Today, we pass through the Gates of Hell. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When Jove ordered Aeneas to
leave Dido, Queen of Carthage, she stabbed herself
to death, and Carthage burned. Virgil's
Aeneid tells how Aeneas wandered the
seas afterward; how he reached the coast of central
Italy; how he met a Sybil who led him into a vast
cave, down to the River Styx and the realm of the
dead; how he found the ghost of Dido and how she
rejected him; and how his father's ghost told him
his descendants would establish Rome.
Virgil wrote the Aeneid in 19 AD. The
story of the Sybil and the cave forms the climax of
Book One. Virgil placed the cave in the volcanic
area of Avernus, near the Isle of Capri. In 1962,
two amateur archaeologists, Robert Paget and Keith
Jones, went there to look for the cave. After two
years of searching, they uncovered a tunnel under
the ruins of a temple.
Why they looked for the stuff of myth in a real
place we'll see in a moment. But first, the tunnel:
it runs down through rock for 400 feet, then splits
into three tunnels. One leads down, farther still,
to a muddy hot spring. The others lead to a room
above the spring. The entry tunnel is located where
the summer solstice sun can light it once a year.
Otherwise, the passage is fitted with 500 sockets
for torches. In all, 870 feet of tunnel is hewn
through solid rock with great precision, and it
leads to the Hellish waters of what seems to be the
River Styx itself.
This heroic work of civil engineering was a kind of
Lourdes for the ancient world. Just how old it is,
we don't know, but Roman references suggest how it
was used. Pilgrims came from far away to tour the
underworld and hear the Sybil's prophecies. Before
they were led to the River Styx, the temple priests
gave them drinks laced with hallucinogenic drugs.
The result was a powerful experience.
Marcus Agrippa, second in command during the reign
of Caesar Augustus, finally closed the shrine down,
a few years before Virgil wrote the
Aeneid. He had parts of the tunnel
filled in with dirt. He cut down the sacred grove
above, and used it for ship building.
Virgil's concept of Hades and the afterworld traces
to Homer, 800 years before him. But Virgil did more
than just weave Homer into the saga of Aeneas when
A path led down from Acheron's water ...
Churning, seething with mud in a monstrous vortex
Charon, the boatman, takes on those who are buried.
Souls wander and flit about the bank for a hundred
Then Charon takes them o'er the water,
they have so longed to cross.
There's something beyond the old mythology here.
Dido, Aeneas, and the rest of the Aeneid appear
to've come into being when a very young Virgil
ventured into an eerie man-made labyrinth -- a
carefully engineered theme park in ancient Rome.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
James, N. and Thorpe, N., Ancient
Inventors. New York: Balantine Books, 1994, p.
The James and Thorpe book refers to Temple, R.
Conversations with Eternity (Rider,
1984) for the story of Paget's and Jones'
discovery. I have not yet located this reference. I
have looked at several versions of the
Aeneid. You will find no lack of
translations in your library or bookstore. The
passage I quote mixes two translations.
See also Bobrick, B., Labyrinths of Iron:
Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, and
War. New York: Henry Holt And Company,
1981/1986. Bobick offers other candidates for
Virgil's Avernian cave in the same region.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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