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By Selene Salvi and Jeff Matthews

At the beginning of the last 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 just fragmentary and ancient legend. Yet, the Land of the Cimmerians, underground voyages, oracles of the dead, hideous sibyls and entrances to the nether regions were all jumbled together with some historical facts to create at least the potential for tangible reality. Thus, over the centuries the erudite 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 that seemed to be—on the basis of what was reported by late-ancient writers—the grotto of the mysterious sibyl. But just how reliable were they?--pseudo-Justinian (4th century AD, Procopius and Agathias (6th century AD). For the rest, Pausania (2nd century AD says that the Cumans had had no sibyllan oracle at all, just an urn with ashes held in the Templeof Apollo.

In reality, Maiuri had brought to light a Roman gallery that connected the port with the Forum of the city; it had probably been part of a grander military structure planned by Augustus to connect Portus Iulius (Lakes Lucrino and Averno) with the port of Cuma. The gallery 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 fore-court 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 builders traced likenesses of their tools on the vault: pick-axes, hammers, wedges.

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 later abandoned when pagan cults were forbidden and Christians took possession of the acropolis.

Some have claimed that the structure might be where St. Maximus was buried, said to be located along "the via Caballaria ibi videritis crucem,"

(where you shall see the cross) and whose remains were then moved to the basilica of that name built on the ruins of the so-called Temple of Jupiter at the top of the hill. Via Caballaria might correspond to the Roman Crypt and the cross to the one cut into the wall near the collapsed chamber.

Near the same spot, on the south wall, there are two large cisterns with a 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 an aqueduct; we can infer that because one stretch of the north side of the Cocceius Aqueduct contains just such an arrangement.

At the end of the fifth century, the section of the gallery past the entrance was shored up. The vault at the entrance then collapsed, leading to the entire space being buried. That goes back to the Greek-Gothic wars of the sixth century and led to the use of the gallery for mining. Two mines may still be seen; one is on the north wall of the entrance (Maiuri thought it was a sky-light) and the other one is on the north side of the gallery across from the chamber called the Grotto of the Sybil; the latter one comes out beneath the Byzantine Tower near the so-called Temple of Apollo.

Amedeo Maiuri found among the collapsed bits and pieces 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.

Currently, the Roman Crypt is not open to visitors. You can, however, from the entrance to the acropolis, look through an opening in the promontory and glimpse part of the fore-court (vestibule). Exceptionally, 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 might be displayed properly. We sincerely hope that jewel of our cultural heritage will soon be returned to us all.

Type: Man-made tunnel (or gallery) from the age of ancient Rome

Description: located on the grounds of the Archaeological Park of Cuma. Access is along the ancient road that connected the Forum of the city of Cuma with the port. The tunnel, itself, is normally not open to the public except on special occasions (as noted in the text, above). It is advisable to call ahead and see if there is any such occasion coming up. Entrance to the entire park costs 4 euros and is valid for two days; also included in the ticket is access to the Baia thermal baths, the Archaeological Museum of the Campi Flegrei (in the Baia Castle) and the Flavian Amphitheater in Pozzuoli.

City: Pozzuoli – Cuma (NA)
Coordinates: 40°50'53.88N - 14° 3'17.42E
Address: Via Monte di Cuma, 1
Telephone: 0818040430

photos: The Forum of the city of Cuma - The Roman Crypt of Cuma

video: The Roman Crypt of Cuma


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