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Home of the Sibyl

The Greek colony of Cumae

About 18 kilometres west from Naples is the archaeological site of Cuma, which in antiquity was the home of the Cumaean sibyl (oracle).

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, the ancient Greeks founded a large number of cities in Southern Italy and Sicily. The Greeks were so numerous in this region that is was eventually referred to as Megala Hellas or, as the Romans put it, Magna Graecia: “Great Greece”. Of course, neither Southern Italy nor Sicily were uninhabited, and the interactions between the “colonizing” Greeks and the native peoples is a subject of fervent research.

The area around Naples, today the capital of the Italian region of Campania, was especially popular among the Greeks. Campania is a large and fertile territory with a landscape and climate very similar to Greece, if a bit wetter. The region occupies a strategic location on the Tyrrhenian Sea, in relative close proximity to Rome, Sicily, and Tuscany (the original home of the Etruscans). From the eighth century BC, this area attracted Greeks, mainly from the island of Euboea.

Ancient Cumae

One of the earliest Greek settlements in the area was Pithecusae (Pithekoussai), founded by Euboeans in ca. 770 BC – according to an analysis of the site’s earliest pottery – on the island of Ischia. Pithecusae was relatively small and is often described as an emporion, a trading post. A little later, in ca. 725 BC, Euboeans from the city of Chalcis founded a proper town across Ischia on the mainland. They called it Kymê, but we generally refer to it using the Latinized version of the name, Cumae.

In Italian, Cumae is known as Cuma. The ancient site has been excavated extensively and is open to the public. The archaeological site is located about 18km west from Naples. There is a bus that can drop you off near the site, but I would recommend you take a car if at all possible. There are no signs at all that will direct you to the site, so a decent map or some kind of GPS is a must. We usually rely on our smartphones and the Google Maps app.

After you’ve bought your ticket, a road will take you to this tunnel through the base of the ancient town’s acropolis, which serves as the actual entrance to the archaeological site. If you turn right at the end of it, you’ll see the Crypta Romana; turn left to visit the sibyl. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The archaeological site encompasses the acropolis and surrounding area. Part of the town has been excavated, but it’s not easily reached from the acropolis; you’d have to take the car back down and drive down some country roads to reach it. There is also a cemetery that has been excavated, but I don’t believe you can visit it. The area itself is beautiful with lots of trees; the sea can be easily seen and brings in a cooling breeze. In ancient times, the area between the site and the sea was mostly marshy. Cumae lacked a sheltered harbour, but did have access to a beach.

A view of the Crypta Romana. It was originally thought that this was the home of the sibyl. However, it turned out to be a passageway of the Augustan era that connected the town with the harbour area. Cisterns held fresh water that was used to resupply ships. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

After you’ve bought a ticket, a long road will take you to a cave. This serves as the dramatic entrance to the archaeological site proper. On your right are the Crypta Romana, a monument that has been dug into the tufa bank that forms the base of the hill topped by the ancient town’s acropolis. It dates from the late first century BC, from around the time of the emperor Augustus (27 BC to AD 14). The “crypt” connected the Roman city to the beach. Among other things, it featured large tanks (cisterns) that were filled with water that was used to provision ships.

A view inside the long hallway thought to be where the sibyl resided. The corridor itself dates from the Greek era; rooms dug out deeper into the acropolis date are Roman in date. Some believe that the sibyl didn’t reside here, but rather in an underground complex at Baiae. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

If you turn to the left, you’ll see the entrance to a long, underground hallway, more than 130 metres in length. It was discovered In 1932 by the archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri, who identified it as the place where the sibyl resided. Sibyls are oracles, priestesses of Apollo, who speak for the deity when asked for advice. There were a number of these priestesses dotted all around the ancient Greek world, but the most famous ones were the Delphic sibyl and the sibyl here at Cumae. In the Aeneid, Virgil has Aeneas consult the Cumaean sibyl before his descent into the underworld. (According to some, however, an underground complex at Baiae is actually the place where the Cumaean sibyl was consulted.)

Up the acropolis

A path with steps that lead down from the entrance area of the Antro della Sibilla was closed off when we were there, so we took the path that led up instead. From here, you have an amazing view of the surrounding countryside and the shore. The island of Ischia is easily visible from here, too. The explanatory sign here says that the outpost on Pithecusae was a “stopping off point in the iron trade which the Greeks from Euboea obtained in exchange for luxury goods.”

The view from the acropolis is fantastic. You can see the coastline, as well as the island of Ischia. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

A path leads to a fork in the road. If you turn right here, you’ll go to an area that was a sanctuary of Apollo, dominated by the remains of the sanctuary’s temple. Evidence suggests that once Hera must have been important at Cuma, too. When exactly Apollo came to the fore isn’t known, but the nearby sign suggests that maybe Aristodemus, tyrant of Cumae in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BC, might have had something to do with this. Certainly, the city became massively important during Rome’s early Imperial era, when many of the monuments in Cumae, including the temple, were restored.

The current ruin dates mostly from the Augustean era; of the original Greek temple, only scant evidence remains. The temple is striking for the fact that it’s broad rather than deep, due to the amount of space available on the terrace here. The temple’s entrance faced roughly south-east. You have a good view here on the remains of the town below. In the sunlight, the temple must have appeared to the inhabitants below as a shining white beacon at the top of the hill.

Remains of the temple of Apollo. This is the entrance section of the temple; the “sacred way” would have been in the foreground and connected this terrace on the acropolis (the santuary of Apollo) to the town below. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The area of Apollo’s sanctuary features the remains of a number of other buildings. Close to Apollo’s temple is another rectangular building. It is also oriented south-east and has been interpreted as a temple of Artemis. Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister and they are often associated together in cult. If the building has been correctly identified as a temple, it stands to reason that it would have been dedicated to her. The remains here also include foundations of houses that date to the medieval era, when the acropolis was used for habitation.

This photo was taken from inside the remains of the temple of Zeus. Note the brick walls; these date from the very end of the Classical era, when the temple was repurposed as a christian basilica. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

If you go back to the fork in the road and head left instead of right, you can follow a path – the ancient via sacra or sacred way – that eventually ends up at the very top of the ancient town’s acropolis. Here are the remains of a large temple dedicated to none other than Zeus, the father of Apollo and Artemis. The original Greek temple was built around 500 BC.

A thousand years later, in the fifth century AD, brick walls were added to turn it into a basilica, and more specifically a Christian church. A circular baptismal font with three steps was installed around the same time. Later, even heavier modifications were made, but the original outline of the temple can still be easily recognized.

This circular baptismal font was installed when the temple of Zeus was re-used as a church. Note the three steps. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The archaeological site at Cuma might not be easy to find, but it’s definitely worth your trouble to seek it out. Aside from the amazing archaeological remains, the view alone is one that you should experience for yourself. On your way back, be sure to check out Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater lake that the Romans believed was the entrance to the underworld. You should also consider stopping in Pozzuoli to grab something to eat.