My Walk along the Via Appia (part 4)

Copy of the first milestone.

This is part 4 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, 2 and 3 can be found here.

Not far from the Porta San Sebastiano, we find a copy of the first milestone of the Via Appia. From here I walked to the church of Domine Quo Vadis?, some 700 metres further down the road. This is not the most interesting stretch of the Via Appia. The traffic is annoying and the few funerary monuments that we see here are rather quaint. But before discussing these monuments, let us first take a closer look at the copy of the milestone.

The milestone has a very visible ‘I’ – the Roman number one – and mentions the names of the emperors Vespasianus (69-79) and Nerva (96-98). The text refers to road restorations carried out by the former in 76 (during his seventh consulship) and the latter in 97 (during his third consulship). The original milestone was moved to the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill in 1584 or 1588. It is part of the balustrade there and can be admired from a distance (if you know it is there).[1] A Roman mile was about 1.479 metres, and the most plausible interpretation seems to be that distances were counted from the gates in the city walls and not from the so-called Milliarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone erected by the emperor Augustus on the Forum Romanum in 20 BCE. The location of the copy seems to match with a distance of about 1,5 kilometres outside the Porta Capena.

The original first milestone (left) and the remains of the so-called Tomb of Horatius (right).


Remains of the so-called Tomb of Geta along the Via Appia.

The book I read about the Via Appia mentions a monument that is often – and probably erroneously – referred to as the Tomb of Horatius. The poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BCE) had himself travelled along the Via Appia in 37 BCE, when he was part of a mission to Brundisium. He even wrote a satirical poem about the experience, but it is very unlikely that he was really buried here. Suetonius tells us that Horatius was buried on the edge of the Esquiline Hill, near the tomb of his friend, the great patron of the arts Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (68-8 BCE).[2] I must say I had great difficulty finding the so-called Tomb of Horatius on the Via Appia. This is probably because it does not look like a tomb at all. It is basically a sandstone constellation that is part of a modern house. A photo of it is included in this post (see above). I hope I took a picture of the right “thing”.

A bit further down the Via Appia we find the remains of the so-called Tomb of Geta. At least this monument has some semblance of a tomb. After the death of the emperor Septimius Severus in 211, his sons Caracalla and Geta were to jointly rule as Augusti. Before breathing his last breath, Severus instructed his sons to “be harmonious, enrich the soldiers and scorn everybody else”. Instead Carcalla decided to scorn his brother. Worse, he had Geta killed the same year and then went on to kill up to 20.000 of Geta’s supporters. A rather confusing passage in the Historia Augusta claims that Geta “was laid in the tomb of his ancestors, of Severus, that is, on the Via Appia at the right as you go to the gate”.[3] But the tomb of Septimius Severus was the Mausoleum of Hadrianus, which is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. This mausoleum is nowhere near the Via Appia. The tomb on the Via Appia probably belonged to someone else. It is a strange piece of architecture nowadays; the modern house on top looks like a hermit crab.

At Via Appia Antica number 76 there is another tomb, commonly known as the Tomb of Priscilla. This circular monument with a square base is mostly hidden behind a wall. For once we can be fairly certain that it indeed belonged to Priscilla, the wife of the freedman Titus Flavius Abascantus. This Abascantus received his freedom from the emperor Domitianus (81-96). We know what the tomb must have looked like originally because it was described by the poet Statius in the final book of his Silvae. Statius is also the poet who called the Via Appia the Regina Viarum, the Queen of Roads.

The Via Appia with the Tomb of Priscilla just visible behind the trees.

Domine Quo Vadis?

Church of Domine Quo Vadis?

Opposite the Tomb of Priscilla, we find the well-known church of Domine Quo Vadis? Its official name is apparently the Santa Maria delle Piante and it is also known as the Santa Maria in Palmis. However, everybody calls it the Domine Quo Vadis? The name of the church is a question: “My Lord, where are you going to?” According to tradition, this was the question that Saint Peter asked Christ after he had fled from Rome and met the Saviour at this spot on the Via Appia. Christ is supposed to have answered Eo Romam iterum crucifigi, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”. Peter then repented of his decision to flee, returned to Rome and died a martyr’s death on the cross there. The most remarkable aspect of the whole conversation is that both men were apparently fluent in Latin, whereas in Galilee and Judea they would surely have conversed in Aramaic only.

The early history of the church is not well known, but there is documentary evidence that it was here as early as the ninth century and perhaps even before that. The reason for pilgrims to come to this rather isolated place was the presence of a piece of basalt stone with the alleged footprints of Jesus Christ himself. These were said to have appeared after the encounter with Saint Peter. By the sixteenth century, the little church on the Via Appia was in ruins and the slab with footprints was moved to the more important church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura just about a mile further to the south. The Domine Quo Vadis? now has a copy, but neither the copy nor the original have anything to do with Christ. The slab was likely a votive offering by a pagan traveller who had returned safely from a journey.

Copy of the footprints.

Starting in 1620, the Domine Quo Vadis? was completely rebuilt. In 1637 it was provided with a simple new Baroque façade in yellow and white, which was paid for by cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). Above the entrance is the Latin text HAEIC PETRUS A XSTO PETIIT: DOMINE QUO VADIS, informing us that this is the spot where Saint Peter is supposed to have popped the famous question. Inside the church, there is not much to see. The highlight is obviously the copy of the footprints. Devout Christians used to walk on the (fake!) footprints, so a metal grille was added to protect the slab against further damage (and theft?). Above the altar is a fragment of a late medieval fresco showing the Madonna and Child. And then there is a bust of the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916). In 1905 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best known work is the novel Quo Vadis, published in 1896.

To part 5


[1] The seventh milestone can also be found here.

[2] See Suetonius, The Life of Horace.

[3] The Life of Geta 7.2.


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