Cuma, Messages from the Past

February 24, 2012 / Art & Archaeology
Cumae, Campania

Ancient sites jostle for attention across Campania but Cuma deserves a special place in the heart of any European, for this is where our alphabet made landfall on its way from Greece. Founded on a hillside in the 8th century BC within sight of an original colony on the island of Ischia, the new settlement brought Euboean Greek letters to the peninsula. The Etruscans would adopt them, then the Romans and you are reading a version of this alphabet right now.cuma1

The new Greek colony of Magna Graecia flourished, fighting off resistance from local tribes, gaining control over local land and founding Naples in 470 B.C. Repeated Etruscan attempts to oust the colonists culminated in a home win at the Battle of Cuma just a few years before. An inevitable period of Romanisation in the next century culminated in the conversion of a Temple to Zeus into a Christian basilica. Today it is very pleasant to wander amongst these ruins.cuma2

Cuma came under the control of the Lombards and was governed from Naples. It acquired a wild reputation as the stronghold of Saracens and bandits; forces acting for the young king of Sicily destroyed its walls in 1207 and that was the end of its life as a city.cuma5

But Cuma retains its power as a focus of myth. Virgil’s poem, the Aeneid, recounts how Aeneas’ epic journey brought him to Cuma to consult the ageless Sibyl, priestess of Apollo. Aeneas needed to visit his father Anchises in the underworld, Hades – access was not far away at lake Averno. The Sibyl’s prophecies were sung or written on oak leaves, often scattered by the winds, especially frustrating if you are a Trojan hero with a tight schedule on your way to found a new city. However Aeneas does eventually meet his father with the help of the prophetess.cuma4

A long passageway in vaguely pine-tree shape leads you into the rock beneath the ruins of ancient Cuma and into the realm of the Sibyl. That historians believe this to be merely a defensive structure should in no way interfere with your experience as a seeker of wisdom or of thrills.cuma3

When you return to the light, walk a little of the ancient pathway nearby and admire the views of Ischia. Here the stones themselves are messages from the past and more reliable than oak leaves.cuma6

Penny Ewles-Bergeron

by Penny Ewles-Bergeron

Author, artist… celebrating the many good things in Naples.

24 Responses to “Cuma, Messages from the Past”

  1. Marilyn Canna

    Clarification on when that Temple of Zeus was Christianized?? Maybe I just read the sentence incorrectly. In any case, this is a lovely, evocative piece. On this snowy Chicago morning, wishing I were walking that passageway or viewing Ischia!

  2. You are indeed an artist; your words evoke creative images and your photos are just delightful. You give one the impetus to see & experience for oneself. Thanks!

  3. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thanks all. Cuma’s a fascinating place with so much to relate in terms of its history that entire periods must be skimmed over in a few words within the limits of the page. Just to clarify, the Greek period for Cuma ended in 421 BC when Oscans took over the city. Subsequent Roman rule was recognised later in 338 BC when the city was granted the status of ‘civitas sine suffragio’ a partial citizenship. The temple to Zeus became a Christian basilica at the end of the 4th century AD.

  4. Stannous Flouride

    This is where I worked on an archeological dig in 2001. (An Earthwatch program, I paid my own way with the money I won on “WWTBAMillionaire?”)
    The location of our site can be seen in the top picture, it was just to the right of building in the midst of all that green. It was an exploration of a Temple of Isis that turned out to be a private temple attached to a villa.
    The villa was over 50m long with its own dock, now silted in and the temple had at some later time been used as a glass factory.

    btw- as to what Marilyn Canna asked:
    ” An inevitable period of Romanisation in the next century culminated in the conversion of a Temple to Zeus into a Christian basilica. ”
    Since the date of the Battle of Cumae was 474 BCE shouldn’t ‘next century’ be ‘next millennia’?

    • Gail Pendell

      Stannous Can you please give more detail of your dig? The date and if there is a place where I can get copies of reports, etc. am writing thesis for a masters degree
      Surely would appreciate any help

  5. Gian Banchero

    Wow, thanks for the photo of the tunnel!! Almost always in underground chambers nothing has changed an ounce over the centuries, always a place to be jettisoned into past history. In a family home in Piemonte the main building was built in the tenth century and if that wasn’t historically enough the basement was part of a Roman brick factory dating back two thousand years, the room had a minimum of wear, it was a place where history became a reality and the concept of time was blurred, very much so ancient Rome became the present!! Thank you Penny for the informative article and the stellar photos!

  6. Excellent! I wish that you had been my guide fifteen years ago!Your words and pictures are avocative of this wonderful place.

  7. You’ve blended quite a fascinating journey through history and mythology my friend. Never heard of Cuma but most definitely love the story of Aeneas and his journey. Your wit and humor come alive in your writing and I laughed out loud at the comment about those blasted oak leaves. Glorious pics too!

  8. Louise Matarazzo

    I have visited the sybil cave in the Campi Flegri, Naples, Italy it was not in Ischia. Can you clarify this for me. grazie

  9. Stannous Flouride

    I am pretty sure that there were ‘sybils’ all over the ancient world. In Rome and Greece they usually occupied caves and springs, both considered passages to the underworld, and other sacred spaces.

    Other oracles and sibyls to explore: the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona, where the god spoke through the rustling of leaves, or brass vessels which were hung in the sacred oak grove; the Oracle of Trophonius in Lebadia; the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon in Libya; the Cimmerian Sybil; the Phrygian Sibyl, and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Albunea.

  10. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thank you Stannous: there were indeed many sibyls. You’ve enriched the note with a fantastic list.
    Hi Louise: my apologies – I was obviously in ambiguity mode when I wrote this! The original colony was on the island of Ischia which is in plain sight from Cuma. Cuma is one of the many interesting ancient sites in the Campi Flegrei.
    Gian Banchero – wonderfully evocative layering of history in the family home.
    All – thanks for the lovely feedback. Much appreciated.

  11. Arline Leven

    Your beautiful photos brought back wonderful memories..I was there long ago.

  12. I just discovered your site. I am planning my first trip to Italy this summer and cannot wait to read all that you have to share about this enchanting country. Grazie

  13. beaufortriver

    Beautiful desription of an evocative site. Grazie mille, Penny! Lived nearby in Ischitella (’84-’87) and even closer in Monte di Procida (’98-’01). Cuma was a favorite picnic site (altho’ I think they may not allow food now). We studied The Aneid aloud sitting in an ancient baptismal pool. For fellow travelers, don’t miss the trek up the hill to the acropolis!

  14. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thanks beaufortriver – glad to bring back some happy memories!


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