Cumae: an ancient Greek jewel in Italy, seat of the Sibyl priestess

Since I started visiting Naples and its surrounding area, I have become increasingly fascinated by the ancient Greek aspects of Italian history. I really enjoy reading about the stories and myths of the classical gods and how they are linked to different sites that we can still visit today.

The story of Cumae, the oldest Greek colony on the Italian mainland, caught my imagination in particular. This 8th century BC Greek settlement was known as the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl, a prophetess who presided over the oracle of the god Apollo.  A 131-metre long underground corridor that still exists on the site is believed to be the cave in which she once resided.  At the moment visitors can only peek in from outside as the park has limited access due to concerns about safety and upkeep:


First mentioned by Greek poet Lycophron around the third century BC, the sibyl at Cumae was described in depth in the writings of ancient Roman poet Virgil.

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 whom The 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

– Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6

She was one of several fortune tellers in the ancient world, but became the most famous among Romans. According to the legends, she would prophesise by singing and writing on oak leaves that she would arrange at the entrance of the cave. She would also guide people to Hades, the underworld, through the nearby Lake Avernus.

Although considered a mortal, the Sibyl is believed to have lived for 1000 years. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses narrative poem (8 AD), she made a pact with Apollo, exchanging her virginity for extended life. However, she did not ask for eternal youth, so she gradually grew decrepit and smaller, and eventually what was left of her was kept in a jar, until finally only her voice remained. Here is a portrayal of her in her prime, by 15th century artist Andrea del Castagno. The painting is part of the “Nine Famous Men and Women” frescoes he made for the Villa Carducci di Legnaia, now part of Florence’s Uffizi collection:sibylcumae1And here she is in her old age, painted by Michelangelo in the 16th century for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:cumaeansibyl2In the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem, the protagonist Aeneas asks the sibyl if she can help him gain access to the nearby entrance to the underworld so that he can visit his father’s spirit. Extracts from Virgil’s Aeneid are engraved in stone plaques around the site, adding to its mysticism. Here is one quote explaining the construction of the temple of Apollo at Cumae, written on stone next to the remains of that temple:WP_20150301_110Only the base of the temple of Apollo survives today, and remains of a ramp used to reach it. But it is an evocative site with stunning views of the sea and the island of Ischia, home to the oldest Greek settlement in Italy, Pithecusae. It was Euboean Greeks who had settled in Pithecusae  who then moved to the mainland and established the colony at Cumae.


photo 2 (5)

While looking around the remains of the temple of Apollo, you can see the base of an unusual clover-shaped column, and signs that the temple was converted into a Christian place of worship in later centuries, such as outlines of tombs and ruins of a baptistery.

photo 1 (3)WP_20150301_058Next to the temple of Apollo you can find the remains of the temple of Diana. Although little of its structure is still intact, there is an interesting story to read about this part of the sanctuary. The back part of the temple, which probably contained a statue of her, was built especially so that you could see the full moon rising on the planned date of its inauguration, the 13th of August, 21 BC. August 13th traditionally marked the festival of Diana, goddess of the moon, so it was the perfect date to celebrate the construction of a temple dedicated to her.WP_20150301_164Further up at the top of the hill, you can see what is left of the Temple of Jupiter, dating from the 5th century BC. It was turned into a Christian basilica around the 5th century AD. There are the remains of a large baptismal font here from the Christian era, and some reconstructed arches.WP_20150301_144WP_20150301_118WP_20150301_126On your way back out of the site, you can take some more time to admire the beautiful views of the sea and surrounding vegetation.WP_20150301_048Nearby Cumae you can also stop to see Lake Avernus, the volcanic crater lake which the Romans believed was the entrance to the underworld. While you try to work out where the gateway to Hades might be you can have a drink at the bar that overlooks the lake. But beware, these are the words of the Sibyl to Aeneas when she advises him about heading down into the underworld:

Trojan, Anchises’ son, the descent of Avernus is easy.
All night long, all day, the doors of Hades stand open.
But to retrace the path, to come up to the sweet air of heaven,
That is labor indeed.
(Aeneid 6.10.)WP_20150301_238Cumae is little known it seems, even among Italians. Not many tourists make it to the site as it is difficult to reach if you do not have a car, and the temples themselves are not very well-preserved. The fact that the sibyl’s cave is not officially open at the moment is also discouraging. However, I had a wonderful day touring this ancient site and discovering more about these fascinating stories connected to it. I’m hoping to go back to the archaeological museum at nearby Baia, which holds many important ancient artefacts of the region.

Changing hands between the Greeks, Romans and Samnites over the centuries, Cumae ended its days as a sanctuary for bandits and pirates when it was destroyed by Naples in 1207.

The key role of the Cumaean sibyl in mythology lives on however. According to ancient Roman legends, an old woman that may have been the sibyl brought her books of prophecies to Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome. She offered to sell him nine of the books, but he refused, so she burnt three of them. She then offered the remaining six and again he refused, so she burnt another three and only then did he agree to buy the last three at the original price. They were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill and consulted in emergencies, until the temple burnt down in the first century BC. Later, a re-collection of the Sybilline prophecies were allegedly destroyed by general Flavius Stilicho in 405 AD.

In medieval Christianity, both the Sibyl and Virgil were viewed as prophets of the birth of Jesus Christ. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue poem, written around 42 BC, can be interpreted as containing a messianic prophecy of the sibyl.

This led to the sibyl becoming incorporated into a lot of Christian art, as reflected by her presence in Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael also depicted her, along with other sibyls, in the church of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome, next to the Chiostro del Bramante, behind Piazza Navona. I’m planning to go and see this painting as soon as I have some time.sybils3

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