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 lead-ers interpreted it as a foretelling of the appearance of Christ. The prophecy, recorded in the Fourth Eclogue, included in its text,
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.
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.