My Walk along the Via Appia (part 2)

The church of Santa Balbina.

This is part 2 of my report about my walk along the Via Appia, from the Circus Maximus to the Villa of the Quintilii some 8 kilometres further to the southeast. Part 1 can be found here.

It is about 750 metres from the Circus Maximus to the Piazzale Numa Pompilio. I first of all walked past a modern athletics stadium called the Stadio Nando Martellini. If one turns right here and looks up at the slope of the Little Aventine, one can see the interesting church of Santa Balbina. This was not always a church. In Antiquity, large domus from the second century stood on the slope. The emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) granted it to his friend and ally Lucius Fabius Cilo, who served as consul and praefectus urbi. In the fourth century, a large aula with apses was added to Cilo’s house (Cilo was of course long dead by then). This aula had been identified as a large dining hall.[1] Between the late fourth century and the year 595 the hall was converted into a church, the titulus Sanctae Balbinae. It is well worth a visit, but it is best to only try on a Sunday right after Mass.

The Baths of Caracalla

I continued my walk to the Piazzale Numa Pompilio and could never have missed the gigantic Baths of Caracalla on my right.[2] Their history starts in the year 212, when the emperor Caracalla (211-217) confiscated the terrain and expelled the owners of the private homes and gardens that could be found here. He subsequently started construction of the Thermae Antoninianae. When finished and opened in 216, they were the largest public baths in the city. Some 1.600 people could take a bath simultaneously and as many as 8.000 people from all social classes could use the facilities each day. Of all the public baths constructed in Ancient Rome, only the Baths of Diocletianus, built between 298 and 306, were bigger (see Rome: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri). These could accommodate up to 3.000 people at the same time.

View of the Baths from the southwest.

The Baths of Caracalla cover a terrain of 110.000 square metres (vs. 140.000 square metres for the Baths of Diocletianus). They have the generic layout of almost all Roman baths (see this plan). Flanking the road – the Via Nova, which ran parallel to the Via Appia – were tabernae or shops, where people could buy items needed for bathing and refreshments. After getting their tickets, visitors would go to the dressing rooms (apodyteria) to change. They could then proceeded to the hot bath (caldarium), one of several sweating rooms (sudatoria), the lukewarm bath (tepidarium) and the cold bath (frigidarium). They could swim in the large natatio or swimming pool and exercise on one of the two colonnaded exercise fields or palaestrae. Behind the caldarium was a large garden which led to two libraries at the far end of the complex (one may have been for Greek literature, the other for works in Latin).

Huge exedra of one of the palaestrae.

Baths of this size needed ample water to function properly. Therefore Caracalla also had the Aqua Antoniniana built, a branch of the much older Aqua Marcia, constructed in 144 BCE. The baths also had a large underground area where hundreds of slaves must have toiled and laboured to keep the baths functioning well. As with all Roman baths, there was an ingenious underground heating system (hypocaustum) which required several praefurnia or boiler rooms. In addition to these rooms there were also rooms for service, transport and storage.

Mosaics displayed in situ.

Mosaic of an athlete (Vatican Museums).

The Thermae Antoninianae were once lavishly decorated with mosaics, marble sculptures and opus sectile, but of these decorations not much has remained in situ. Important sculptures such as the Farnese Bull and the Farnese Hercules found their way to museums, in this case the Archaeological Museum of Naples. Rather curiously, Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) donated a granite column from the Baths to Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence, who had it erected on the piazza in front of the church of Santa Trinita. The Vatican Museums have a very interesting collection of mosaics from the Baths, mostly featuring athletes. The mosaics that can still be admired at the Baths themselves are fairly simple and executed in black and white only (see the image above). These are not the reason to visit the complex; that would be the sheer size of the Baths.

Interesting churches and a detour along the Via Latina

Opposite and next to the Baths of Caracalla are three churches. The Santa Maria in Tempulo and San Sisto Vecchio are located on the far side of the busy Viale della Terme di Caracalla. The former is a deconsecrated church that is not that interesting, but open to the public for those who really want to visit it. The latter is of great historical interest, for the simple reason that it was the first church used by the Dominicans in Rome after their order had been approved by the Pope in 1216. And the church may be more than 800 years older than that. It was possibly built at the end of the fourth century and was likely the titulus Crescentianae mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis.[3] Unfortunately the San Sisto has been closed for years because of restorations and it does not look like it will be reopening any time soon.

Santi Nereo e Achilleo.

We must therefore turn to the third church, which is the Santi Nereo e Achilleo, located on the near side of the Viale. The present church was built in 814 by Pope Leo III (795-816), but it had a predecessor called the titulus fasciolae which was constructed in the vicinity. The name refers to the bandage that Saint Peter had wrapped around his wounded ankle and that he is supposed to have lost while fleeing Rome along the Via Appia. The story is pious nonsense of course, but the church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo is very interesting, although potential visitors should realise that chances of finding it open are slim.

After crossing the noisy Piazzale Numa Pompilio, I arrived at a fork in the road. From the Porta Capena, the Via Appia and Via Latina follow the same route for roughly 800 metres, but then they split. I had already followed the ancient Via Latina (now called the Via di Porta Latina) once and it took me to the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, which may have been built in ca. 500 during the reign of the Ostrogothic King Theoderic (493-526). The main reason to visit this church is the impressive twelfth century fresco cycle which was painted during the pontificate of Pope Celestinus III (1191-1198). Opposite the church of San Giovanni is a sixteenth century chapel called the San Giovanni in Oleo and just 25 metres further down the road we find the impressive Porta Latina or Latin Gate in the Aurelian Walls, built between 271 and 275.

The Via Latina (left) and Via Appia (right).

After passing through the Porta Latina, travellers enter a heavily urbanised part of the city again. Let us therefore turn around and go back to the fork in the road. In my next post I will once again follow the Via Appia.

The Porta Latina.

To part 3


[1] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 383.

[2] The following paragraphs about the Baths are mostly based on The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 382-383.

[3] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 366.


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