Cuma is an important piece of the history of Magna Graecia: it contributed more than the other colonies to spread the Greek culture in Italy. The archaeological excavations of Cuma are best known for the captivating legend about a woman deceived by a god: the Cumaean Sibyl.
The Sibyl was one of the most known and consulted oracles of the ancient world, whose predictions are described in numerous works of Greek and Latin authors.
The legend of the Cumaean Sibyl
What was the Sibyl like? Imagine a young woman of rare beauty. Beautiful enough to make the god Apollo fall so madly in love with her that he offered her anything as long as she became his priestess. The Sibyl, without overthinking, asked for one of the most craved gifts: immortality.
The young woman forgot to ask not to grow old. So, with the passing of the decades, her body shrank and consumed more and more, like that of a grasshopper. She was locked up in a cage inside the temple of the god, until her body disappeared and only her voice remained.
The voice of Apollo’s priestess was consulted by those who wanted to know more about their future, especially by young soldiers. When the sibyl was consulted she would say phrases like – Ibis, redibis non morieris in bello -, which in Latin offers a double interpretation, depending on how punctuation is used. With the comma before the negation the response of the sibyl is positive: – You will go, you will return and you will not die in war -, while with the comma moved after the negation it is the opposite: – You will go, you will not return and you will die in war -.
What is true in the figure of the sibyl
We know that among the ancient Romans, the term sibylline book indicated a collection of oracular texts that, on the occasion of certain prodigies or critical situations of the state, were consulted by a special priestly college to know the will of the gods. Even today we use the term sibylline to indicate a doubtful interpretation, just like the responses of the Sibyls and oracles were.
The myth of the foundation of Cuma
According to Strabo, Cuma is the first Greek settlement colony in the West. You have to imagine the Greek colonists setting out from distant Chalkida. Leading the boats Megasthenes and Hippocles, protected by the god Apollo. Founding this city in 730 BC, on a promontory, guided by a dove by day and the sound of bronze cymbals at night.
Archaeological excavations of Cuma
The Sibyl’s cave (Antro della Sibilla) is part of the findings of the archaeological excavations of Cuma.
Especially thanks to the excavations of Amedeo Maiuri, the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Jupiter and the Crypta and necropolis were also brought to light. The exploration of the lower part began later.
The excavations began in 1911, returning the remains of the ancient city abandoned for good in 1207, the year in which it was destroyed by the Neapolitan armies.
The funeral monuments of the necropolis of Cuma extend in an area about 3 km long, including tombs dating back to Greek, Samnite and Roman times.
A casual discovery took place in 1992, when, during the construction of a gas pipeline near the beach, was discovered a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis.
In 1994, thanks to the activation of the Kyme project, the site was rediscovered: the excavation of the tholos tomb was completed, a part of the walls was explored and investigations continued in the area of the forum where a building with a basilica plan, called Aula Sillana, was discovered, as well as the podium of a temple and three maritime villas were found along the coastline.
Most of the findings are preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegraean Fields.
The Greek Cuma
After having temporarily occupied the island of Ischia, the Greeks settled in Cuma and placed the acropolis of their city on two terraces and on a lower southern spur of the Mount of Cuma, founding the new city on a promontory characterized by steep and craggy walls, optimal to prevent the incursions of enemies. Later, from this first colony departed those who built Palepoli.
In a few years the colony of Cuma developed quickly, helped by the favourable commercial exchanges with the people of Latium and Campania and expanded up to the coast, so much that it had control over the whole gulf of Naples and allowed it to create sub-colonies in Baia, Pozzuoli, Naples, Miseno and Capri. However, after this flourishing period the city fell into a deep internal political crisis, which ended with the conquest by the Samnites in 421 BC.
In 338 BC it was then occupied by the Romans, who recognized the status of municipium for the aid given by the city during the Punic Wars: even the Roman rule did not bring many benefits to Cuma that continued its slow decline, so that between the fourth and fifth centuries AD was reduced to be populated by a small number of inhabitants.
As soon as you pass the access gallery of the archaeological excavations of Cuma, you are immersed in an ancient and surreal atmosphere, where life and death often meet.