The Appian Way

As Rome began to expand and shift from a village into a vast empire nearly 80.000 km of paved roads were built to connect the capital to people and places all over the empire.

This incredible network of ancient highways was a great geographical revolution and established a sort of blueprint for a “globalized world”. The roads were essential for military, commercial, administration purposes. The most common means of transportation were horses, donkeys, mules, carriages but many travelled on foot. A common traveller would walk approximately 20/25 miles a day (a Roman mile is 1478 m. or 1000 steps), the road surface was very hard with basalt paving stones and the shoes not comfy as our trekking shoes nowadays! I walk along the Appian Way nearly every day since I live close by and what amazes me is thinking that an ancient traveller could walk along that same road for some 14 days and 365 miles to reach Brindisi in southern Italy.

The Appian Way

The Appian Way was the oldest and most prestigious of the Roman roads or viae stratae (paved roads). Stratae it is familiar word to many of us since it has been borrowed by many modern languages: just think about street, strada, straße, straat.

It was built by the censor Appius Claudius in 312 BC and named after him and originally it arrived until Capua only; later on was extended as far as Brindisi: so it became the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean. It was filled with monuments: temples, altars, arches, tombs of all sizes and shapes.

This is the first time that the typical basalt paving stones will be used on a Roman road probably because in the area there was plenty of volcanic rock due to a massive eruption of the Latium Volcano some 260000 years ago. The road was built in different layers: the bottom was filled with large pebbles, then sand and gravel and topped with paving stones. Rainwater was easily drained on the roadsides by the cambered setting of the stones. It was some 1.50 m deep and 4.10 m wide, so to allow traffic both ways, and on the sides large footpaths with several funerary monuments that could be admired along the way if the journey got monotonous . All around farmhouses, small villages, taverns, hostels and way stations for the travellers.

The Appian Way as it is now is partly a remodelling of the 19th century when the actual road was narrowed , the monuments were restored and pine trees and cypresses were planted to transform this road into an open air museum.

Nowadays the first 4 km are no longer visible so the modern visitor will start his visit from Porta San Sebastiano, one of the gates in the Aurelian Walls, but when it was first built the Appian Way started from Porta Capena near the Circus Maximus.

Porta San Sebastiano
Porta San Sebastiano (Saint Sebastian Gate) with the Museum of the Walls

The first 2 km or so from the gate are very busy with traffic and unpleasant but as you you reach the area of the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian you’ll be in a nearly traffic free area where you can enjoy walking on ancient paving stones, breath a fresh countryside air, walk in the shade of cypresses and pine trees and sometimes meet herds of goats!

The area is littered with monuments: some almost gone, some restored in modern times, others still pretty well preserved and rather imposing since they belonged to very rich families and emperors.

Here are some of the landmarks along the Appian Way.

The Catacombs

The catacombs were an intricate network of underground tunnels used for burials. An ancient law prohibited burial within the city walls so they were located in the countryside and very often situated in a property donated by wealthy Romans. Some 60 catacombs existed in the Rome area, they could extend for kilometers and they could be 4 or 5 levels deep, most of them were Christian but some Jewish catacombs exist too. Pagans normally would prefer cremation since it was easier and more hygienic.

The ones you’ll find on the Appian Way are Saint Callixtus’ and Saint Sebastian’s: they are both open to visitors and they offer guided tours.

The Villa and Circus of Maxentius

This large complex of monumental buildings was built by emperor Maxentius at the beginning of the 4th century probably in honour of his son Romulus who died prematurely at the age of 4. It consists of a villa, a circus and a mausoleum. The circus track was 503 m long and 75 m large, which means nearly as that of the Circus Maximus. It had 12 gates and 2 towers which cointaned a mechanism for raising the gates. Charioteers would normally complete 7 laps which was a 3 mile race. In the middle of the track stood an obelisk which was removed in the 17th and you can still see in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in piazza Navona. The villa is not visible much since covered mostly by vegetation. The mausoleum was a circular tomb 23 m wide: a rather impressive space that might recall the Pantheon.

The Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella

The tomb of Caecilia Metella is probably the logo of the Appian Way. This imposing mausoleum is now a strange blend of ancient and medieval architectures since through the centuries it was remodelled into a fortress by the powerful Caetani family who owned the area. The marble dedicatory inscription you see in my picture (Caecilia Metella, daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, wife of Crassus) refers to Caecilia Metella, a woman of very high social status who belonged to the political aristocracy of Rome and who was very buried here in the 1st c BC

A bunch of small monuments along the fourth and fifth mile

The Villa of the Quintilii

A window open on Rome’s past

This large countryside villa from the 2nd AD belonged to two brothers of the prestigious family of the Quintilii. Their names were stamped of pipe found in the 19th. They were consuls of great reputation, success and extraordinary wealth. Their success aroused the envy of emperor Commodus that charged them of conspiracy and had them killed: the villa was then confiscated and became imperial property. The villa had a very refined architecture, a sophisticated marble decoration (still visible in some sections), art masterpieces, lush gardens and fountains and also a bathing area and a theatre. From there you eyes can wander as far as the Roman hills and the Latium Volcano.

Copyright © 2020 – Alessandra Mazzoccoli. All rights reserved. Please don’t use the photos without permission.

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