Naples:life,death &
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ErN 157,  entry Nov 2011, last edit Dec 2014

Land of the Cimmerians

  View is to the south-west from Monte Nuovo in the Flegrean Fields on the Bay of Pozzuoli. The body of water on the right is
Lake Lucrino. (Lake Averno is just out of sight beyond the right-hand border of the photo.) The group of
white buildings across the bay (top center) at water's edge is the town of Baia. The island of Ischia is
at the upper right in the background. The flat promontory on the left is Cape Miseno, the end of the Gulf of Naples.

Baia, Baths, Cimmerian Darkness, Peter of Eboli and Nero's Baths

The Cimmerian Sibyl      
by 'il Guercino'    
On first looking into Chapman's Homer, John Keats and I both found this:
...where people dwell/Whom a perpetual cloud obscures outright/
To whom the cheerful sun lends never light...But night holds fix'd wings, feather'd all with banes/ Above those most unblest Cimmerians...
John got more out of that than I did. I turned to the wonderfully modern translation by Robert Fagles:
...where Cimmerian people have their homes—their realm and city/ shrouded in mist and cloud. The eye of the sun can never/ flash his rays through the dark and bring them light/...
I think I learned the phrase "Cimmerian darkness" when I was quite young, no doubt from a Classic Comic Book (#81, as a matter of fact). Other sources tell us that there was, indeed, an historic people called the "Cimmerians"; however, they were equestrian nomads from the region north of the Caucasus in the 7th century BC. These were probably the people Robert E. Howard was thinking of when he created his Conan the Barbarian (also known as Conan the Cimmerian: "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet." Presumably, they were a different people than our home-grown Cimmerians, but I wish them well. Especially Conan.

Our Neapolitan Cimmerians were the ones of whom Homer spoke in Book 11, "The Kingdom of the Dead," in The Odyssey. They lived in an underground city in the Flegrean Fields and sought sooth from an oracle, a Sibyl, a sorority sister of the Cumaean Sibyl just a short stretch up the road. There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but the Cimmerian Sibyl was said to be venerated by the pre-Hellenic native populations. After Homer, Greek historians repeated the story. Strabo [64 BC-24 AD], in describing for Agrippa the geography and customs of the Campania, writes in Book 5 of his Geography (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1923):
Again, Ephorus, [reference to earlier historian, Ephorus of Cyme, 400-330 BC] in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Cimmerians, says: They live in underground houses, which they call "argillae," and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, back and forth, and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle, and from the king of the country, who has appointed them fixed allowances; and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet speaks of them as follows: "And never does the shining sun look upon them"; but later on the Cimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out in his favour; the seat of the oracle, however, still endures...
Strabo does say that the Cimmerians were "destroyed," so who knows? Maybe some of their lost city is still down there! The literature on "lost worlds" and "lost races" is vast. There is admitted fun & fiction in the novels of H. Rider Haggard, which deal with lost kingdoms in Africa; there are also mythical lost worlds such as Atlantis, accounts of which may or may not have basis in fact; and interestingly, there are also places long thought to have been mythical—until they were discovered (!), such as the ancient Greek city of Helike that sank in one night into the sea in 373 BC and was discovered in 2001. So far, no one has found the ancient underground city of the Cimmerians, but one (Paget, below) claims to have found the Antrum, the seat of the oracle, the chamber from whence she spake. (She talked like that, too.)

Consulting the dead for advice is still popular in Naples; this is the place where you play lottery numbers that your dearly departed plant in your dreams. (See entry on The Smorfia.) In the times of the ancient Greeks, however, you generally had to go to a nekuomanteion, a “place of necromancy” or “oracle of death" ("oracle" can refer to the place, the prophet/ess or the prophecy). They were usually associated with Hades, such as the lakes, hills and caves of the Flegrean Fields near Naples. The only nekuomanteion located with any sense of archaeological certainty in that area, however, is the Grotto of the Sibyl at Cuma, uncovered in 1932 by Amedeo Maiuri. Before that, many thought it was at Lake Averno, where there was a dark and mysterious tunnel now known as the abode of the "pseudo-Sibyl" but which was in reality a channel dug by the Romans to connect lake Averno and Lake Lucrino. The hillside containing the Baia thermal bath complex was another contender for a nekuomanteion, if not of the Cumaean sibyl then perhaps the Cimmerian one, if there ever was one, but perhaps the cave and priestess are just like the Cimmerians and their underground city. Maybe Homer meant something else. Maybe we'll never know.

In any event the Baia bath complex was the largest one in the world of ancient Rome. It runs along a 450-meter front; the entire hill from the "Baia saddle" down to the sea is covered with the ruins (photo, below). Some of the names given by tradition to the structures indicate religious function: the Temple of Mercury, the Temple of Venus, etc. but they had no such function. For example, this large Pantheon-like building (photo, right) is the Temple of Mercury (also known as the Temple of Echoes, due to the particular acoustical properties). It has four ample corridors, a vault, dome and sky-light. It goes back to the beginning of the age of Augustus. It sort of looks like a temple, but it was just a splendid place to take a bath.

Those facilities were fed by thermal waters from underground mineral springs found everywhere in the area as well as by the Augustan aqueduct; it passed directly above on the hill on its way to provide water to the Piscina Mirabilis, the giant reservoir at nearby Bacoli that supplied fresh water for the western imperial fleet. The bath complex was even bigger than it looks today because seismic activity has caused a change in sea level, submerging some of the buildings. The Cimmerian connection is a long tunnel explored by archaeologist Robert Paget and described in 1967 (reference below). He claimed to have discovered the underground temple of the Cimmerians: their Oracle of the dead. That is disputed, and more recent archaeology says that the tunnel had no religious function at all, but served merely to channel vapors issuing from the earth.

(added in Jan 2012)

Peter of Eboli and the De balneis puteolanis

Peter of Eboli was a Benedictine monk from Eboli (about 70 km/45 miles SW of Naples). Not much is known about his biographical particulars. He was born after 1150 and probably died around 1220. For a while, he may have resided at Monte Cassino, the principal Benedictine monastery in Italy, and then at Eboli and Palermo in Sicily. He was a poet in the court of Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI (the father of Frederick II). He is remembered for some rather (according to some) sycophantic verse in praise of Henry as well as what might be described as the first guide book to the thermal baths of Pozzuoli and Baia. The work is entitled De balneis puteolanis [The Baths of Pozzuoli], one illustration from which is seen here (image, right). Peter did the illustrations, himself.

Thermal baths had been widely touted since the times of the Romans to have curative properties. They still are; there are today baths in Pozzuoli, Baiai and on the island of Ischia where you can pretty much enjoy the same waters as did the Romans (except that they ran the risk of electrocution by using their computers in the water. You have wireless.)

Peter's De balneis puteolanis praises the baths lavishly; it is written in verse and contains 35 illustrations. At least of few of them are probably the work of his imagination, but others are certainly attempts at authentic description. There have been various critical commentaries on De balneis puteolanis (see Clark) and there has been a recent facsimile edition published by Editalia.

added Dec 2014
Nero's Ovens (Le Stufe di Nerone)

Above (and elsewhere) you may read about the long “therapeutic' history of the area of the Campiflegrei,  known to the ancients for thermal baths that had marvelous curative powers. The area still has such baths, where treatments are even covered by national health insurance!  This particular boxed text, however, is about one relatively little known commercial establishment called the Stufe di Nerone (image, right) on the banks of tiny Lake Lucrino between Arco Felice and Baia. That lake is on the right in the photo at the top of this page, separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land. The lake used to be a lot larger and, indeed, was part of Portus Julius, the training facility for the Roman Western Imperial Fleet. A volcanic eruption in 1538 destroyed most of the lake, however, (and even coughed up the mountain that the photo was taken from!) The Stufe di Nerone are in the trees against a ridge at the far end of that little lake. I was intrigued to read this in various sources: “The first known map of a cave dates from 1546, and was of a man-made cavern in tufa called the Stufe di Nerone (Nero's Oven) in Pozzuoli near Naples in Italy.” The first map of a cave! That grabbed me. I couldn't find it, so I called the patron saint of researchers, Selene Salvi of Napol Underground.  She found it as she always does.

This is it, a rather straightforward diagram. The map is accompanied on the previous page by a description of the   purported benefits of the thermal waters. This map appears in De ortu  et causis subterraneorum libri V. p.146, by Georgius Agricola (1494- 1555), a German scholar and scientist, known as "the father of mineralogy". Published by Froben, Basel, 1546.

The website of the Stufe di Nerone uses the illustration by Peter of Eboli (directly above this box) and refers to it as “BALNEUM SILVIANAE (the present-day Stufe di Nerone)."  Hard to say. Maybe it is; maybe it isn't. It's plausible since it's  just a few hundred meters from the large Baia bath complex mentioned in the main article (above). The only thing certain about all of the baths in that area is that for many centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, they were forgotten about. Number one, the area was vulnerable to barbarian invasions: Alaric in 410, by Genseric in 456 and by Totila in 525, and those guys didn't care about taking baths, anyway! Fickle geology didn't help, either. The coastline was submerged by very active downward bradyseisms. Yet it staged a comeback as we see in the illustrations by Peter of Eboli. Yet again, however, geology wasn't through; there were earthquakes in the 1400s and a volcanic eruption in 1538 that actually produced, as noted, a new mountain —imaginatively called New Mountain! Under the Spanish (1500-1700) the area was refortified and thermal baths staged another comeback. They were on the Grand Tour of Europe before and after the Napoleonic wars. The entire area became less isolated in the late 19th century and especially the early 20th century when industry moved into nearby Bagnoli and large sections of popular housing units started to spring up at the western end of the bay of  Pozzuoli. The 1970s and '80s saw more unfortunate seismic activity, and entire sections of Pozzuoli were abandoned. Sea levels in the bay changed such that port facilities had to be rebuilt. That activity has subsided, at least for the present.

The current thermal facility, the Stufe di Nerone came into existence in the 1960s when two brothers rediscovered the ancient baths on property they inherited. The property is at the foot of a ridge that overlooks the western side of Lake Lucrino, and there are still a great number of remnant Roman bits and pieces sticking up in the brush. Over the years, the owners have cleared the brush, built an outdoor thermal pool, and reopened the original spaces that contained the old Roman baths —and given it a classy name, of course.


-Clark, Raymond J. 1989-90. "Peter of Eboli, 'De Balneis Puteolanis': Manuscripts from the Aragonese Scriptorium in Naples," in Traditio, vol. 45, (1989-1990), pp. 380-389. Fordham University. New York.
-De balneis puteolanis. 1994 facsimile reprint published by Editalia Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato. Rome.
-Friese, W. 2010. "Facing the Dead: Landscape and Ritual of Ancient Greek Death Oracles" in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, Volume 3, Issue 1 March 2010  pp. 29–40  Berg Publishers, London.
- Howard, R.E. (1932) "The Sword on the Stone" in Weird Tales (May, 1932). Ed. Farnsworth Wright, Chicago.
-Maiuri, A. 1958. I Campi Flegrei. Rome: Libreria dello stato.
-Paget, R.F.E. 1967. In the Footsteps of Orpheus; the Discovery of the Ancient Greek Underworld
. Roy Publishers. London.
-Rucca, G. 1850. Interpretazione di un luogo di Strabone. Stamperia Reale. Naples.
-Salvi, S. 2011. "Sito archeologico di Baia," & "Tempio di Mercurio" on the Napoli Underground website.
-Sorrentino, Francesco. 1994. "Bagni alle Porte dell'Inferno." in Medioevo, cultural monthly, year 8, n. 9. Sept. 1994. De Agostino, Milan.

photo credits: Land of the Cimmerians, Temple of Mercury and the Ruins of the Baths at Baia courtesy of NUG (Napoli Undergound).

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