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Gate To Hades

Who Built The Strange Tunnels At Baiae?

By James Donahue

Some 2,000 years ago, at about the time of Christ and when the Roman Empire was in its glory, there existed a flourishing resort and spa at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples and under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, that was noted for its mineral cures. Legend has it that it also was well known for the scandalous immorality that flourished there.

Today the place has fallen to ruins where tourists like to visit. It was in 1932 that the entrance to a man-made cave was discovered, well hidden behind a large pizza oven. What was found was a sliver of a tunnel, barely large enough for a man to pass through. The first people to try to explore it found out two things: It was a deep dark cavern that seemed to disappear into the hills under the mountain, and the air was uncomfortably hot and filled with sulfurous smoke.

Interest in the strange cavern was lost until the 1950s when Robin Paget, a Briton serving at a nearby NATO airbase, established a home in Baiae and learned about the cave. It turned out that Paget liked to explore excavations like this as a personal hobby.

Joined by Keith Jones, an American colleague, Paget launched a lengthy archaeological exploration of the tunnel that opened one of the world’s great underground mysteries. Some believed it was the place where the legendary "Cave of the Sibyl" had its origins.

The Sibyl, as the legend is told, was a woman named Amalthaea who lived in a cave on the Phlegraean Fields, in the area where this tunnel was found. Virgil told how she scribbled the future of Rome on oak leaves lying scattered around at the entrance to her cave, and that the cave was an entrance to the underworld.

Sibyl lived during the reign of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the mythic kings of Rome, during the Sixth Century BC. Stories were told how the Sibyl raveled to Tarquin’s palace bearing books of prophecy that accurately predicted the whole future of Rome. The legend also tells how three Greek scrolls, known as the Sibylline Books, were kept closely guarded in a stone chest in a vault below the Temple of Jupiter, and brought out at times of crisis. They were used as a guide by Roman leaders to avert looming disasters.

So what did Paget and Jones find in that strange man-make tunnel? It began as a high but narrow tunnel, eight feet high but only 21 inches wide. The temperature was uncomfortably hot and the airless interior was filled with volcanic fumes. They found that the tunnel dropped about 10 feet in the first 400 feet of its length, then stopped at a solid wall of rubble that blocked the way.

In spite of the darkness and the extreme discomfort from the volcanic heat, the two men decided to excavate the rubble and see what was to be found beyond it. They literally excavated 700 cubic yards of rubble, making something like 30,000 trips in and out of that cavern before they had the passage open. Using a group of volunteers it took them nearly 10 years to get this job completed.

So what was found beyond the rubble? More tunnels that dropped even lower. They found carved niches in the walls for oil lamps, located about a yard apart, in those lower levels.

In the midst of the portion of the tunnel filled with rubble Paget and Jones found the entrance to a second passage. Then after the tunnels were open for perhaps the first time in over 2000 years, the explorers found that there was a steep drop until they came to an underground stream which they dubbed The River Styx. This was because the water was so hot it was almost boiling in places. A small "landing stage" projected out into the water.

The passage way on the other side of the river ascended until it opened to an antechamber which Paget called the "hidden sanctuary. From there they found staircases ascending until they opened behind the ruins of water tanks that once fed the spas of the ancient temple complex.

The discovery of that heated stream led Paget to come up with a theory that the elaborate man-made cave system was built as a representation of the mythic underground passageway to Hades.

Overall, Paget and Jones found an elaborate man-made tunnel system filled with strange twists and turns and that hot stream fill of smelly sulfurized water. They called it the Great Antrum. But the unsolved mystery is who built it and why? And why had it been plugged?

Paget and Jones speculated that the tunnel system was built by priests of mimic a visit to Hades. They could envision a small boat used to ferry visitors across the River Styk where they might climb the stairs to meet some important person in the large room. Who might this have been? Paget suggested that it might have been Cumaean Sibyl or a posing facsimile thereof.

If they believed in the Devil in those times, could it have been that the tunnel was sealed to make sure the evil one never escaped to the world above?