My Walk along the Via Appia (part 7)

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella. Note how tiny the car looks compared to the tomb.

This is part 7 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, 5 and 6 can be found here.

The huge Tomb of Caecilia Metella can be seen from afar. On a clear day, one should be able to spot it from the Porta San Sebastiano in the Aurelian Walls (see part 3) some three kilometres to the northwest. On the tomb is the simple text:


This identifies the deceased as Caecilia Metella, daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus and wife of Marcus Licinius Crassus. The Caecilii Metelli were part of Rome’s plebeian aristocracy and they were known for their social conservatism during the days of the Roman Republic. Many male members of the family held the highest offices. Examples include Lucius Caecilius Metellus, who was consul twice during the First Punic War (in 251 BCE and again in 247 BCE), Quintus Caecilius Metellus, who was consul during the Second Punic War (in 206 BCE), and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, who in 148 BCE defeated Andriskos and turned Macedonia into a Roman province. Quintus Caecilius Balearicus (the consul of 123 BCE) conquered the Balearic Islands, Lucius Caecilius Metellus Delmaticus (the consul of 119 BCE) defeated the Dalmatians and then there was Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, who was actively involved in the war against the Numidian king Jugurtha. Caecilia’s father was the consul of 69 BCE. He acquired his agnomen ‘Creticus’ for his victories on Crete, a notorious pirates lair that was a great nuisance to Roman shipping.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella and part of the Castrum Caetani.

We also know quite a lot about Caecilia’s husband Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was a son of the famous general and statesman Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the participants in the First Triumvirate, an alliance between Gaius Julius Caesar, Pompeius and Crassus. Crassus senior had won fame by defeating Spartacus, but was killed in the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians in 53 BCE. His son served under Caesar in Gaul, but he never reached the consulship. Crassus junior married Caecilia and the two had a son named Marcus who served as consul in 30 BCE. Rather annoyingly, we seem to know virtually nothing about Caecilia herself. We have no year of birth, nor a year of death. Therefore we have no idea how old she was when she died. The Tomb of Caecilia Metella may have been built anywhere between 50 and 20 BCE. It is by far the largest funerary monument along the Via Appia. No traveller to or from Rome could claim not to have seen it.

Later use of the Tomb of Caecilia Metella

The church of San Nicola a Capo di Bove.

The tomb has a square base and a cylindrical drum. Together these are at least 21 metres high. The drum has a diameter of 29,6 metres. It must have originally supported a vault, but this element is long gone. Nowadays we see a top level with medieval battlements made of brick. After the Fall of Rome, later generations quickly realised the strategic importance of the monument and its location on the Via Appia. In the sixth century, the Eastern Roman Empire turned the mausoleum into a stronghold which dominated the road. In the eleventh century it was used for the same purpose by the counts of nearby Tusculum (near modern Frascati). What we see today are the remains of the Castrum Caetani, a fortified village erected by members of the Caetani family.

The Caetani were a powerful Roman clan, and the fact that one of their own – Benedetto Caetani – had been elected Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) certainly helped to bolster their position. Around the turn of the century, the Pope granted them the Tomb of Caecilia Metella and by 1302-1303 they had converted the previous stronghold from the eleventh century into an even more formidable one. The Castrum Caetani was surrounded by walls and 19 towers. It included living quarters for members of the family and soldiers, stables, warehouses and even a church, the San Nicola a Capo di Bove, which was consecrated on 12 May 1303. The name Capo di Bove refers to the sculptural reliefs of ox-heads which are part of the tomb.

Baths of the Capo di Bove complex.

What is interesting is that the church of San Nicola was a Gothic church. These are very rare in Rome. In fact, there is only one other example of a Gothic church from the Middle Ages, the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. An information panel near the church ruins explains that the architectural choices for the building must have been influenced by Pope Bonifatius VIII, “who spent a long period in Paris as a cardinal”. Paris of course had plenty of churches in the sober Cistercian Gothic style. Please keep in mind that, for the moment, you can only admire the church remains from the outside. The church itself is off-limits, but there is not much to see anyway.

The Caetani lost control of the complex soon after the death of Pope Bonifatius. The Castrum Caetani was subsequently administered by members of other Roman families, such as the Savelli and the Orsini. By the end of the fifteenth century, the whole complex, including the Tomb of Caecilia Metella, was apparently abandoned. Use of the church was discontinued a few decades later. In 1589 Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) wanted to demolish the tomb, but fortunately he could be convinced to renege on his plans.

Baths of the Complex of Capo di Bove

Original mosaic floor.

Some 450 metres further down the Via Appia, at the fourth milestone, I arrived at the Complesso di Capo di Bove. Here we find the remains of a complex of private baths. The most likely explanation is these were once part of the country villa of Herodes Atticus and his wife Annia Regilla, who were discussed in part 5. Most of the ruins date from the second century CE, which matches with Herodes and Annia. More importantly, in one of the rooms a marble slab was discovered with a text in Greek. Greek was Herodes’ mother tongue and the text referred to a woman as ‘the light of the house’, which is surely a reference to Annia. Some parts of the complex have been dated to the third century, others to the fourth century, so there is evidence that the baths remained in use until at least the latter century. The complex was provided with water by two cisterns.

Although the layout of these private baths is a little different from that usually found at public baths, we still find the same familiar types of baths. A visitor entering the complex from the Via Appia would find an apodyterium or changing room to his left and right. Parts of the mosaic floors of these have been preserved. The visitor would then enter the frigidarium with two cold water baths. The lukewarm and hot baths (tepidarium and caldarium respectively) were located deeper inside the complex. There were a sweating rooms and saunas (sudatorium and laconicum) and people could get a massage as well. Some of the mosaic floors have stood the test of time. A particularly good one can be found in ‘Room H’, the function of which is apparently unknown.

To part 8

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  1. Pingback:My Walk along the Via Appia (part 10) – – Corvinus –

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