Cuma, the first Greek city established in Italy, is located
northwest of Naples. In ancient times, it was the site of a famous
prophesying sibyl. Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.), the poet most known
for the Aenead, resided in the area and left an account of one
prophecy that became well known, especially as Christian leaders
interpreted it as a foretelling of the appearance of Christ.
The prophecy, recorded in the Fourth Eclogue, included in its
The First-born of the New Age is already on his way
from high heaven down to Earth. With him, the Iron race
shall end and Golden Man inherit all the world. Smile on
the baby’s birth. . . this glorious Age will dawn. . . the ox
will not be frightened of the lion.
Justin Martyr, the first of the post-Apostolic church fathers,
had high praise for the sibyl at Cuma. He described her as
teaching the people after ascending to a high place and that
she had left behind a prophet of the Christ child. No less a personage
than the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first to convert
to Christianity), speaking before the First Council of Nicea
in the fourth century, cited this prophecy as referring to Jesus,
as did leading theologians such as St. Augustine.
Many references to the Cuma sibyl appear in ancient Greek
and Roman literature. Over the centuries, the pronouncements
of the successive sibyls were gathered and saved at Rome. Cicero,
who held office of Augur of Rome, had access to the archive
of prophecies, which were written in blank verse. He
noted that the verses were frequently encoded so that the whole
of the paragraph on each subject is continued in the initial letters
of every verse of that paragraph. The encoding implied
that the content of the oracles was carefully thought out.
The sibyl of Cuma was closely related to the oracle at Baia
located only a few miles away. It was the Cuma sibyl who referred
Aeneas to the oracle (as recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid) and
accompanied him on his journey to the Underworld to make
contact with his deceased father.
In more modern times, the sybil ceased to function and the
cave out of which she operated was abandoned. The cave was
rediscovered and excavated in 1932 by Professor Amedeo Maiuri.
Monteiro, Mariana. As ‘‘David and the Sybils Say’’ A Sketch of
the Sibyls and the Sibylline Oracles. Edinburgh Sands and Co.,
Temple, Robert K. G. Conversations with Eternity Ancient
Man’s Attempt to Know the Future. London Rider, 1984.
Virgil The Pastoral Poems. Translated by E. V. Reiu. Harmondsworth,
UK Penguin, 1967.