The Sibyl uttered her trance-induced predictions, Charon ferried souls across the swampy Styx, and Romans bathed in hydrothermal spas, all within an eight square mile area west of Naples, Italy known as the Phlegraean Fields. Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil, wrote about these ‘fields of fire’ in his epic work The Aeneid. Today, the visitor can still tour the Sibyl’s cave, walk to the entrance of Hades, and admire impressive temples where Virgil once worshipped his gods alongside fellow Romans.
The Phlegraean Fields encompass a caldera or cauldron-like region of twenty-four volcanoes and craters, many still bubbling with seismic activity. Over this mythical terrain looms famed Mt. Vesuvius, which Virgil would have seen too, although the volcano had a peak back then rather than a jagged mouth. Virgil lived from 70 B.C. to 19 B.C., about one hundred years before the deadly eruption that covered Pompeii. But while traveling through these fields, it seems that the earth’s million-year geologic history chuckles at my awe for Roman writers and Roman ruins. Virgil and I, by the earth’s clock, might as well be part of the same generation.
Proof of how little time has elapsed between Virgil’s life and my own can be found at the Solfatara volcano. A tree-lined path takes me to a sandy plain surrounded by slopes that puff endlessly with smoke. I can’t escape the stench of sulfur, which depending on the direction of the wind, wafts all the way to the city. Near the middle of the volcano, mud lakes sizzle at temperatures of up to 250 degrees Celsius. Two vents, called “La Bocca Grande” or “The Large Mouth,” belch steam across rocks that have discolored into copper-golden hues. Backed against one side of the hill, two brick archways still wisping with steam indicate that the ancients harnessed this hydrothermal activity for their vast network of baths.
The Romans called Solfatara the ‘Forum Vulcani’ or ‘The House of the God of Fire’. I can’t help but think that Virgil’s description of the god Vulcan’s workplace derived from his wanderings here. He did, after all, spend the last ten years of his life in Naples writing the epic poem.
In Book Eight Virgil tells the story of whenthe goddess Venus asked Vulcan to make a shield to protect her son, Aeneas, during battle. Vulcan agreed and went to where: … an island of smoking rocks rises sheer from the sea. Deep within it is a great vault, and in that vault caves have been scooped out… to serve as forges for the Cyclopes. The noise within them is the noise of thunder. Mighty blows can be heard booming on the groaning anvils, the caves are filled with the sound of hissing as the Chalybes plunge bars of white-hot pig-iron into water and all the time the fires are breathing in the furnaces. (Book Eight, lines 419-424.) Whatever truth lies in Virgil’s fiction, Solfatara hints of the ever-burning world that hisses and sizzles beneath my feet.
About a fifteen-minute drive from Solfatara, I visit Cuma, a Greek settlement that dates back to the eighth century B.C. I stroll first through a trapezoidal hallway with great stone shafts that pour light inside. At the very end, two stone caverns squeak with pigeons. Here, some say, the Sibyl uttered her dual-meaning predictions. Virgil must have wandered this hilltop city, his description of the Sibyl’s cave closely resembling how it looks today. He wrote: 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. (Book Six, lines 43-47)
I walk through the hallway where broad shafts on one side pour in light. Once I reach the two hollowed caverns, I can’t help but listen for the Sibyl’s voices even though archeologists maintain that this was simply a Roman military fortification. From here, steep stairs lead to an overlook of the sea where I imagine Aeneas sailed his ship or, at least, the Roman Imperial Navy held training exercises. A little further along the hilltop road, a so-called Temple of Apollo leaves much to the imagination; the flattened rocks might have been a place of worship or where philosophers imparted their wisdom to anyone who could spare a few coins. Yet another path dotted with trees leads to a Temple of Jove. Better preserved and presumably a Roman temple as well as an early Christian basilica, I still need my imagination to recreate what these stones could have been. On this very acropolis hilltop, according to Virgil, Aeneas begged the Sibyl to take him to the underworld so that he could talk with his dead father, Anchises.
Archeologists have excavated a vast circuit of military tunnels built by the Romans. One in particular, the Grotto of Cocceio, runs from Cuma to Lake Averno, where the famed entrance to Hades exists. The grotto has been closed to the public since World War II due to structural dangers, so I drive to Lake Averno through pot-holed roads that seem to have been last paved more than two thousand years ago. Once I reach the lake, whose name Virgil explains comes from the Greek word for ‘aornos’ or ‘the place without birds’, the water ripples inside a crater now replete with ducks and geese.
A walking path curves in a half-circle to another so-called Temple of Apollo, now mostly buried in layers of earth due to bradyseism. Peculiar to this region, bradyseism is the gradual lift and collapse of earth due to the ebb and flow of underground magma chambers. As a consequence, most of the Phlegraean Fields lie underwater or beneath more than thirty feet of dirt. This temple’s brick dome peeks out from tall grasses, its enormity betraying a size matched in the ancient world only by the Pantheon in Rome. Most likely, this was a Roman bath with a grand view of the lake. Now vineyards surround the crater, the ancient and modern taste of wine blending together in my mind.
Another half-circle road along the lake, but for cars rather than pedestrians, has an easily missed sign that says: Grotto della Sibilla. I park my car and go by foot along a dirt path arched with trees until I reach a pitch-black cave. A personal tour guide, Carlo Santillo, hands out candles and we walk together down the grotto, which is a 300-meter tunnel. He explains that during Virgil’s time, the grotto connected Lake Averno to Lake Lucrino. Then he points to holes overhead that once held oil lamps, thus giving the cave a reputation for having noxious fumes pluming out from its depths.
Halfway into the tunnel, a narrow passageway of stairs goes down into what the guide says is the entrance to Hades. The staircase ends at a pool of water, presumably the swamp of Styx where Aeneas and the Sibyl passed. The darkness, the candles, and the musty smell give me the sense that Hades himself lingers close by.
From Lake Averno a narrow road turns toward Lake Lucrino where the ancients farmed fish and mussels. Driving around its rim, the road winds up a steep cliff and then down into the little port of Baia. This city was once a sprawling spa-town which Horace, the poet and friend of Virgil, said was the most beautiful place in the world. A stone’s throw from the water, a Temple of Diana peeks its dome out from the dirt. On the other end of the port and across the street, an enormous shell that looks more like the remains of an open theater is named the Temple of Venus.
From these temples, whose tips probably once towered three stories high, I drive up another hill until I find the gate to the Archeological Park of Baia. A vast complex of three terraces, this park has a labyrinth of stairs, open space forums, detailed floor mosaics, dilapidated frescoes and arched walkways. Archeologists guess that this could have been baths or villas replete with theaters, stadiums, saunas, and more. At the bottom terrace, a dome hulks out from the dirt. Travelers in the eighteenth century called this the ‘Temple of Mercury’ or ‘Temple of Echoes’. I make my way inside the dome, crossing a plank over green-algae water and once inside, I yell high-pitched, my voice bouncing off the smoothed stone in rumbling god-like acoustics.
After roaming the park, I take a short drive to the Baia Castle towering over a cliff. Although occupied throughout the centuries by many different owners, it is believed to have once been the summer residence of Julius Caesar. The sheer views down to the sea remind me that pirates during Virgil’s time might have tried to scale these walls in hopes of finding loot. Inside the castle, staircases lead up to an opulent dining hall with a blue tinted floor, Greek marble statues in alcoves, and a scene of Ulysses giving black wine to a Cyclops, the heads of the statues now gone.
The Aenied is said to be both an imitation of Homer and a political tract lauding Emperor Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar. According to the epic poem, when Aeneas traveled to the underworld, he reached the land of joy. Here he found his father, Anchises, who prophesized: Under his auspices will be founded Rome in all her glory, whose empire shall cover the earth and whose spirit shall rise to the heights of Olympus…. Here is Caesar, and all the sons of Iulus… here he is, Augustus Caesar, son of a god, the man who will bring back the golden years to the fields of Latium…” (Book Six, lines 781-792) From this castle, I admire the majestic view of the Archeological Park as well as the Baia port and I am convinced that Virgil believed the Italian Olympus had been constructed right here in these Phlegraean Fields.
After a decade of writing The Aeneid, Virgil traveled to Greece with Augustus. During the trip, he caught a fever and died in Brundisium. He left The Aeneid unfinished, but Augustus charged two of Virgil’s friends to edit the work. Once published, the epic poem became an instant success. Virgil’s ashes were sent back to the city of Naples and a park exists between the districts of Mergellina and Fuorigrotta, where presumably his remains still lie at rest.
Square placards dot the grassy areas and give explanations of the plants – strawberries and myrtle, among others – that have been specifically selected from vegetation mentioned in Virgil’s works. Cut into the tuff-stone, at the top of the park I come to the Crypta Neapolitana, also called the Grotto Vecchia. A locked fence bars visitors from entering this 700-meter long tunnel dug in the first century B.C, but its grandiose height and triangular shape already leaves the visitor breathless. To the right of this crypt, steps take me up and across the grotto to a shrine. Inside, a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo sits in a hollow space. This may have been where pilgrims came to venerate Virgil’s ashes. Today his remains, however, are lost to time.
I end my meanderings within the modern day traffic of Naples. The volcanic activity underfoot and the ancient ruins blend fiction, history, and geologic time together into my present-day existence. These Phlegraean Fields and Virgil’s legacy leave me wondering if his own soul crossed through these fictions that he once shored up not solely from his imagination, but from the places he once roamed and wrote down in an epic poem for us to explore… and perhaps even believe.