncovered through the efforts of Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri. The chamber in question is strangely trapezoidal; the oddly tapered walls are perhaps the influence of Etruscan architecture. It is the closest thing yet found to the chamber described by Virgil, but is it the real "real thing"? Probably, but only one person knows for sure, and she has been silent for many centuries.
(two photos left
& right, above, by Napoli Underground)
Deep in a cave the Sibyl makes
Thence full of fate returns, and of the god.
Thro' Trivia's grove they walk; and now behold,
And enter now, the temple roof'd with gold.
Aeneid book 6, 10-13,
trans. John Dryden
The cave of the sibyl
"Oracle" meant three things in ancient Greece;
1. the person through whom a god speaks;
2. the temple or shrine associated with this process; and
3. the actual answer or prophecy given by a god through the prophet, usually a priestess.
There were many
such sites in Greece and Magna Grecia. The most famous of
these was the site at Deplhi, on the slopes of Mt.
Parnassus, a site protected by Apollo, himself. The term
"delphic" has come to mean, by extension, "obscure" or
"cryptic". The temples were generally on some sacred site,
a place thought to be specially endowed with qualities
that would enhance the oracular abilities of the
priestess, perhaps a spring, a cave, a mountain peak, or a
place often struck by lightning. Strabo (A.D. 46-120)
spoke of the pneuma, the gas or vapour that arose
from a cleft in the earth. It was inhaled by the
priestess, thus inducing the trance in which she could
interpret the answers from the gods correctly.
In 1900, a scholar, Adolpe Paul Oppé,
wrote that no such chasm or cleft existed at Delphi, and
that, anyway, no gas could imitate the symptoms of
spiritual possession. Since that time, modern science
has sort of pooh-poohed the idea of pneuma-induced
trances at Delphi, and, by extension, other such sites
in the world of ancient Greece. Now, lo and behold,
according to the August 2003 issue of Scientific
American, "two geologic faults that intersect precisely
under the site of the oracle [have been found]..." and
"...the petrochemical-rich layers in the limestone
formations of the region most likely produced ethylene,
a gas that induces a trance-like state and that could
have risen through fissures created by the faults."
After inhaling a goodly quantity of ethylene, I am reminded of our local oracle, Cuma, the sibyl of which handed out prophecies just like her sisters in Greece. As far as I'm concerned, the sibyl of Cuma was even better; after all, her name has generalized to "sibylline," meaning "mysterious," obviously better than "delphic" -- "obscure". I would rather be sibylline than delphic, any day, and I'm sure I speak for most ethylene breathers.
Geologically, I wonder if investigators of Delphi might like to come and have a look at Cuma, on the edge of the infamous "Phlegrean Fields," one of the most geologically active zones in Europe. We have clefts and bubbling sulfur pits and caves with abundant pneuma. Of one such place, Mark Twain wrote:
Dangling a beautiful priestess over a pit of pneuma? Now, that's my idea of a good time.
...but the Grotto of the Dog [at Lake Averno] claimed our chief attention, because we had heard and read so much about it. Everybody has written about the Grotto del Cane and its poisonous vapors, from Pliny down to Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The dog dies in a minute and a half -- a chicken instantly. As a general thing, strangers who crawl in there to sleep do not get up until they are called. And then they don't, either. The stranger that ventures to sleep there takes a permanent contract. I longed to see this grotto. I resolved to take a dog and hold him myself; suffocate him a little, and time him; suffocate him some more, and then finish him. We reached the grotto about three in the afternoon, and proceeded at once to make the experiments. But now, an important difficulty presented itself. We had no dog...
entry Mar 2010
Not really, but there is a kindly gentleman named Carlo who stills sells tourists a post-Grand Tour tour of the grotto at Lake Averno, once believed to be the abode of the famed Cumaen Sibyl. Carlo is the
...last survivor of the family that has been hauling people through Sybil's grotto at Averno since the 1800's, is about 80 and is like a character right of an Eduardo play. He takes a bus from Pozzouli to meet tourists who call ahead, then after his first step inside, supported by his walking cane, recites his spiel, as he has done since childhood...
...We followed Carlo listening to his fascinating and fantastic accounts as we moved through the principal tunnels and galleries...we can still see ancient symbols etched on the walls (first a cross, and a palm and a bit further on a fish and more). About halfway into the exploration, on the right wall there is a small mysterious passageway that curves to the left continuing on with a long stairwell carved into the rock, ending in a flooded tunnel...
Bear in mind that this was the passageway thought for many centuries to be the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, the cave decribed by Virgil in the 6th book of the Aeneid. It inspired centuries of scholars and grand tourists from Petrarch and Boccaccio in the Middle Ages down to the irreverent musings of Mark Twain. Then, in the 1930s, Amadeo Maiuri, Neapolitan archaeologist, convinced scholars that he had found the real deal in Cuma, itself. Since that time, the Grotto of the Sibyl at Lake Averno has been referred to as the "Pseudo-Grotto of the Sibyl of Cuma." Maiuri speaks of it in I Campi Flegrei (dal sepolcro di Virgilio all'antro di Cuma) [The Plegrean Fields, from Virgil's Tomb to the Grotto of Cuma] (Poligrafico dello Stato. Roma, 1963.) [my translation]:
There was an ancient oracle connected to the cult of the dead and the gates of Averno, where a thermal water source led to the popular legend that here were the waters of the river Styx and the abode of the gods of the underworld. The belief was so persistent through the centuries that even Hannibal, when he lay waste the fields of Cuma and threatened Pozzuoli in 209 BC, felt compelled to perform ritual sacrifices to the powerful and mysterious gods in this place. Not even the grand transformations wrought by Agrippa and Augustus could eradicate the sense of religious terror inherent in the area. With the triumph of Christianity and the destruction of the vital force of empire, the Sibyllan cult at the acropolis of Cuma and the entire region with its connecting tunnels beneath the hills, fell into a state of total abandon, covered by earthslides and encroaching waters. Popular legend again turned Italic and placed the grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl on the slopes of Lake Averno...The main gallery is actually a path created for the purpose of joining Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino and was probably part of the same large body of construction undertaken by Agrippa in 37 BC. That is, besides the navigable channel from the inner lake to the sea, there was a need to provide a land passageway as well...[for various logistical needs].
The prevailing opinion among scholars is that this gallery was, in fact, part of the general layout of the Roman fleet facilities, all the work of Lucius Aucta Cocceius. The entrance is on the western slope of Lake Averno, still hidden in a stand of trees about 300 meters from the point where the access road in from the coast road meets the lake. You may not be getting the Sibyl of Cuma, herself, but you are getting some spectacular archaeology. I look forward to more news from our NapoliUnderground stalwarts, who, I hear, are breaking out the scuba gear (!) since much of the passageway is now submerged. (The last time I went anywhere with these people, I almost got myself killed. See Proud to be a Troglodyte.)
[Also see this interesting exchange of letters about this and similar sites near Baia.]
see how Mary Shelley worked the sibyl's cave
(albeit the wrong one!) into her tale of The Last Man.]
added June 2015
footnote #2 to Selene Salvi's poem The Sibyl's Time,
which accompanies a marvellous painting (also shown
here, right, in smaller format) by Fulvio De Marinis.
(You may look at that page before
The line, “I left my red island forever”, fascinated me. My question to Selene, 'Why red?' elicited this reply:
There have been a lot of Sibyls. It is a myth that changes constantly. Some say that the Sibyl of Cuma was originally from the city of Eretria. Servius, the famous commentator on Virgil, tells this story: Apollo, in exchange for the gift of long life, made the Sibyl leave Eretria... Thus she came to Cuma and lived until all of her powers were spent. At the end the people of Eretria sent her a letter sealed with clay from her native soil. As soon as she saw it, Apollo's spell was broken and she could finally die.
"Erythre” is “red” in Greek.
It took me a while. I finally realized (!)
that we were not talking about Eritrea in Africa, but
Eretria, a town on the large Greek island of Euboea.
There are significant classical and pre-classical Greek
archaeological sites in and near the town (image,
below). It is ancient, indeed. Eretria was mentioned by
Homer (Iliad 2.537), who said it was one of the
Greek cities that sent ships to the Trojan War. Also—the
important part—Eretria was involved in the expansion of
Magna Grecia and helped found
the settlement on Pithecusa
(alias Ischia!) and the colony of Cuma. (More on Cuma
and the Sibyl in the three items above this one on this
The ancient theater of Eretria
(photo Bdubosso, wikipedia)
to Maurus Servius Honoratus, a late 4th-century and
early 5th-century scholar. He was the author of a set of
commentaries on the works of Virgil. There are two
possibilities for the name Eretria: one, it is from, as
Selene says, Ερυθρό, (Erithroh, accent
last syllable), still one of the words for 'red' in
Greek. So far... Euboea is an island, Eretria was on
that island (and still is), and red clay abounds indeed!
But the name might also come from έρέτης (Erétēs,
accent second syllable), which means 'rower', and no
doubt they were rowing all over Greece in those days;
they even rowed (and sailed) to Italy. I like Servius'
(and Selene's version); it has a poetic ending, the seal
with the red clay from home that breaks the spell. The alternative version has the
future sibyl of Cuma, one of the great far-sighted seers
in our mythology, sitting in a boat as they shove off from
the red island. The crusty captain barks,
sweet-cakes, get your back into it! We ain't got all year.
My purpose holds to row beyond the sunset and the baths of
all the western stars!"
grunts and grumbles as she bends to the oar, "Hah!
Big man. Big captain...it's sail, not row...sail,
not row... you moron. You're misquoting Tennyson, who
won't be born for another 2500 years. That's how
Zeus-damned far-sighted I am! And I didn't see this
There, above the savage Apennine yokes,
midst the steep cliffs a cavern appears,
guarded by sirens who sing
with quivering, frenzied voices.
(Note from translator, Matthews: When Selene Salvi said she had an interesting item for me about Cuma, that was a bit of an understatement. She has two explanatory ed. notes in the text in square brackets [like this]. I have my own two translator's comments, also in square brackets.
“No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” (Genesis, 23:11)
“Before the age of Demo [ed. note, the Cumaean Sibyl] there lived near the Jews above Palestine a woman with the gift of prophecy, and her name was Sabbe. The say that her father was Beroso and her mother, Erimante; some however, called her the Babylonian Sibyl and others called her Egizia” (Pausanias, X, XII, 9). [trans. ed. note: refers to Pausanias, AD 110 – c. 180, Greek geographer, author of Hellados Periegesis, Description of Greece].
The Roman tunnel or crypt at Cuma
Archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri's dream was to uncover the famous chamber of the Cumaean Sibyl, the dreadful chamber within which the prophetess made her divine pronouncements. It was Maiuri's dream but also his obsession; the chamber was a twisted labyrinth where one would inevitably go astray. It was sure to exist, however. That much was certain from all the references in ancient literature; yet in spite of all the indications, finding the exact spot was not easy. Where could it be? Maiuri had no doubts; the chamber had to open onto Monte di Cuma. He finally received from Fascist minister Pietro Fedele “the first substantial funding to start searching for the Grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl”1. The Mussolini government was well aware of the political importance of the discovery of a major symbol of Italic and Greek ancestral roots. The year was 1925. Further archaeological digs followed between 1926 and 1930. Maiuri did not find the famous grotto, but he did bring to light a gigantic Roman gallery, that ran east to west through the entire Cumaean hill (image, above). He did not give up, however, and in 1932 found near that gallery (which then came to be called the Roman Crypt, a large space, a trapezoid, which he held to be the abode of the Sibyl.Thanks to some heavy funding by the Fascist government, if looks as if a Jewish Sibyl has been found...and maybe someone in that long night got a good laugh out of it.
Let's return to the dark recesses of that crypt. It seems it was a military road from the first century BC that connected the lower reaches of the city with the sea. It was 292.5 meters long and wound between caverns and collapsed sections. Time took its toll on the site and in the 3rd century AD, after various cave-ins, it became a burial ground (as we see from burial niches near the east entrance and from some symbols cut into the inner walls). That section was reopened in Byzantine times in the 6th century AD; (as noted by archeologists Paolo Caputo and Gianfranco De Rossi, the seals at the time had been set with “clear votive intent”). But its fate, too, was sealed. For reasons of safety, the entrances and light shafts were closed and the progressive filling up with earth led to all traces of the site being lost for centuries.
The period during which the crypt was used for burials has generally been set at between the 4th and 6th century. The burial niches found along the east wall (about 21 of them) have been stripped and are clean, with no ornamentation, and were probably sealed by slabs. Caputo and De Rossi note in their study1 a curious fact: Maiuri forgets to mention these burial niches and there is no description in the archives of the superintendency of their having been rediscovered. There is mention of an excavation from 1994 within the vestibule that brought to light three amphorae that had been reused to bury infants; they had been sealed by a Byzantine pillar. One amphora (image, left) in particular (dated to the 5th century) displays graffiti markings: it seems to represent a palm or, rather, as Caputo and De Rossi suggest, a menorah (this photo is from the general catalog of the archaeological Museum of the Campi Flegrei, vol. 1, 2008). Caputo and De Rossi raise another point: presumably the use of the western section for funerals was not limited to just these three burials; it is probable that Maiuri came across other tombs during his excavation.
Let's look at the graffiti on the amphora. As noted, Caputo and De Rossi seem to see a menorah, one of the most ancient symbols of the Jewish faith, which appears even at funerals. This one, however, does not have seven arms, but rather nine, a point that has led some to identify it as a palm branch, thus relating it to the graffiti of a crown and palm branch that we find at the level of the large cistern and which is recognized to be a paleo-Christian symbol. Images of the Hanukkyoth (a Jewish candelabra with nine arms), however, are normally found in Jewish catacombs, but palm branches and crowns are also found in Jewish catacombs as well as in paleo-Christian ones.
During a recent visit to the Roman Crypt (recently reopened to the public) we noticed two more graffiti (that, to the best of our knowledge, have not been previously recorded). They are located at a height of about six meters on the walls of the first southern opening, coming from the eastern entrance. They appear to be two menorah with seven arms, one menorah placed in front of the other. They can be made out among the chisel marks in the tufa rock-face (photos shown here) near some horizontal cuts near where the guide wires terminate (used by workers to move up and down along the walls).
Are we sure that the burials in the crypt are really paleo-Christian? What if this is a Jewish catacomb? Was the so-called “stone basilica” with its graffiti symbols part of that funerary complex? We should not forget that there were various Jewish communities living in the Campi Flegrei. If they were Jewish, this would explain the scant attention shown to these burial sites during the time of the Byzantine restructuring of the area. Have we solved the Sibylline question presented in Exhortation to the Greeks XXXVII, 3 by Pseudo-Justin (c. 4th century) of the Babylonian origin of the Sibyl of Cuma? [trans. ed.note: refers to a Greek work of unknown authorship—thus, pseudo-Justin—a section of which is dedicated to Sibylline oracles.]
1. A. Maiuri, “Cuma. Primi saggi di esplorazione nell'Antro della Sibilla a Cuma” (July-Dec. 1925), in Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità 1926, p. 85
2. P. Caputo – Gianfranco De Rossi, “'Rioccupazione cristiana' di edifici pubblici e infrastrutture a Cuma: lo scavo della Crypta Romana”, in La cristianizzazione in Italia tra Tardoantico ed altomedioevo, atti del IX congresso nazionale di archeologia cristiana, vol.I, 2004.
7. Translator's afterthought on the above entry April 2, 2017
Selene Salvi (selfie!)
Selene's many enthusiasms come tumbling out of her like children running outdoors to play. It's a delight for me to translate what she writes. She moves from mythology to history, literature, art, philosophy then maybe scoops them together in one of her lovely paintings. There's one of her sitting siren-like on a rock looking at the long, beautiful Posillipo coast towards Vesuvius (see this link); then, in a paragraph that could have been written expressly for the painting (but wasn't) she says,
...the scent of the marine depths enters into your veins, and the blue of heaven, the yellow of rock, and the bright greens of nature are mirrored in the crystal waters. In the reflections you see ancient forms, cut steps, baths, platforms, hollow spaces now empty, dark chambers. You behold an entire Atlantis beneath you, submerged in the slow breathing of the earth...
Selene's Facebook profile is here; her Facebook page is here; her page of paintings on my site is here.
The entry (#6, directly above), however, about Jewish catacombs, is different. It's speculative: might the early Jews of Naples have used the Roman tunnel as a burial site? It's a thought she put up just a few days ago, and she has already had various responses. There was one note from an old-liner not pleased that she had noted the exquisite irony of an anti-Semite government shelling out all that money only to discover a Jewish sibyl! Fine, she gloated a bit, but she's not an academic fuddy-duddy. She says, “I'm just a painter.” (Beethoven was a piano-player.) The majority of those who have written to her, however, have shown interest in the subject and suggested discussions and field trips. I hope they do it.
There are some related entries in these pages; this one is about an early Jewish presence in southern Italy. Some of that may even go back to a Maccabean consular presence during the Roman Republic in the second century B.C. And there was a Jewish settlement in Pozzuoli in 4 B.C. That may point to voluntary presence for reasons of commerce. Generally speaking, however, the forced widespread dispersion of the Biblical Israelites from the Land of Israel and their scattering to other parts of the Roman world as slaves (a dispersion called the Diaspora) began with the destruction of the second temple and partial destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD. That's what gave rise to the many different kinds of Jewry that we have come to know as Ashkenazi, Sephardic* and others. Those terms, however arose much later, after the year 1000, centuries well after the time in question; during those centuries, scattered fragments of a people develop, go their own ways, create a "self" (a second self, really)—but it takes time. So, if you need to further define what kind of Jews lived in southern Italy in 300-400 AD, it's tricky. It won't be Sephardic since that term describes the Jewish population of the Iberian peninsula during that period (and, as well, the Jews who were expelled from Spain and came to Italy one thousand years later). The World Jewish Congress says this about the time in question:
Italian Jews can be traced back as far as the second century BCE [Before Common Era]. Tombstones and dedicatory inscriptions from this period still survive today. It is the only Jewish community in Europe [emphasis added] dating back to even before Jews went into Diaspora. At that time, Jews mostly lived in the far south of Italy, with a branch community in Rome, and were generally Greek-speaking.So this one turns into a little treasure hunt back through time. And who doesn't enjoy a puzzle? (See this link to Early Jews in Italy). And follow the link, below, on the origins of Ashkenazi for a lot more. (There is a street in Reggio Calabria way down south called via Aschenaz. Coinicidence? You're kidding.) - Jeff Matthews
[See also: note on the origins of Ashkenazi.]
[*Sephardic - The name Sephardic means "Spanish" or "Hispanic", derived from Sepharad , a Biblical location. The location of the biblical Sepharad is disputed, but Sepharad was identified by later Jews as Hispania, that is, the Iberian Peninsula. Sepharad still means "Spain" in modern Hebrew.]
[Also see the entry on The Lunar Calendars of Cuma, the Roman Crypt or tunnel, as well as a separate entry on Jewish catacombs in Naples.]