Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

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he Roman Tunnel at Cuma

 East entrance of the tunnel at Cuma   
Indeed, another Roman tunnel in Naples and, like the others, it goes back to the lifetimes of Augustus Caesar and his go-to architect and main mole-man, Lucius Auctus Cocceius. Cocceius built all the other Roman tunnels in and near Naples, so it is likely that he built this one, too. Except for park staff and a few lucky visitors on special occasions, no one has seen the inside in a long time. After all, the city of Cuma, itself, has not been inhabited for 800 years. At the beginning of the twentieth century archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri, taking up the trail of clues found in Greek and Roman historical literature, went in search of the mysterious Grotto of the Sibyl of Cuma. Ancient writers often made light of the whole thing, writing as if it were all just fragmentary and ancient legend. Yet, these myths of the Land of the Cimmerians, underground cities, oracles of the dead, hideous sibyls and entrances to the nether regions were jumbled together with just enough historical facts and places to create at least the potential that maybe there really had been mysterious goings-on down there in the Fiery Fields (Campi Flegri) of Naples. Thus, over the centuries scholars as well as the simply curious remained fascinated by two main items: the Grotto of the Cumaen Sibyl and the entrance to the underworld. Some looked on the banks of Lake Averno, some in Baia, and some at the Cuma promontory.

Then in 1925 Maiuri started to clear away debris from a chamber on the grounds of what is now the Cuma Archaeology Park. It seemed to be the grotto of the mysterious sibyl. It wasn't, but, indeed, that would come later (1933) for him quite nearby. This time around he brought to light a Roman tunnel (also called galleria and crypta in Italian) that connected the port of Cuma with the Forum of the city, itself. The tunnel was built at a time when the sibyl (if she ever existed!) was already ancient history for the Romans. It had probably been part of a grander military structure planned by Augustus to connect the major port facility for the Roman Western Imperial fleet, Portus Iulius (Lakes Lucrino and Averno) with the port of Cuma. The tunnel is dug entirely into the limestone bank at the base of the hill that hosts the acropolis of Cuma; it is oriented west-east and is 292.5 meters long. There have been cave-ins over time and various sections have been used as quarries; as well, there have been modifications and restorations. The north wall of the forecourt (vestibule) is done in opus vittatum (horizontal brick-work set in cement), and there are four large niches that must have held statuary. Maiuri places this construction in the age of Augustus.

The tunnel has undergone modifications at various times, particularly in the first century AD, when the west entrance was raised 2.30 meters, probably to deal with instability in the rock. After that, the gallery seems to have given up its primary function; lack of maintenance and various cave-ins resulted in being able to enter the tunnel only from the east and to move for a short distance along the length. The cemetery phase of the tunnel goes back to that time. Along the walls of the east entrance there are around 20 burial niches; as well, there are paleo-Christian markings cut into the tunnel walls. Two symbols (a crown and a palm tree) have been cut into the west wall near the entrance to two large cisterns; they were part of an underground chamber dug into the rock above the gallery. That chamber then collapsed into the gallery, itself, but is recognized to have been a paleo-Christian basilica. Near the same spot, on the south wall, there are two large cisterns with a combined capacity of c. 35,000 cubic meters; they are fed by conduits on the north side. Given the capacity of the cisterns, it is probable that the conduits in turn came from the nearby aqueduct.

During the Gothic Wars of the sixth century AD, Cuma and the tunnel, like everything else in Italy, went straight to hell. The vault at the entrance to the tunnel collapsed and much of the entire space was buried and led to its being used for mining. You can still see two mines, which have been mistaken for skylights even by modern archaeologists (image, right). Some modern work has resulted in bits and pieces being taken away for display and safe-keeping, such as a marble statue of Diomedes Stealing the Palladium from Troy. It is a Roman copy of a bronze original done in 430 BC by the Greek sculptor, Kresilas, and is today on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. As for the rest, I have not heard of definite plans to restore the entire tunnel, but you might be lucky and get in on one of the tours that are now undertaken on special occasions (such as the one that produced the video referenced in the notes, below). During the recent European Days of Cultural Heritage (Patrimony) the monument was open for guided tours provided by the Environmental League. A few days earlier they had joined forces with technical staff of the Office for Archaeological Heritage of Cuma and cleaned up the area such that it might be displayed properly. 

drawing by R. Morichi, R. Paone and P. Rispoli
of the Archaeology Superintendency for the provinces of
Naples and Caserta.

credits: all images courtesy of Napoli Underground (NUg).
Additionlly, there is a short NUg video of the site on YouTube at this link.

notes: I have relied almost entirely on the article "La crypta romana-Cuma" by
Selene Salvi, which appears on the website of Napoli Underground.
Also see: Amato, L. et al. (no date) The Crypta Napoletana; a Roman Tunnel of the Early Imperial Age.
TecnoIn, S.p.A., Naples.  Department of Geotechnical Engineering, Frederick II University of Naples.

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