From the general to the particular…
The Greeks in Italy
Long before there was an Italy united by the Romans, the Greeks had settled in various areas of Italy. Historians agree that the earliest Greek settlers colonised Ischia, which they called Pithecusae, and the area of Kyme, which later became Cumae to the Romans and the Cuma of today.
Baia does not feature in any historical records, however the persistent notion of an Oracle of the Dead in the region, often said to be somewhere on the shore of Lake Avernus, goes back to the time of Homer, who is thought to have written his book ‘The Oddysey’ around 800 BC.
The Greeks settled here in one of the most volcanic regions in the world, dominated by the once massive bulk of Vesuvius in the distance.
More locally the seismic activity extends from an epicentre at Pozzuoli, which rises and falls dramatically over the centuries. The landscape is pock-marked with large and small volcanic craters. The most recent crater appeared on 29th September, 1538. In two days a steep crater appeared at the edge of Lake Avernus, obscuring what was called in Roman times the Lacus Lucrinus.
Volcanic activity centred on Pozzuoli
Greek and Roman features and the present day
The diagram on the left is based on Robert Paget’s sketch. The one on the right is the present appearance. As we can see, the coastline has dropped, so that much of what was once there is now under the sea. The old coastline corresponds to the 3 fathom line today. Monte Nuovo has appeared next to Lake Avernus.
The Oracle of the Cumaean Sybil is well-known. It kept records and operated well into Christian times. The archaeologist for the region, Amedeo Maiuri, famously rediscovered it in 1932, from descriptions given in Virgil’s Aenead and an anonymous author known as Pseudo-Justin.
The Oracle of the Dead in this region has not yet been officially recognised, but the site at Baia certainly qualifies for a ritual descent to the underworld. To my knowledge there are no other websites yet dedicated to investigating it.
In Virgil’s Aenead, Aeneas vists the Sybil of Cuma and she urges him to set sail from Cuma and go around the Cape of Misenum and land there. She will then leads him to the Oracle of the Dead. Now if the site of the oracle was at Lake Avernus, there would be no need to take a ship, it is walking distance from Cuma to Lake Avernus. It does, however, make more sense if the Oracle site were actually at somewhere like Baia.
Something that seems extraordinary to me is that either by design or coincidence, while the Oracle of the Cumaean Sybil runs due north-south, the Oracle of the Dead at Baia’s main passage runs due east-west. Furthermore, the site at Baia is also exactly due west of Mount Vesuvius. Before Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD it was a much taller and impressive sight. It was a truly auspicious location.
The Oracle is due west of Vesuvius
Autumn equinox sunrise
Furthermore, as this quick excercise using Google shows, at the autumn equinox the sun appears to rise behind Vesuvius, as viewed from the Oracle entrance at Baia.
There are other orientations within the tunnel complex that also appear to have astronomical significance and these will be noted elsewhere. This fact may well account for the change in direction within the hillside tunnel and the orientation of The Sanctuary and the River Styx.
The site at Baia
In Roman times the bay and associated town was called Baiae. It became the most important summer resort in Italy and remained so for about 350-400 years.
The complex of Roman buildings at Baia which seems to conceal the Oracle of the Dead has mystified many experts. Undoubtably there are many thermal baths in the complex, but were the various sets of buildings public, private or palatial residences? It depends which current day expert you read.
Unlike many other Roman bath complexes this site has a curative and health aspect related to the volcanic mineral baths, so the usual components may differ. Yet there is no palaestra here for sporting activities.
In Roman times there was a lake around which there was much more land on which to build. There are few traces of buildings to be found in the bay itself, although the surrounding area features a huge quantity of Roman buildings under the sea.