A journey along the Appian Way, the ancient Roman highway
By Federico Schiaffino
The Appian Way may be 23 centuries old, but it is just as splendid as ever. The road and its surroundings, which cover an area of 3,500 hectares, have been converted into one of the largest archaeological parks in the world, and visitors are finally able to enjoy once again the odd sense of silence while wandering along this famous road and seeing some of the world’s most fascinating ruins. Throughout the year, on Sundays and holidays, motor vehicles are banned from driving on the road, turning it into Rome’s largest pedestrian area.
A forerunner of modern highways due to its linear development and use of indestructible materials assembled with advanced engineering techniques, the Appian Way is the most important of Rome’s consolar roads and owes its name to the censor Appius Claudius. Begun in 312 BC, this primary commercial and military artery was designed to reach the south of the Italian peninsula, avoiding natural obstacles, such as the Alban Hills and the Pontina Swamps. Initially reaching only to Capua, it was later extended to Beneventum and then to Brindisi at the tip of the heel of Italy’s boot, becoming the gateway to the East, hence its aulic name, Regina Viarum (Queen of Roads). The Appian Way remained an important road even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, since during the Byzantine era there were still important economic and political exchanges between Italy and Greece and Asia Minor. The Church also helped preserve this artery’s importance as it continued to maintain close relationships with the East and owned large properties on either side of the road. It was only in the 14th century, when the ecclesiastical lands passed to the Caetani family, that the Appian Way began its decline: the Via Appia Nuova (the new Appian Way) was laid to get around paying the high toll the noble family imposed to cross it.
The manpower and means that went into the construction of the Appian Way were impressive. The road bed is made of four layers of different materials, guaranteeing not only the durability but also the drainage of rainwater. The ancient road was wide enough for two vehicles to pass and large raised sidewalks, shaded by great trees, were built to accommodate pedestrians.
Although the area boasted varied flora and fauna, Italian cypresses are the most common trees along the Appian Way, which explains why this tree has become the traditional funeral tree: Appius Claudius wanted to be entombed along the road and he was soon copied by other important personalities, creating an association between cypresses and tombs. The most famous and best preserved of the mausoleums is that of Cecilia Metella (the wife of Crassus, companion of Caesar in Gaul). It was constructed on a rise in the terrain, evoking the Etruscan tradition, and emphasizing the distance between the human dimension and that of the afterworld. The huge cylindrical walls which house the large burial chamber recall Hadrian’s tomb in Rome and was a forerunner of designs adopted in the following centuries.
Towards Porta San Sebastiano are the 2nd-century Quintili Villa and the 10th0century church of Sant’Urbano behind it. Another complex of extreme importance is the Circus and Villa of Maxentius and the Tomb of Romulus, the favorite son of Emperor Maxentius, who died at an early age and to whose memory all three monuments are dedicated. Finally, just past Porta San Sebastiano, within the Aurelian Walls, is the church of Domine Quo Vadis? Here, according to legend, Christ appeared to Peter during his flight from Rome. When Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Christ replied, “I’m going to Rome to be crucified a second time.” Peter understood the meaning of these words and with the strength of his faith, he turned back to face his martyrdom in Rome.
For further info on the park’s history, monuments, and natural trails, visit parcoappiaantica.org