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Campi Flegrei (The Phlegraean Fields)

ITALY | Wednesday, 31 July 2013 | Views [1018]


Campi Flegrei (The Phlegraean Fields) outside of Naples


The area right around Naples offers a wealth of historical sites to explore.  The Campi Flegrei region along the coast to the West of the city has been the source of legend since at least 1000 BCE. The regions geological formations have sparked stories that have come down to us through Greek and Roman myths. 


 Vesuvius is not the only volcano in the area; it is just perhaps the most famous.  The city of Pozzuoli lies on the slopes of the Solfatara Volcano which was formed through “brandyseism” which according to the brochure is “a slow but constant upward and downward movement of the earth’s crust, and in particular by a sudden rise in the level of the land at the time of an eruption or intense volcanic activity, and a fall in level when such activity refrains.” (Phlegraean Fields Guide Book 5) It has a large soft basin crater that has quite a bit of sulphuric activity (this means that the place stinks!) and one last active boiling mud pit. At least one of the local legends says that letting oneself be bathed in the sulphuric gasses is better than taking Viagra, and the site has been a destination of those wanting children for millennia.


The thermal activity was used by the Romans for their baths, remnants of which I’ve seen from Hungary to Morocco.  In the Campi Flegrei area, the city of Baia was developed in the 1st C BCE with villas and thermal buildings built into the hillside facing the Gulf. The local thermal springs and sulphur came from the nearby volcanoes, including Solfatara. After Augustus’ reign, the site became the imperial family’s residence with buildings dedicated just for the family’s entertainment obligations.  There is one structure that has a huge dome, the floor was underwater when I visited as was the lower level of the terraced buildings (again due to brandyseism). The dome of the “Mercury Room” or “Echo Room” covered a thermal cavity that was built at the end of 1st C BC and supposedly became a model for Roman buildings, including the later Pantheon.


 As the Romans made sure they had their baths, they also had to have their sports and theatrical arenas. According to the guidebook the:


“Flavian Amphitheater is the third largest more or less intact Roman amphitheater in the world after the one in Rome and in Santa Maria Capua Vetere.  It was built approximately the same time as the one in Rome, during Vespasian’s reign. It is 149m long and 116 m wide with a capacity of about 40,000 spectators. The site was preserved by volcanic ash spewed from Solfatara.  There were originally three rows of arches resting on pillars surrounded by an attic level which covered the perimeter of the building. ‘There was a main entrance of four secondary doors. The elliptical arena (75 m long & 42m wide) had an underground corridor in the middle that ran along the longer axis and was closed with wooden boards during performances…. Three concentric corridors (for spectators) run between the tiers of seats, and each of the three circles of seats formed by them is sub-divided into the typical sectors by radial staircases.  The entire structure could be shaded by a velarium. … The basement complex is almost 7 m. deep.  Two ramps at he ends of the longer side of the arena lead to the three corridors which make up the basement; two are straight and perpendicular to one another and one is curved, running beneath the original podium.  The corridors were connected to the outside by large quadrangular openings which led directly to the arena. They supplied light and air to the basement, enabling the cages containing the wild animals to be hauled easily up to the level of the arena by a series of pulleys. The arena was used primarily for combat between gladiators and animals.” There are conflicting reports as to whether or not it was ever used for mock naval battles, but the evidence suggests that the basement was not a later construction as would have had to have been the case if the mock battles had taken place, but part of the original construction. (34-35)


Roman amphitheaters more of less follow the same general structure regardless of where they are.  The same description could be used for the amphitheater in Italica in Spain or the Coliseum in Rome; only the dimensions change and whether or not there was enough water to create the canal system for water.  In any of these structures, the stench from the animals and humans kept underground before being lifted into the arena must have been truly awful.


 Underground passages have been thought of as a means to connect to the unconscious as well as to the place of the dark spirits since we have lived in caves.  Lake Averno was the site the Romans believed one entered the underworld and is referred to as such in Virgil.  After seeing the site it is easy to understand why.  It is a crater lake.  The volcano created the lake, hence the steep sides and caves & thermal activity which would lead to wonderfully creative explanations for the strange natural phenomena occurring there. “Sibyl’s Grotto/Cave (which was locked when I was there) is a 200 m long tunnel excavated by the Romans when the canal connecting Lake Avernus, the nearby Lake Lucrinus and the sea was built. The canal enabled the lake to be used as a military harbour.” (43) Today there is a jogging/walking path around the lake and a couple of small local restaurants.  While I was there black ducks swam peacefully through the reeds while a German Shepherd leaned over the dock to try to get a drink.


 My favorite place in Campi Flegrei was Cumae. It was clearly intended to be 'the' sacred site.  It is also the oldest Greek site in Italy dating from about the 8th C BCE, although there are indications that an older, perhaps 10thC BCE, people lived here before the Greeks. Piecing together information from a few different guide books, I could glean the following: The Greeks, Chalcidian, came primarily to escape land takeover and political/economic pressure at home and apparently came primarily from Euboea. Under the Greeks the city thrived and increased in territory until there was conflict with the Etruscans who had come south into the area and the Italics who had also moved in.  The inevitable conflict arose and at first the Cumaens were able to hold off the Etruscans and Italics (an indigenous group probably from the central Apennines), but later didn’t have enough power to combat them alone, so they joined forces with the Greeks from Syracuse to combat the increasingly powerful Etruscans.  They did win a naval battle in 474 BC, which was celebrated in Pindar’s  verse, but eventually, as the rest of the peninsula, the Romans were unstoppable and the Cumaens became a ‘civitas sine suffragio’ (non-voting state) in 334BCE.  The Cumaens introduced the alphabet into Italy and spoke Greek before the take over. Before the Romans, it was briefly a Samnite state. (Yet another major power in the region, but only for a relatively brief time, say about 250 yearsJ)


There is a deep Roman Necropolis/Crypt underground at the entrance to the cave site, which was blocked off when I was there.  Apparently it is quite long and goes through the entire length of Monte di Cuma from one set of sites inland to those on the coast. Off to the left as one enters is the entrance to the Cumaen Sybillian Cave/ tunnel complex. Verses from Virgil, including those of the Cumaen Sybil to Aeneas are offered on tablets outside the tunnel corridor into the sanctuary.  The tunnel is over 130m long with light shafts at set intervals as well as votive shelves.  About a third of the way into the tunnel there is a shaft that splits in three sections off to the left (the right is the side of the mountain that opens to the outside).  I have no idea what these shafts led to or their purpose, but it could well have been for some kind of purification ritual given the layout of the site. At the end of the tunnel there are again three chapels, with the one on the left having three side sections as well.  There are postholes in the sides, which indicate where the doors were latched to the walls and where torches and votive figurines would be placed. The ceilings are finely designed vaulted arches as are the entrances to the individual chapels.  The Sibyls would make their prophecies somewhere in this space and my guess is the left hand 3-sided chapel, then the formal announcement would be made in the central larger space like an altar.  Sacrifices could well have been gathered in the right hand space.  Of course, this is pure fantasy on my part, but the space does exude a sense of awe and timeless peace and wisdom.  People’s hopes and prayers, wishes and fears were all gathered in this space for centuries and the walls still speak of them.


But I'm not the only one to think so, as: “This sanctuary, one of the most famous and frequently visited of ancient times (at least until the cult of the Sibyl died out around the 1st C AD) was built in two periods: the tunnel and oracle room during the 6-5th C BCE and the oracle room was extended and altered during the second period, between the 4th -3rd C. BCE. After the advent of Christianity, when the cult of the Sibyl was dying out, the Cave was used for some time as a cemetery.” (Guidebook 48)


 Above the Cave are a series of temples on the Acropolis; the Via Sacra takes one up the hill. The first temple is to Apollo, followed by a smaller one to Diana and finally on the next summit is one to Jupiter. Apollo’s is the oldest, supposedly from the Greek and Samnite period. It is situated in a direct line of sight from Vesuvius to the highest peak on Ischia and off to the left in line with a bow in the neighboring hills that lines up with the end of the Cumae peninsula.  There was a commanding view from all sides. In the Christian era it was converted into a Christian basilica, which is supposedly when the original North-South access changed back from East-West axis that had been reworked.


The Diana temple, was apparently dedicated on a full moon, which is Diana’s symbol. Artemis, has the crescent moon; Diana, the full moon.  The full moon is filled with mythological significance as a representative of bounty and insight.  Her temple is directly aligned with the rising of the full moon on the day it was dedicated in the 5c BCE??? She is behind and slightly below Apollo’s temple.  But clearly the sun and the moon were worshipped on this hilltop.


 A short walk over and up to the next summit takes one to the temple to Gove/Jupiter.  This one has a marvelous “baptismal font” in the middle of the temple that still has some of the marble incased in the bottom. It is currently surrounded by woods, but may well have had a commanding view of the area north of Cumae towards Ostia in ancient times. It would definitely have had a view of the north-south coastline, where below the entire site on the coast was also a main harbor for the region. Later Roman buildings, including a thermal bath complex and small amphitheater were excavated in the valley and they are now on private property, but one can see them from the various temples on the acropolis.


& just a word on driving… nightmare !!! the signs aren’t posted where they should be – if at all; Neopolitanian driving is simply absolute chaos.  As Paulo, one of the owners of the place I’m staying at in Agerola in the mountains, explained to me there is only one rule, whoever gets in first wins. But this doesn’t mean that anyone else will give way.  & then there are the motorcycles who I’m convinced would fill hospital needs for organ donations for the next year & the perpetual honking – for no discernable reason.  It’s simply the worst driving experience I’ve ever had! Although, I also don’t ever want to have to drive the Amalfi coastline again!….; driving in India now looks like a breeze!






















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