This is part 5 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, 3 and 4 can be found here.
I followed the Via Appia from the church of Domine Quo Vadis? and after about 150 metres arrived at a fork in the road. Here we can see a small and strange structure that is called the Chapel of Reginald Pole. Pole (1500-1558) was an English clergyman who was made a cardinal in 1536. He had fallen from grace after King Henry VIII had broken with the Pope and founded his own Anglican Church. Now an exile in the Eternal City, Pole had the small chapel that bears his name erected on the Via Appia in 1537 or 1539. His motivation is not clear (see the link) and the building was deconsecrated long ago. It resembles both and ancient Roman tomb and a dovecot, but it seems to serve as a bat sanctuary nowadays. The former chapel is surrounded by a fence and cannot be visited. Therefore I quickly moved on.
Herodes Atticus and Annia Regilla
While standing at the Chapel of Reginald Pole, I basically had three options. I could have turned back a bit and followed the private road to the Catacombs of San Callisto and I could have continued following the Via Appia, but since I had already visited the catacombs once and traffic on the Via Appia was heavy, I decided to take a left turn and go into the archaeological area that is known as the Parco della Caffarella. This large green zone, which is protected against attempts to urbanise it, lies between the Via Appia and the Via Latina. It is named after the Caffarelli family, who settled in the Almone valley in the sixteenth century and turned it into a unified agricultural estate. In Antiquity, most of the area was part of a huge estate, situated between the second and third milestone and owned by the Greek senator Herodes Atticus (101-177) and his wife Annia Regilla (ca. 125-160). Their country residence was much further down the Via Appia and much of their vast estate was made up of orchards, meadows and hunting grounds.
Herodes had been born in Marathon and was of Athenian descent. His wealthy and influential family were Roman citizens that had been granted the nomen gentilicium Claudius. Well versed in rhetoric and philosophy, the emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) summoned him to Rome in 140 to become a tutor for his adopted sons Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. As a reward, the emperor made him consul ordinarius in 143. Pius had previously allowed Herodes to marry a girl from the distinguished family of the Annii Regilli. Annia Regilla was a relative of Faustina the Elder, the emperor’s wife, so the marriage was politically advantageous to Herodes. The fact that there was a huge age difference between husband and wife – she was in her mid-teens, he was in his late thirties – did not matter much. Annia’s father was rich and gave his daughter a generous dowry which included the estate on the Via Appia (this meant that, in effect, it was her estate rather than his).
After his consulship, Herodes seems to have spent most of his life in Greece again. Obviously his Roman wife followed him and she ultimately managed to become the priestess of Demeter Chamyne in Olympia, which allowed her to be present at the Olympics (which was normally forbidden to women). Unfortunately disaster struck in 160, when Annia – heavily pregnant with her sixth child – was kicked in the stomach by Alkimedon, one of her husband’s freedmen. Annia died, leaving her husband grief-stricken. But the circumstances of her death were suspicious. Annia’s brother Appius Annius Atilius Bradua, the consul ordinarius of 160, accused Herodes of being involved in the crime. He argued that surely a freedman would never have laid hands on his former mistress unless he had his former master’s consent. Herodes was tried in Rome, but was ultimately acquitted by his former student Marcus Aurelius.
It is now impossible to establish whether Herodes was guilty of or complicit in Annia’s death or not, and if he was, his motive remains a mystery. Herodes certainly played the part of the grieving husband well and had much of the estate on the Via Appia dedicated to the gods of the underworld. He had several sanctuaries constructed and renamed the estate Triopius or Triopion. The new name referred to Triopas, a figure from Greek mythology who founded the city of Knidos in Karia, the site of a famous temple of Demeter. Demeter was closely related to Annia Regilla, who was a priestess of the goddess. Near the edge of the estate, we find a building that is commonly called the Tomb of Annia Regilla. If this structure has anything to do with her, it must surely be a cenotaph: Annia died in Greece and must have been buried there. Sometimes the building is still referred to as the Temple of Rediculus, a protector-god that travellers used to pray to, hoping to be granted a safe return. However, one would expect such a temple to have been built directly on the road. In this case the Via Appia is at least 600 metres away and so is the Via Latina. The building seems to be a tomb alright, but it is not clear whether it was also ever used as such.
Other sights in the Parco della Caffarella
From the Tomb of Annia Regilla, I followed the Via della Caffarella and walked to the Casale della Vaccareccia. This is a large farmhouse built in the sixteenth century by the aforementioned Caffarelli family. Part of the building is a thirteenth century tower, made of blocks of tuff. The tower was one of five watchtowers built on strategic spots in the Almone valley during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Today the Casale della Vaccareccia is a bit of a mess and is far from clear to me for what purposes it is used now. Nevertheless, it is very nice to be out here in the country and see the flocks of sheep passing by (see the image above).
From the Casale della Vaccareccia I walked back south again until I came to the so-called Nymphaeum of Egeria. Egeria was a nymph who was married to the semi-legendary Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king (early seventh century BCE). The building has nothing to do with Egeria whatsoever; according to the information panel next to it, it was “probably part of the waterworks of a nearby villa dating back to the age of the Antonines (II century AD), belonging to Herodes Atticus, whose famous Triopion, an agricultural estate dedicated to the memory of his wife Annia Regilla, extended from the Appian way to the banks of the Almo river (currently Almone)”.
The polluted Almone is a sorry excuse for a river nowadays, but it must have been much bigger in Antiquity. At the back of the nymphaeum we see a statue of a reclining Almo, the personification of the river. His head has unfortunately gone missing. When Herodes Atticus died in 177, the estate on the Via Appia may have been returned to the Annii Regilli or it may have become the property of the emperor. The deceased did have a son, commonly called Atticus Bradua (the consul ordinarius of 185), but the two fell apart after Annia’s death and Herodes supposedly left him nothing in his will. The nymphaeum was restored at the beginning of the fourth century, presumably by the then-emperor, the usurper Maxentius (306-312).
South of the Nymphaeum of Egeria stands the small church of Sant’Urbano alla Caffarella. It is clear that this was not always a church. The original building was part of Herodes’ Triopion and may have been a temple or a tomb in the shape of a temple. If it was a temple, there is no certainty to which deity it was dedicated, but it is possible that it was dedicated to Ceres (i.e. Demeter) and Faustina the Elder. In the ninth or tenth century, the ancient building was converted into a church. We do not know why this happened. The location is fairly isolated, few people lived in the vicinity and travelling in the country was dangerous in those days. Perhaps the fact that the important church of San Sebastiano was in the vicinity provided some relative safety to pilgrims. The dedication of the church is to Pope Saint Urbanus (222-230), who may or may not be the bishop Urbanus featured in the story of Saint Cecilia (see Rome: Santa Cecilia in Trastevere).
The Sant’Urbano was abandoned later on in the Middle Ages, but thoroughly restored and reinstated in the seventeenth century. Two men were responsible for the restoration: Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644) – who could of course not ignore a church dedicated to his predecessor and namesake – and his nephew Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). They had the space between the columns of the portico bricked up and added buttresses to the sides of the building to provide extra stability. The church was abandoned again in the twentieth century, but re-consecrated in 2005. Unfortunately at present it seems to be impossible to visit it, not even as part of a guided tour. The Sant’Urbano is surrounded by a high fence and there is no way to get past or over that. This is a pity, because the church has important frescoes from the eleventh century. If you really want to – and I did –, you should be able to climb up a steep path east of the church and take a picture of the building through the fence.
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