This cave, archeologists say, was once a Roman military tunnel that connected Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino where fish used to be abundant until the 1698 eruption, which killed them off and created an entirely new mountain called Monte Nuovo. Inside the tunnel, carved inlets show where Romans placed oil lamps to light the way, giving the dark area a heavy scent of noxious fumes. The cave also had a circuitry of interconnected passageways that today end in dirt or water. Carlo takes visitors down one passageway that ends in murky water. He then explains that this is the entrance to Hades and the water is the beginning of the River Styx.
The tour resumes with a walk to the end of the main tunnel, where a mammoth staircase leads to what may have been a Roman restaurant, bathhouse, or – Carlo maintains – the place where the Sybil uttered her oracles. A body of water has a wooden plank over which visitors step to see the caverns where the Sibyl bathed and had a sanctuary.
Is this in fact the ‘real’ location where the Sybil uttered her oracles? In the book Sybils and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity, H.W. Parke explores this very question. Virgil’s Sybil lived at Cuma, but scholars theorize that perhaps there was another far older Cimmerean Sybil who gave her oracles in this particular hollow space.
Parke says that the Roman writer, Varro, identified ten Sybils in the ancient world. Two were located in Campania – the Cimmerean and the Cumaean. Varro took his evidence of a Cimmerean Sybil from Gnaeus Naevius who stipulated that the Cimmereans inhabited the area around Lake Avernus before the Cumaean’s.
This Roman legend would have been essential for the Caesars and their populous to believe. Why? Although Cuma was recognized as the oldest Greek colony on the Italian mainland (established around 600 B.C.), the settlement did not antedate the Trojan War. For Naevius, legend had it that Aeneas fled from Troy after the war and reached Italy where he consulted the Sybil who “prophesied the future to mortals and lived in the town of the Cimmereans.” So if Aeneas fled came to this lake, then a colony must have existed already around 1000 B.C.
While touring a cavern like this, myth and legend become far more truthful than archeological finds and historical records. Bradyseism has made it difficult to tell what exactly existed here two-thousand-years ago; most of the grotto is under 30-60 feet of dirt. But when Carlos blows out the candles, the pitch blackness of the cavern gives the impression of being a place where Hades himself still roams.