Kimmerian diasporas: Ephoros on legends about Avernus in Italy (mid-fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Kimmerian diasporas: Ephoros on legends about Avernus in Italy (mid-fourth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Ephoros of Kyme (mid-third century BCE), FGrHist 70 F134a (link to FGrHist), as discussed by Strabo (early first century CE), Geography 5.1.1-6.3.11 (link).

Comments: In this passage, Strabo is surveying various peoples of Italy and comes to Avernus. Here he refers to Ephoros’ work which reported legends regarding the original inhabitants of Avernus, including the notion that Avernus was settled by Kimmerians from north of the Black Sea.


[People of Avernus living in tunnels and local legends of a connection with Kimmerians from north of the Black Sea]

(5.4.5) . . . [omitted geographical details]. The people prior to my time were accustomed to make Avernus [near Cumae] the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric “Nekyia.” Furthermore, writers tell us that there actually was an oracle of the dead here and that Odysseus visited it. Now gulf Avernus is deep up to the very shore and has a clear outlet. The gulf has both the size and character of a harbour, although it is useless as a harbour because of the fact that gulf Lucrinus lies before it and is somewhat shallow as well as considerable in extent. Again, Avernus is enclosed around by steep hill-brows that rise above it on all sides except where you sail into it (at the present time they have been brought by the toil of man into cultivation, though in former times they were thickly covered with a wild and untrodden forest of large trees); and these hill-brows, because of the superstition of man, used to make the gulf a shadowy place.

And the natives used to add the further fable that all birds that fly over it fall down into the water, being killed by the vapours that rise from it, as in the case of all entrances into the realm of Plouton. And people used to suppose that this too was a Ploutonian place and that the Kimmerians had actually been there. At any rate, only those who had sacrificed beforehand and propitiated the deities of the underworld could sail into Avernus, and priests who held the locality on lease it were there to give directions in all such matters; and there is a fountain of potable water at this place, on the sea, but people used to abstain from it because they regarded it as the water of the Styx. The oracle is also situated somewhere near it; and further, the hot springs near by and Lake Acherusia betokened the river Pyriphlegethon.

[Ephoros on a supposed local story]

Again, Ephoros, in the passage where he claims the locality in question for the Kimmerians, says: They live in underground houses, which they call ‘argillai,’ and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, back and forth, and also admit foreigners to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth. They live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle, and from the king of the country, who has appointed them fixed allowances. Those who live near the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caves only during the night. It is for this reason that the poet speaks of them as follows: “And never does the shining sun look upon them.” But later on the Kimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out in his favour. The seat of the oracle, however, still endures, although it has been removed to another place.

Such, then, are the stories the people before my time used to tell, but now that the forest around Avernus has been cut down by Agrippa, and the tracts of land have been built up with houses, and the tunnel has been cut from Avernus to Cumae, all those stories have proven be mere fictions. Yet the Cocceius who made, not only this tunnel, but also the one from Dikaiarchia (near Baiae) to Neapolis [modern Naples], was pretty well acquainted with the story just now related about the Kimmerians, and it may very well be that he also considered it an ancestral custom, for this region, that its roads should run through tunnels. . . [omitted discussion of the Greek city of Neapolis, of Mount Vesuvius and of other locations south of that, including Capua and other Campanian cities].


Source of translation: H.L. Jones, Strabo, 8 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1917-28), public domain (passed away in 1932), adapted by Harland.


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