My Walk along the Via Appia (part 1)

View of the Via Appia.

About a year ago, I read an interesting book about the Via Appia, one of the most famous Roman roads in Italy and called the Regina Viarum, the Queen of Roads, by the poet Statius. When I visited Rome in the summer of 2018, I decided to follow in the author’s footsteps and walk along the Via Appia myself. I basically walked from the Circus Maximus near the Tiber to the Villa of the Quintilii some 8 kilometres further to the southeast, taking a detour through the Parco della Caffarella. It was a most interesting walk and a great tour through Roman history. I had plans to continue my walk for another 4 kilometres until I reached the Mausoleum of the emperor Gallienus (253-268). However, the scorching summer heat and a lack of time (the third place play-off of the World Cup was about to start…) made me take a bus back to the city centre. I will no doubt return to the Via Appia one day, but for now I will focus on writing a report of the walk I have already made.

History of the Via Appia

But first some background information about the Via Appia is in order. Construction of the road started in 312 BCE under the censor Appius Claudius, who was later nicknamed Caecus (‘the blind’) when he lost his eyesight.[1] The new road was supposed to connect Rome to the important Campanian city of Capua, covering a distance of 196 kilometres. By 312 BCE, the Romans had already built several other roads. There was the old salt road or Via Salaria, and there were roads connecting Rome to other cities in Latium, such as Praeneste (Via Praenestina) and Tibur (Via Tiburtina). The Via Latina also predated the Via Appia by several decades. It connected Rome to the important sanctuary of Jupiter Latiaris on the Mons Albanus. Later it was extended to the Latin colony of Fregellae in Latium and the Roman colony of Cales in Campania, both founded in the third quarter of the fourth century. Hannibal followed the Via Latina when he marched on Rome in 211 BCE. The road would later be extended to Capua and Neapolis (modern Naples).

Remains of the Circus Maximus, close to the start of the Via Appia.

Relations between Rome and Capua go back to 343 BCE. In that year, the latter city was threatened by the Samnites, who – after emerging into history as a nation – were bent on territorial expansion. The Capuans sought Rome’s help and Rome was willing to respond by sending an army to the south. But as always, Roman help came at a price, as Rome sought territorial expansion in Campania as well. When over thirty years later the censor Appius Claudius started construction of Via Appia, the Romans had already fought two wars against the Samnites (the second was in fact still ongoing). Both were claimed to have ended in Roman victories, but their Oscan-speaking enemies – a language related to Latin – were certainly not fully defeated. Construction of the Via Appia first of all served military purposes, as it allowed the rapid movement of troops to Campania, enabling the Romans to finalise the conquest of this region. Meanwhile, relations between Rome and Capua were generally good. Over time, many Capuans acquired Roman citizenship without the vote (civitas sine suffragio) and intermarriage between Romans and Capuans was common, at least until 216 BCE, when Capua foolishly decided to defect to Hannibal the Carthaginian.

Ruins of the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus.

The Via Appia was said to have been completed by 308 BCE, from which we may conclude that construction parties worked on various stretches of the road simultaneously. It seems likely that the road building project provided work for many people in Rome. After the road was completed, Roman expansion in the south continued. The Samnites were ultimately defeated during the Third Samnite War (298-290 BCE) and then the Romans also managed to survive the onslaught of Pyrrhos, the king of Epirus who had intervened on behalf of the Greek city of Tarentum. After this Pyrrhic War (280-275 BCE), the Romans conquered Tarentum in 272 BCE. In 268 BCE they founded a Latin colony at Beneventum (then still called Maleventum), the place where they had inflicted a defeat on Pyrrhos (albeit a minor one) in 275 BCE. After 268 BCE, the Via Appia was extended first to Beneventum and then on to the Latin colony of Venusia. In about 245 BCE, the Romans had also founded a Latin colony at Brundisium on the Adriatic coast. By 191 BCE, the Via Appia had reached Tarentum and Brundisium as well. The road was now complete, covering a distance of 569 kilometres or 385 Roman miles from Rome to the heel of Italy.[2]

Remains of the Servian Walls near the Termini railway station.

Even though the entire south of the Italian peninsula had been annexed by the 270s BCE, the Via Appia continued to be used for military purposes. When Hannibal marched on Rome in 211 BCE and used the Via Latina (see above), the proconsul Quintus Fulvius Flaccus took the southern route along the Via Appia with a picked force to counter the threat. The port of Brundisium became an important staging point for Roman operations on the other side of the Adriatic, starting with the First Illyrian War of 229-228 BCE and then continuing with the wars against Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire. This explains why the Via Appia had to be extended to this Latin colony on the coast as well. And yet since Southern Italy itself was now pacified, the Via Appia was also increasingly used for travel and trade. Many Romans felt that there ought to be a shorter route from Beneventum to Brundisium. In 109 CE, the emperor Trajanus (98-117) began construction of the new Via Appia Traiana, which ran north of the old Via Appia and offered a shortcut to Brundisium. This was not an entirely new road, as it mostly followed an older road, which had been in existence since at least the end of the first century BCE.[3]

The Circus Maximus and the Porta Capena

The Museo delle Mura is a museum dedicated to the walls of Rome. In its history, Rome has had three sets of walls. The first set is attributed to king Servius Tullius (578-534 BCE), who is often equated with the Etruscan warlord Mastarna. Of these walls not a trace remains. Construction of the second set of walls started after the Celtic Senones led by Brennus sacked Rome in 387 BCE. They are named the Servian Walls, after Servius Tullius, even though the walls have nothing to do with him. The name may be explained by the fact that the new walls probably followed the outline of the original walls from the sixth century BCE. Parts of them have survived and can for instance be admired near the Termini railway station (see the image above). The third set of walls are the Aurelian Walls, constructed by the emperor Aurelianus (270-275) between 271 and 275 CE. Already in the late Republican period (ca. 133-27 BCE), Rome had expanded way beyond the Servian Walls and important parts of the city were unprotected. When a Roman army was thoroughly defeated by the Germanic Juthungi at the Battle of Placentia in 271, there was a general scare and the decision was quickly taken to have new, bigger, longer and stronger walls built. Large sections of these walls and their gates are still standing and the Museo delle Mura is housed in one of these gates, the Porta Appia, which has been called the Porta San Sebastiano since the Middle Ages (see part 3).

A section of the Aurelian Walls near the Porta Appia.

The Museo delle Mura – which can be visited for free – has a nice model of the city of Rome, which shows the Servian Walls within the Aurelian Walls. The Circus Maximus is clearly visible between the Palatine and Aventine. Just to the southeast of the Circus stood one of the gates in the Servian Walls, the Porta Capena. This is where the Via Appia started. The Porta Capena is now long gone, but note that there is a small piazza named after it, the Piazza di Porta Capena. Here we find a clump of stone called the Rudere di Porta Capena and generally believed to be the ruins of the aforementioned gate (here is a picture). Attached to the ruins is a plaque commemorating the fact that this is where the Via Appia started with the simple words INIZIO DELLA VIA APPIA. Both the ruins and the plaque seem to be generally ignored by tourists, but then again they are difficult to spot because of the vegetation. And of course people who visit Rome are more interested in the great Circus Maximus, a huge open space which continues to amaze (see the images above and below). At least 150.000 people would have been able to watch the chariot races here. When looking at the terrain, it is difficult to imagine that this was completely built over with houses and other constructions during the Middle Ages. It was not until the days of Mussolini that the area was levelled (see this post).

The Circus Maximus seen from the Palatine.

The name of the Porta Capena may derive from the simple fact that the road to Capua started here, hence the Porta Capena. But there is an alternative explanation which focuses on the Camenae, who in Roman mythology were nymphs associated with wells and fountains. The road running along the southern slope of the Caelian Hill is in fact called the Via di Valle delle Camene. Note that another gate in the Servian Walls, south of the Capitoline Hill, was called the Porta Carmentalis and was named after Carmenta, one of the nymphs. Another one of these nymphs was called Egeria and the large square a bit further down the road is named after her husband Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king (early seventh century BCE). We will explore the so-called Nymphaeum of Egeria later on (see part 5; spoiler: it has nothing to do with her), but first I will focus on the interesting sights between the Circus Maximus and the Piazzale Numa Pompilio.

To part 2


Notes

[1] Livius 9.29.

[2] This paragraph is largely based on Fik Meijer, Via Appia, p. 25-35.

[3] Strabo, Geography Book VI.3.7 mentions two roads from Brundisium to Rome, one a mule-road, the other the Via Appia, which according to our geographer is “better for carriages”. The mule-road is sometimes called the Via Minucia (see Fik Meijer, Via Appia, p. 38 and 280.

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