The first stop on any tour of Naples should be the Cuma Archaeological Park to see the acropolis of Cuma (or Cumae), first founded in the 8th century B.C. by Euboean Greeks. Virgil’s account of the Sibyl’s cave in Book Six of The Aeneid describes the sight as it can be seen today, giving the impression that the author must have wandered along these stones. Perhaps he strolled here with his friend Emperor Augustus who commissioned the book. Virgil left it unfinished at his death, but Augustus insisted that the work be published anyway and the epic became an instant success.
Here is how Virgil describes Aeneas’ first meeting with the Cumean Sibyl: “This rocky citadel had been colonized by Chalcidians from Euboea, and one side of it had been hollowed out to form a vast cavern into which led a hundred broad shafts, a hundred mouths, from which streamed as many voices giving the responses of the Sibyl.”
The ticket office leads down a tree-lined path to a trapezoidal shaft. Known as the Antro della Sibilla, this is where the Cumean Sibyl may have written down her oracles on oak leaves that then blew away. When they did so, she refused to help reassemble her messages. Archeologists, however, ruin the mystique, claiming this was merely a Roman military tunnel and that if the Sibyl ever existed, her temple is lost to time. By Virgil’s day the sibyls had already disappeared, so his own account of the woman is purely fictional.
Virgil also describes the temples at Cuma, which you can find by climbing up a flight of steps and past an overlook to the sea. Stop and take in the Bay of Naples where both the mythical Aeneas and the real-life Roman Imperial Navy could have sailed. A little further up a hill, the Temple of Apollo is nothing more than flattened stones, likely with philosopher spirits holding out their hands for a little money. While many young Roman students went to study in Athens, Greeks also came to this region to found their schools. It was the Epicurean School in Naples that first brought Virgil to the city in 48 B.C.
Another path leads to a second terrace where the Temple of Jupiter has more of its structure intact. The temple’s stones were later used to erect a paleo-Christian basilica, a common practice after the Roman Empire banned paganism in the 300’s A.D.
Returning to the ticket office, an entire city spreads out below the parking lot. The vast complex includes the Tomb of the Sibyl, a Greek agora (that became a Samnite forum), thermal baths, pieces of original marble strewn everywhere, and a necropolis that once extended three kilometers. This area used to be a sprawling city that sat along the water, inhabited first by the Greeks and then by the Samnites – a people who, among other things, battled the Romans and spoke the Oscan language.
Walking over these stones gives the impression of a city deeply layered in cultural diversity and sophistication with much still to explore: an entire amphitheater across the street remains in situ.