The Appian Way
More than a road,
a legend built 2300 years ago.
After years of hard work, it has regained some
of its past splendor ...
All roads lead to Rome, but Via Appia is undoubtedly the most magnificent of them all. A fascinating, 2300-year-old horizontal monument with miles and miles of art and history.
Let us take you on a journey along this open-air museum, passed ancient tombs under cypresses and umbrella pines, where the scenery changes with the seasons and impressions change according to the rays of the light.
In the 20th Century the drama and romance of the Appian Way was an inspiration to many filmmakers, while movie stars and wealthy industrialists built villas with a view of what was known in ancient times as “Regina Viarum” (the royal way).
After years of restoration, Via Appia has regained some of its past splendour, and is now a popular place for modern-day Romans to socialize and go for walks.
Throughout history, monuments were a symbol of human achievements and the wide network of roads built by Ancient Rome are surely one of the greatest.
The most famous of all Roman roads has to be Via Appia (known as “Regina Viarum” -the royal way), which was built from 312 as a completely paved road.
Twenty-three centuries later, the road is still made up of the same stones.
Appio Claudio, the man in charge of the original project, had chosen an uncompromising route: A straight line from the southern entrance of Rome to Terracina, ad distance of
Via Appia was created for both commercial and military use. Following a straight line meant colossal work: Swamps had to be drained, tunnels dug, hills had to be reduced and bridges had to be built - the very structure of the road is impressive!
The road began as a levelled dirt road upon which small stones and mortar was laid. Gravel was laid upon this, which was finally topped with tight fitting interlocking stones to provide a flat surface. The result was indestructible and guaranteed to last many centuries.
The road was built 4.10 m wide, thus allowing two vehicles to overtake each other and added pavements on either side of the road. Finally trees were planted to provide shade.
A road lined with tombs
Appio Claudio was so proud of his work that he wished to be buried by the side of “his” road and thus started a fad. From then on, every high-ranking Roman wanted to have his tomb by the side of Via Appia.
Another factor was that from 500 BC, burials were forbidden within the city walls.
As the years went by and the Empire developed, Via Appia was extended. After the foundation of the Beneventum colony in 268 BC, roadworks continued to reach this city. In the second century it reached Taranto and Brindisi, in the south of Italy. From then on, Via Appia become the main road between Greece and Asia Minor.
When Rome fell, the whole road network was abandoned and as time went by, Via Appia deteriorated. Stones went missing on large stretches of the road. Today it is lined with cypress trees and umbrella pines as it was during the Roman Empire, when citizens buried their dead by the light of flaming torches.
“Quo vadis ?
In the fields surrounding the road, remains of tombs can be seen in the foreground of the Alban Mountains. Many marble decorations have been stolen and replaced with replicas. The name of a small church, “Domine Quo Vadis” (“Lord, where are you going?”), near Porta Sebastiano, refers to a famous legend: This is the place where St Peter, while fleeing from Rome, is said to have met Christ. “Domine, Quo Vadis ?”(Lord where are you going?), he asked. “I am going to Rome so that they crucify me once again” Christ answered. Then he disappeared, leaving imprints of his feet on the stones of the road.
St Peter was ashamed of having fled the city and returned to Rome where he was martyred.
A little off to the left, is Maxence Circus, an imperial residence built by Emperor Maxence (306-312 AD) along Via Appia. There he also built a tomb for his beloved son Romulus who died at a young age and a circus for horse racing. The elongated shape of the circus has been preserved, as well as the stables and the remains of both towers from which officials would call for the races to commence.
A place for walks.
Beyond that point is the tomb of Cecilia Metella. This cylindrical mausoleum on a square foundation was the resting place of the wife of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the son of the famouse triumvir Marcus Crssus. The mausoleum was converted into a fortress in the middle Ages. Numerous stones from tombs found on Via Appia were re-used there.
On the opposite side are the remains of the gothic church San Nicola.
From there Via Appia is lined all the way with remains of ancient tombs. Among these is the tomb of Marcus Servilius, with remains excavated in 1808 by the neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova, who was one of the first to fight for “in situ” preservation of these remnants. On the opposite side is a tomb with a nude sculpture of a man. This is the tomb of Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher who committed suicide in
65 AD, following Nero’s orders.
Next are the tombs of the family of Sextus Pompeius Justus, a slave who was freed in the 1st Century. The inscriptions on the tombstone refer to the sadness of the father having to bury his young children. A bit further is the tomb of Saint-Urban (pope from 222 to 230). In a corner are the ruins of a great podium which was probably part of the Temple of Jupiter. At the front are the tombs of Caius Licinius, Dorien, Hilarius Fuscus, Tiberius Claudius Secondinus. Beyond the remains of a large columbarium, is the reconstructed tomb of the emancipated slave Rabirii (Ist Century AD). Most of these tombs are hardly more than heaps of stones, with broken statues, worn down over the centuries.
Under the shadows of cypress trees and umbrella pines, these relics still make Via Appia a magical place, even 20 Centuries later. They say that all roads lead to Rome. But none does it with as much grace as Via Appia, which is now one of the Romans’ favorite places to go for a walk. After years of rebuilding, it has once again been turned into the splendid place it used to be.
TEXT & PHOTOS: © ERIC VANDEVILLE