My Walk along the Via Appia (part 3)

San Cesareo in Palatio.

This is part 3 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. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.

From the Piazzale Numa Pompilio, I followed the Via di Porta San Sebastiano, the modern name of the ancient Via Appia. My first stop here was the church of San Cesareo in Palatio. Although the present church can mostly be attributed to the cardinal and church historian Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), the first church at this spot was erected in the eighth century. It was built over the ruins of two rooms from Antiquity. These may have been dining rooms in a private residence or domus, but they may also have been part of a bathhouse.[1] The presence of mosaic floors featuring naval motifs certainly suggests that the rooms may have been used for bathing, and the nearby Baths of Caracalla, opened in 216 and discussed in part 2 of this series, must have made the bathhouse redundant. The San Cesareo in Palatio is well worth a visit, if only because of its exquisite Cosmatesque decorations. Do keep in mind that the church has very limited opening hours.

The private residence of cardinal Basilios Bessarion (ca. 1403-1472) is located next to the church. It is no longer open to the public and basically invisible from the Via di Porta San Sebastiano. I would therefore recommend walking around the church and going through the Parco San Sebastiano. From this park, one can admire both the church and the former cardinal’s residence from behind. People who want to learn more about Bessarion should visit his rediscovered funerary chapel in the church of Santi Apostoli elsewhere in Rome.

Residence of Cardinal Bessarion.

The Tomb of the Scipiones

Entrance to the Tomb of the Scipiones on the Via Appia.

I continued my walk along the Via Appia until I reached the gate of the Sepolcro degli Scipioni. This was the family tomb of the illustrious family of the Cornelii Scipiones, an ancient patrician gens. The exterior appearance of the tomb is not much to look at today, but its façade must have been magnificent in Antiquity.[2] According to the Roman historian Livius, it featured statues of Scipio Africanus (ca. 235-183 BCE), his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus and the poet Quintus Ennius (ca. 239-169 BCE), a friend of the family.[3] In spite of the presence of his statue, Scipio Africanus was probably not buried here. In order to avoid a politically motivated trial against him, the great general had retired to his country estate at Liternum, where he died in 183 BCE. There was certainly a monument for him in Liternum, with the bitter words ingrata patria, ne ossa mea quidem habes – “ungrateful fatherland, you do not even have my bones”.

The Tomb of the Scipiones (Sepulcrum Scipionum) was begun by Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who was consul in 298 BCE and censor in 280 BCE. He was also Scipio Africanus’ great-grandfather. We do not know when exactly he died, but it must have been between 280 and 270 BCE. His sarcophagus has survived and can now be admired in the Vatican Museums (where most people ignore it, or block your view if you want to take a photo of it). The epitaph on the sarcophagus has also survived and mentions all the offices once held by the deceased, as well as his military victories. The spelling is very interesting; we for instance see ‘consol’ instead of ‘consul’ and ‘aidilis’ instead of ‘aedilis’. When Scipio Barbatus was laid to rest here, the Sepulcrum Scipionum as yet lacked splendour. It was not until the middle of the second century BCE that the monumental façade was added. A second funerary chamber was dug out because the first one was full by this time.[4]

The Tomb of Scipio Barbatus (Vatican Museums).

The Tomb of the Scipiones seems to have been used until about 100 CE, although by the first century it had been inherited by a different branch of the gens Cornelia, the Lentuli. One of the people buried here was Cornelia Gaetulica, daughter of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, who was consul ordinarius in the year 26. In the end, about forty members of the extended family found their final resting place in one of the two chambers. It should be possible to visit the remains of the tomb, but only as part of a guided tour (the gate leading to the tomb is locked).

The Arch of Drusus and the Porta San Sebastiano

After passing by the Tomb of the Scipiones I continued along the Via Appia, which now bends ever more towards the south. I subsequently reached the Arch of Drusus, which is very interesting, but has nothing to do with Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BCE), brother of the emperor Tiberius and father of the emperor Claudius. An excellent general, he won lasting fame with his campaigns against the tribes of Germania. It was in fact with Drusus that a Roman presence in my own country, the Netherlands, was established in ca. 12 BCE. Unfortunately for the Romans he died young, aged just 29, and apparently as a result of falling from his horse.

The so-called Arch of Drusus.

Drusus was interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus and was depicted as one of the participants in the famous procession of the Ara Pacis. This Altar of Peace had been inaugurated just a few months prior to his death. After his body had been repatriated to Rome, the Senate dedicated an honorary arch to Drusus, the exact location of which is unknown.[5] We can, however, be certain that the real Arch of Drusus was lost long ago and that the so-called Arch of Drusus near the Porta San Sebastiano is in fact a segment of the Aqua Antoniniana, the aqueduct that brought water to the nearby Baths of Caracalla. Only the archway that crossed the Via Appia has been preserved, and it has been hypothesised that this arch predates construction of the Aqua Antoniniana.[6]

Just 25 metres south of the so-called Arch of Drusus rises the proud Porta San Sebastiano, the ancient Porta Appia. It is by far the most impressive gate in the third century Aurelian Walls, built by the emperor Aurelianus (270-275). The walls have a total length of over 18 kilometres and sizeable chunks of them have been preserved.[7] The Porta Appia originally had two portals, presumably allowing two-way traffic. Each portal was six metres high. The two portals were replaced with a single entrance under the emperor Honorius (395-423), who between 401 and 402 had the Aurelian Walls reinforced. Honorius also seems to have been responsible for adding larger and taller semicircular towers to the gate. Later in the fifth century, the towers were converted into square bastions, with the upper parts still semicircular.[8]

The Porta San Sebastiano.

In part 1 of this series, I already mentioned the Museo delle Mura, a museum dedicated to the walls of Rome. I recommend anyone to visit this museum, not just because there is no admission charge, but most of all because it offers an excellent view of the Aurelian Walls themselves. On a clear day, one can also see several Roman landmarks from the ramparts. Examples include the huge drum of the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella (discussed in part 7), the Fascist-era church of Santi Pietro e Paulo and the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, also called the Square Colosseum (see Rome: A Fascist Past).

View from the Aurelian Walls on a clouded day.

To part 4


[1] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 381.

[2] For a reconstruction, see The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 146-147.

[3] Livius 38.56.

[4] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 362-363.

[5] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 364.

[6] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 366 with note 201.

[7] This paragraph is partly based on Fik Meijer, Via Appia, p. 110.

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


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