Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1198:
THE GATES OF HELL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1198.

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 he wrote:

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 years.
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 work.

(Theme music)


James, N. and Thorpe, N., Ancient Inventors. New York: Balantine Books, 1994, p. 419.

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. Lienhard.

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