Lake Avernus

Who You’ll Meet?

Cave of the Cumaean Sybil

In mythic tradition it was believed that Avernus was an entrance to the underworld. At nearby Cumae was the Cumaen Sibyl. She would give oracles. It could be that the toxic vapors from the volcanic activity in the area would have allowed a state much like the one from Delphi to allow a prophecy to be given. The cave of the Sybil was deep underground and had shafts cut into it to allow light. Pausanias speaks of this Sybil through Hyperochos of Cumae. None of her oracles remain however unlike the other more famous Sybils. Hyperochos reports that her bones are in a box at the Temple of Apollo. (Pau 10.12.4) In literary tradition this Sybil would have been the one to give Odysseus and Aeneas their prophecies that allowed them to travel into the underworld. Cumae is the oldest Greek colony on the mainland. It is in the area of Italy called Magna Graecia. Around 800 BCE the city was settled by Euboeans. In 474 Cumae and Syracuse joined forces against the Etruscans and prevailed. Cumae was attacked by the Oscans and were overcome in 421 BCE. They were brought under Roman rule in 338 BCE.

Fun Fact: The Cumaean form of the Greek alphabet gave rise to the Italic alphabets of the Etruscans and eventually the Latin alphabet.

Map of the Portus Iulius showing the connection of Avernus through the Lago di Lucrino

How You’ll Get There?The easiest and fasted way to get to Avernus is to travel by boat along the coast. It takes an average of two days to get from Rome to Avernus. In the earliest times the lake was surrounded by a forest that added to the mythic atmosphere. It had no natural entrance. However in 37 BCE Octavian’s general Marcus Agrippa created the Portus Julius out of the lake. In addition to removing all of the trees that surrounded the lake, he cut a canal into the land that connected it through the Lago di Lucrino to the sea. Not only was the lake connected through the canal to the sea, but also to Cumae through an underground tunnel which would become “the worlds’ first road tunnel”. The tunnel remained usable until it was damaged in World War II.

Why would you go there?
Since Avernus comes from the greek word for ‘without birds’ it is possible that at some point in its history it could have contained acidic vapors from its volcanic history. This would cause visiting the lake a bad idea. By the time Agrippa came to Avernus this was clearly not the case. There are few reasons someone would travel to the Lake. One of these would be if someone was in the military during the years that it was used as the Portus Julius. Another possible reason would be to visit the oracle or if you believed to find the entrance to the underworld.


Temple to Apollo on the shore of Lake Avernus

What is Avernus like?
Avernus is a volcanic crater that as become a lake. It is around 3 miles in circumference and 118 feet deep. Diodorus says that it had a deep blue color to the water due to it’s depth. On the edge of the lake was the Temple of Apollo. This was not a temple per se but was a spa wrongly named Temple. There are two parts of the ‘temple’ one part was made around the time of Hadrian (117-138CE) and the other was some time before. The height of the dome of the temple is only a few meters shorter than the height of the Pantheon.


“Lake of Averno.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2013

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 22. 1 (trans. Oldfather)

Jeffery, Lilian H. (1961). The local scripts of archaic Greece. Oxford: Clarendon.

Machta. “Weapons and Warfare.” Weapons and Warfare. N.p., 13 Dec. 2007. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

Strabo, Geography 5. 4. 5 ff (trans. Jones)

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