Thursday, November 03, 2011

Of Temples, Caves, and Oracles: Archaeological Trip to Cumae

Of Temples, Caves, and Oracles: Archaeological Trip to Cumae - CIEE - study abroad in naples, Italy - classical Studies

He said, and wept; then spread his sails before The winds, and reach’d at length the Cumaean shore:

Their anchors dropp’d, his crew the vessels moor.

They turn their heads to sea, their sterns to land, And greet with greedy joy th’ Italian strand.

Some strike from clashing flints their fiery seed; Some gather sticks, the kindled flames to feed, Or search for hollow trees, and fell the woods, Or trace thro’ valleys the discover’d floods.

Thus, while their sev’ral charges they fulfil, The pious prince ascends the sacred hill Where Phoebus is ador’d; and seeks the shade Which hides from sight his venerable maid.

Deep in a cave the Sibyl makes abode; Thence full of fate returns, and of the god. (Aeneid, Book VI)

The Greek and Roman city of Cumae is located at the heart of the Phlegraean Fields (Campi Flegrei).

“Phlegraean” comes from Greek and means “burning”, “fiery”: the very name mirrors the volcanic character of the region. And his is the place where, according to the ancient Romans, was the gate to the Hades, the Netherworld.

At the beginning of the first millennium BC, Cumae was occupied by a native powerful settlement, which was located high on a well-defended acropolis protruding into the sea. Around 750 BC, a group of Greeks from the islands of Euboea and Aeolis in Asia Minor established here the first Greek colony in the West. The rocky acropolis, the wave-lapped shores, the island of Ischia and Procida in front of the coastline, the natural environment – all this probably reminded the newcomers of their distant motherland.

At first, the colonists waged war against the native settlement and destroyed it in order to conquer the territory and to settle their gods on the acropolis. Soon afterwards, they established close relationships with the neighboring Samnite and Etruscan communities. The history of the Greek community of Cumae is of great historical importance for the West since it transmitted the Greek culture to the local communities, and it made the letters of the Greek alphabet known to the Latins, laying the basis for the alphabet which would afterwards become the most important in the world.

The Greek city capitulated at the hands of the Campanians in 421 BC; after that, Cumae entered the sphere of Roman power during the second half of the 4th century BC. It then became a crucial landmark of the Roman presence in Campania; among else, it was chosen by Sulla as his ultimate residence. Because of the legendary presence of the Sybil, one of the most important Oracles of the ancient world, Cumae was also an important center of political propaganda in the age of Augustus. In the VI Book of the Aeneid, Virgil describes Aeneas’ arrival in Cumae, his consultation of the Sybil, and his encounter with his father Anchises on the shores of the Lake Avernus. According to Virgil, it is in Cumae that Aeneas is foretold his future: this future corresponds to a golden age, which is nothing else than the age of Augustus and the fledging Roman Empire.

The fortunes of Roman Cumae started to decline in the 3rd century AD, because life was made hard by the continuous volcanic activity in the region. The splendor of Cumae came to an end in the first half of the 6th century AD, during the war between the Greek and the Germanic Goths.

The sanctuaries on the acropolis, the monuments of the public square, the new excavations of the urban area, the defensive walls, the necropolis: all of them testify how Greek and Roman Cumae was huge, powerful, and full of economic and cultural activities. The green and beautiful landscape, and the view on the sea and the islands off the coastline, make this walk through Greek and Roman history a unique experience. Matteo D’Acunto, CIEE and Orientale Professor of Archaeology