My Walk along the Via Appia (part 6)

San Sebastiano fuori le Mura.

This is part 6 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, 4 and 5 can be found here.

After admiring the small church of Sant’Urbano alla Caffarella from a distance, I was faced with a problem. I wanted to get back to the Via Appia Antica, but there does not appear to be a simple route for pedestrians to get there from the Vicolo Sant’Urbano. My only option was to walk along the busy, noisy and dirty Via Appia Pignatelli with all of its traffic, and then turn left at the intersection with the Vicolo della Basilica. There is no sidewalk here and I am not even sure if pedestrians are allowed to walk along this road, but it seemed to be the only possibility of getting to the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura without going all the way back through the Caffarella Park. Fortunately it is not a very long walk, so I arrived at the basilica safely.

The San Sebastiano fuori le Mura is a very interesting basilica. This is actually the spot where the word ‘catacombs’ was born. It derives from Greek κατά κύμβας, which means ‘at the hollows’ and refers to the pozzolano quarry that was here in Antiquity. This quarry was also used for burials and later several levels of tunnels where dug, i.e. the catacombs as we know them today. The word ‘catacomb’ later became commonplace for all subterranean cemeteries. It should be stressed that these were by no means exclusively Christian. The church of San Sebastiano, built in the early fourth century, was originally called the Basilica Apostolorum and was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, whose relics were said to have been kept here for a while. Later it was re-dedicated to Saint Sebastian. For a more detailed discussion of the church, its history and its art, I refer to the separate post I wrote about it.

The Villa of Maxentius.

The Villa of Maxentius

The Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus.

After visiting the San Sebastiano, I continued my walk along the Via Appia and stopped at the huge estate once owned by the emperor Maxentius (306-312). He was the son of the former emperor Maximianus (286-305), but he did not acquire his throne in a legitimate way. These were the days of the Tetrarchy, a system of government set up by the emperor Diocletianus in 293. The vast Roman Empire was divided into four parts, with each part being administered by a senior emperor (an Augustus) or a junior emperor (called a Caesar). A Caesar would normally succeed an Augustus upon the latter’s death or abdication and then select a new Caesar himself. Even though his father had been an Augustus, Maxentius was never selected as junior emperor and this was something he greatly resented. In 306, soldiers stationed in Rome proclaimed him emperor in what was basically a bloodless coup. In effect a usurper, Maxentius managed to hold out against his rivals until he was thoroughly defeated by Constantine the Great at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312.

Although his reign was short and he was often desperately short of funds, Maxentius proved to be a great builder. He was responsible for the huge basilica on the Forum Romanum, the Basilica Nova. It is now known as the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, even though it seems to have been almost complete by the time of Maxentius’ death; Constantine merely had to add the finishing touch, which he did by making the entrance in the long southern side rather than in the short eastern one. Maxentius also started construction of the large public baths on the Quirinal, which are now generally attributed to and named after Constantine.[1] And then there was the Villa of Maxentius on the Via Appia, ostensibly built to impress people travelling to and from Rome. It may have replaced part of the earlier Villa of Herodes Atticus and his wife Annia Regilli, which was discussed in part 5 of this series. Not much of the imperial residence has survived, but the site – which can be visited for free – is interesting for two reasons: the Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus and the remains of the immense Circus of Maxentius.

Interior of the Mausoleum of Valerius Romulus.

The aforementioned Romulus was not the legendary first king of Rome, but Maxentius’ son, who had been named after his great-grandmother, a Dacian woman named Romula.[2] The boy died at a very young age and was greatly missed. Maxentius had him deified and was said to have dedicated a temple to him on the Forum Romanum. This circular temple is now part of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, but there is doubt about whether this building was indeed the Temple of Romulus (an alternative theory is that it was the Temple of Jupiter Stator). This is not the place to discuss this issue; the only thing that matters here is that Romulus almost certainly found his final resting place in the circular mausoleum that was part of the Villa of Maxentius on the Via Appia. The mausoleum was surrounded by a square enclosure or quadriporticus, of which substantial parts have been preserved.

It seems likely that the circular building was intended as a dynastic mausoleum for Maxentius and his family. Only the lower level, which is slightly sunken, was completed. This was to be the family crypt. There were plans to have a second level constructed in the shape of a small temple, but these were never carried out, no doubt because Maxentius’ dynasty proved to be very short-lived. In the eighteenth century, a large farmhouse was built against the mausoleum, which was later converted into a residence by the Torlonia family. The house is still there nowadays and looks a bit like an oversized snail crawling out of a rather flattened shell. Tourists may visit the crypt, but apart from niches where sarcophagi were to be placed, there is not much to see. We simply do not know whether the crypt was ever decorated. The most likely scenario seems to be that, whatever decorative scheme was intended, it was cut short by Maxentius’ untimely death. The former farmhouse does have a few wall paintings featuring charioteers, gladiators and knights on horseback. Considering the age of the farmhouse, these must have been painted fairly recently.

The Circus of Maxentius.

The private Circus of Maxentius, although largely ruined, is still able to impress visitors (see the image above). It was some 500 metres long and 92 metres wide. The central spina, the ‘spine’ around which the chariots raced, was about 296 metres long. Part of it is still visible. It has been estimated that the circus could accommodate at least 10.000 spectators[3], so although impressive, it was still dwarfed by for instance the Circus Maximus in the city, which had a capacity of at least 150.000. There was a special lodge for the emperor, which could be reached via a covered walkway. The remains of the carceres, from which the chariots started their race, are still visible. The most impressive remains are those of the two corner towers of the near side of the circus. The spina was once adorned by an Egyptian obelisk, which later found its way to Bernini’s famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers – on the Piazza Navona.

To part 7


Notes

[1] See Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 277-279.

[2] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 172.

[3] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 226.

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