“No bay in the world outshines lovely Baiae.”
Horace, 1st century BC
The Campi Flegrei region was heavily influenced by Greek culture. In about 750 BC settlers from the Greek region of Euboea founded Kyme,the first Greek colony on mainland Italy. They had first settled on the island of Ischia, but moved because of volcanic activity. Kyme was known to the Romans as Cumae and is today called Cuma.
Greek cultural influence spread across the Bay of Naples to form what became known as Magna Graecia.
From the fourth century BC onwards the Campi Flegrei gradually came under Rome’s political and cultural influence.
The decline of the Roman Empire combined with a massive volcanic event caused the area finally to be abandoned. Much of it reverted to malarial swamps which were finally eradicated in Mussolini’s time.
The stuff of Mythology
The area had long become associated with events in Homer’s Odyssey. Lake Avernus became associated with the Oracle of the Dead in Vergil’s Aeneid. An entrance to the underworld, home of Hades and Persephone.
Minted between 430-420BC, a silver coin struck at Cuma shows the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the Underworld, standing on a mussel shell – the symbol of Cuma because of the mussel beds in Lake Fusaro.
In the second half of the 4th century BC Greek Historians mention the Via Herculana, part of which runs through Bacoli today as the Via Ercole.
Baiae itself was named after Baius, one of Odysseus’s companions while nearby Misenum was named after Misenus, said to be either another companion of Odysseus or a trumpeter of Aeneas. Our English word for Bay comes from Baia, the Latin for a bay being sinus.
Almost everywhere the area became noted for its tales of mystery and divine intervention, against a backdrop of volcanic craters.
After the Latin War ended in 338 BC the area came under Rome’s control, with Roman rights as citizens, but without the right to vote.
In the first century BC, Livy mentions the earliest visit to the mineral waters in the area, when Scipio Hispallus was sent to take the ‘Aquae Cumanae’ in 176 BC in order to find a cure for his partial paralysis as a result of falling off his horse. Where Scipio stayed was not mentioned. Maybe curative spa premises were already in systematic operation.
The second reference to dates to almost a century later, when in 88 BC the statesman Gaius Marius, old and riddled with rheumatism, was urged to retire to Baiae for health reasons. Marius owned a luxurious villa in the Baia neighbourhood. The beginning of the first century BC saw an increase in fine villas and palaces being built in the region. Rome’s military victories abroad had resulted in abundant wealth for aristocratic Romans and Baia became their summer playground.
Expansion increased rapidly at the end of the first century BCE and during the first two centuries AD. Julius Caesar built his palace at Baia in about 100 BC.
In the hills of Baiae, […] sites are excavated for sweating-rooms. In these, hot vapour rising deep down perforates the soil by the violence of its heat, and passing through it rises in these places, and so produces striking advantages in sweating-rooms.
Vitruvius, 1st century BC
Glass souvenir glass flasks from Baia dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD show the shoreline of Pozzuoli and Baia.