A Mesmeric 2,000-Year-Old Mural Has Revealed The Hidden History Of An Ancient Italian City

Image: E. Lupoli, Jean Bérard Centre via Haaretz

In what was once the ancient Greek colony of Cumae in Italy, archaeologists are exploring a necropolis that’s kept its secrets for thousands of years. Here, these experts usually find the remains of the region’s elite buried in long-sealed tombs. But inside one such vault, the team actually discover an intricate mural that sheds new light on a forgotten past.

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Ever since the Phoenicians first arrived on the shores of what is now Italy in the tenth century B.C., this Mediterranean country has been a melting pot of different cultures. But even though the Romans arguably take up most of the pages in school history books today, the truth is that many different civilizations have left their marks on this part of the world.

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Back in the eighth century B.C., for example, the homeland of the ancient Greeks was under threat. So, spurred on by crises such as climate change and famine, the Greeks spread out to colonize and trade with other lands. And soon enough, Greek settlements had sprung up in Sicily and on the Italian peninsula.

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Eventually, though, the growing power of Rome would overwhelm Italy’s Greek colonies, absorbing them into their seemingly unstoppable empire. But for many centuries, Grecian culture flourished in Italy. And even today, Greek ruins can be spotted among the temples and amphitheaters of ancient Rome.

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Back in the early days of Greek colonization, then, settlers from the island of Euboea arrived on the coast of what is now Campania. This is some 15 miles from the modern-day city of Naples. At that time, then, colonists had already prospered on the nearby island of Pithecusae, and those in charge were seemingly keen to push on to the mainland.

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So, in Campania, the Greek colonists were drawn to a patch of fertile ground flanked by the ocean on one side. And there, the populace founded the colony of Cumae in around 750 B.C. Interestingly, though, these settlers were not the first people to find this spot. In fact, experts believe that both Bronze Age and Iron Age dwellings once existed on the site too.

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In any case, with the founding of Cumae, the Greeks established their first settlement on Italy’s mainland. And even as the Grecian people continued to explore and trade by sea, they evidently adapted well to colonial life too. As the economic and political power of this city grew, for instance, its people expanded their reach into neighboring territories.

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Soon, then, Cumae was thriving. And according to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the city sent bands of settlers to found new colonies in Sicily and Achaea in Greece. So as the centuries passed, the influence of Cumae eventually extended all along the Campania coast. The colonists even reached as far as Punta Campanella on the opposite side of the Bay of Naples.

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Greek culture therefore naturally took a firm hold on parts of the Italian mainland. For instance, the Euboean alphabet is the system of letters that would eventually become the Latin alphabet still used today. And according to the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cumae’s riches and power were the source of great admiration at the time.

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Not everyone admired the colony, however, and Cumae’s success earned it enemies as well. Chief among these were the Etruscans, a people who lived in what is now Tuscany. And during the late-sixth and early-fifth centuries, the two civilizations were often at odds. Yet the Cumaeans eventually emerged victorious.

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The glory days of Greek Cumae were, however, not to last. In 421 B.C., in fact, the Oscan people of Campania conquered the city. And under the new rulers, many aspects of the colony’s Greek culture were all but wiped out – even the language was eventually replaced. Yet some elements of the region’s history stubbornly remained.

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Then, in 338 B.C., Cumae changed hands again. Now under Roman rule, the colony became a quiet backwater on the fringes of the empire. But from the first century B.C. onwards, the city began to prosper once more. Around this time, you see, the region had become a popular destination for flush Romans in search of a coastal retreat.

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Inevitably, then, the colony grew to an impressive size – almost twice as large as its ill-fated neighbor, Pompeii. But while that city met a grisly fate with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Cumae apparently escaped unharmed. According to experts, in fact, the city would have experienced the merest sprinkle of ash. This despite being just 30 miles away from the active volcano.

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Ancient Cumae had, according to historians, actually been split into two parts: the fortified area, or acropolis, and the lower sections of the settlement along the coast. And over the years, the many different occupants who had lived there had left their marks on the city. So, eventually, the region boasted a collection of fine temples, a stadium, baths and an aqueduct.

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For the next 450 years, too, the citizens of Cumae lived in relative peace. That is, until the onset of the Gothic Wars in 535 brought fresh conflict to the region. Then in 1205, some seven centuries later, Cumae was destroyed. But unlike many other fallen cities, Cumae was never quite forgotten. And over the years, everyone from artists to archaeologists have visited the ruins of what was once one of Greece’s most ambitious colonies.

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It didn’t even take too long before people moved back to the land surrounding Cumae and excavations into these ancient areas began. As early as the 17th century, in fact, remarkable treasures started to surface from the region. This included a large statue that was recovered in 1606. Then, in 1738, construction workers made a remarkable discovery that changed the face of Italian archaeology for good.

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That year, you see, building works were being carried out in the region on a palace for Charles of Bourbon, the king of Naples. But while workers were laying the foundations, the team seemingly stumbled across the ruins of Herculaneum – a town that had been destroyed in the Vesuvian eruption. This led, ten years later, to a Spanish engineer uncovering the remains of Pompeii.

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Many people then flocked to excavate these fascinating sites, and Cumae itself was once again abandoned. This unfortunately made the ancient city a prime target for looters, who are thought to have stolen countless artifacts from the unprotected site. Finally, then, an official excavation began in 1852.

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Over the following years, in fact, a number of digs were carried out in and around Cumae. These excavations explored sites such as the Masseria del Gigante amphitheater and the necropoles beneath the city. And despite publicity also drawing more looters to the ruins, the excavations continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Archaeologists working during this time also discovered many diverting sites, including the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Jupiter and the Crypta Romana, an ancient military tunnel underneath the city. And they also uncovered the Cave of the Sybil. A grotto carved into the rocks, this is thought to be the spot where a famous Sybil, or oracle, had once made her prophecies.

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And even though oracles were relatively common in ancient times, it’s believed that the Cumaean Sybil had been one of the most well known. Apparently, the oracle had written her prophecies on leaves and left them at the entrance of her cave. She had also thought to be connected to the underworld and may have even used nearby tunnels to recreate the River Styx.

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Then, at the beginning of the 21st century, a team of French researchers arrived in Cumae. Led by the Collège de France’s Jean-Pierre Brun and Priscilla Munzi from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the experts began excavating the site of one of the city’s ancient necropoles.

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Apparently, this necropolis had once been part of a relatively built-up area, where roads and a Greek sanctuary had stood. And soon enough the archaeologists began to discover relics from the region’s fascinating past. Specifically, the team discovered hundreds of tombs cut into the rock beneath the city.

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Among these tombs, archaeologists also discovered vaulted spaces that had previously been used as burial chambers. Constructed from a local type of volcanic rock known as tuff, the spaces each comprised of a series of three tombs inside a single chamber. Interestingly, the door had been sealed with a single large rock – a setup that would have allowed easy access to the interior.

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Unfortunately, though, these tombs had seemingly fallen victim to the looting that had plagued Cumae during the 19th century. The archaeologists were, however, still able to recover relics including human remains and funerary goods. And using these, the team established that the chambers had been in use around the second century B.C.

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Archaeologists also utilized these traces to determine that the tombs’ inhabitants had likely been high-ranking members of Roman society. At the time that these remains had been buried, you see, Cumae had no longer been a Greek colony. It had, in fact, passed into Roman hands.

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Nevertheless, in most cases the tombs discovered at the Cumae necropolis were colored with either white or red paint. In June 2018, however, the team stumbled upon something different: a chamber emblazoned with an incredibly detailed painting. And despite its age, the mural’s subjects could still be clearly made out.

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Archaeologists had previously discovered other examples of funerary decoration at the site, of course. But this was the first case of something so elaborate. “A tomb excavated a few years ago had the funeral boxes painted in imitation marble,” Munzi told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in September 2018. “Only the tomb excavated in June was painted with figurative scenes.”

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The mural, which covers the sides and entrance wall of the tomb, depicts a naked servant holding a jug and a vase forged from silver. On the other side of the door, meanwhile, a type of vessel known as a situla, along with an amphora-type jar and a table, can be seen.

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Elsewhere, a kind of vase called a krater, complete with stand, is painted. These elements were, altogether, enough to tell archaeologists that the scene shown is one of a banquet. In fact, the experts believe that figures of guests had initially been painted along the tomb’s side walls. But now these are missing, and only traces of landscapes remain.

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Apparently, though, just the fact that this tomb contained a mural at all is evidence that its occupants had been members of Cumae’s elite. And the high quality of the piece, as well as the vibrancy of the colors, adds even more weight to this idea. In fact, according to Munzi, there might have been as many as three high-society Romans buried here.

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Yet even though the tomb appears to have three separate beds, the team will need to do further research before they can confirm how many people had actually been buried there. Meanwhile, much of the press coverage of the find has focused on the content of the mural itself – and the rather risqué nature of its subject matter.

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But was it really scandalous to depict a naked servant during Roman times? Experts believe, after all, that nudity was far more normalized back then. And what’s more, it was supposedly common for the more high-ranking members of society to collect artwork that could be considered lewd today.

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For example, when archaeologists uncovered the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, the teams discovered cultures frozen in time. But among the horrific reminders of the population’s grisly fate, experts also found numerous examples of art – preserved just like everything else. And reportedly, many of the pieces were sexual in nature.

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In fact, one particular artwork recovered from Herculaneum was so shocking that the king allegedly ordered it to be locked away. And fearing a scandal, the monarch even temporarily canceled the excavations altogether. Eventually, though, that same piece would be displayed at a 2013 British Museum exhibition, along with a parental guidance warning.

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Bizarrely, though, the mural from Cumae might still have been seen as an example of bad taste – just not because of its naked subject matter. Instead, it’s believed that the painting might simply have been unfashionable for showcasing a style that had been popular as long ago as two centuries before.

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“The theme of the banquet is widespread in the oldest tombs,” Munzi explained. “But this is the first tomb of second century B.C. in Campania that documents this motif.” So were the inhabitants of the necropolis really that far behind the times? Or did the designer of the tomb simply have a particularly soft spot for food and wine?

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According to Munzi, the mural had actually been an early addition to the tomb – not something added at a later date. In other words, at least one burial had already taken place before the artist got to work. “The paintings belong to the constructive phase of the tomb,” the expert explained. “It is a single constructive intervention.”

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The necropolis itself was not solely a feature of Cumae’s ancient period, you see. In fact, Munzi believes that the burial ground had been in use as late as the early-Medieval period. That had been around the time that the Gothic Wars had broken out.

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Back in the present day, though, archaeologists have removed the mural from the site so that they can work on its preservation. And after painstakingly extracting it – and collecting other fragments discovered in the tomb – they were able to reassemble it piece by piece. But with research still being carried out on the find, the public may have a while to wait before the mural’s full story can be told.

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