My Walk along the Via Appia (part 9)

The Casale di Santa Maria Nova.

This is part 9 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, 6, 7 and 8 can be found here.

Past the fifth milestone, I reached the farmhouse (casale) of Santa Maria Nova. It is a fascinating composite building. Its base dates from the first half of the second century and was likely a cistern of the type that is called a castellum aquae. At some point in time, a tower was added to the edifice, which was heightened in the sixth century, possibly during the Gothic War (535-554). By the early ninth century, much of the Roman countryside was abandoned, but in the twelfth and thirteenth century, Rome prospered and expanded again. This led to the countryside being reused for agricultural and pastoral purposes and the casale of Santa Maria Nova is a good example of this development. The complex was obviously fortified and could be defended if necessary. In the thirteenth century, the tower was heightened again, so that trouble could be spotted from a distance. The Casale della Vaccareccia, discussed in part 5 of this series, has a similar medieval tower.

The building is called the farmhouse of Santa Maria Nova because by the end of the thirteenth century it was the property of the church of Santa Maria Nova near the Forum Romanum, which later became known as the Santa Francesca Romana. In 1351, a monastery of Olivetan monks was established at this church and in 1364 these monks started running the agricultural complex on the Via Appia as well. They grew medicinal herbs and vegetables themselves and leased plots of land of the huge estate to families of farmers. The monks were here for over five centuries, but in 1873 they lost control when the complex was auctioned off. It was private property until 2006, when it was purchased by the Italian state. Nowadays, as one of the information panels inside states, the Santa Maria Nova complex represents  “a tangible testimony to the evolution of the human landscape of the Appia, and of a link which remains uninterrupted, from the earliest Roman phases until the present day”.

The Casale di Santa Maria Nova; note the differences in fabric between the ground level and the first floor.

Thermal complex

Remains of the thermal complex, with the frigidarium on the right.

The acquisition of the complex by the state made possible excavations which were carried out between 2006 and 2008. Already in 1866, a famous mosaic of a reclining skeleton had been discovered here. It featured the Greek text γνῶθι σαυτόν, “Know thyself”. These are famous words that could be found at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, along with other familiar phrases such as μηδὲν ἄγαν, “Nothing to excess”. Another discovery was that there was a road here in Antiquity, which connected the Via Appia to the Via Latina. The most recent excavations have shed more light on ancient ruins that researchers already knew were there. Just south of the casale are the remains of a small complex of baths. It is possible that these were provided with water by the cistern that forms the base of the Santa Maria Nova farmhouse. The complex was likely made in 123 during the reign of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). This year is known with some certainty, because brick stamps mention the names of the consuls of that year, Quintus Articuleius Paetinus and Lucius Venuleius Apronianus.

Not far from the baths, to the south and east, there were residential rooms from the same age. The two mosaics to be found in the remains of the baths are, however, dated to a slightly later period, that of the emperor Commodus (180-192). The mosaics served as the floor of the two hot rooms in the complex, probably the caldarium (left) and the tepidarium (right). The remains of the underfloor heating system (hypocaustum) are also still visible. Although the mosaics are damaged, it is still crystal clear what they were meant to show. The one on the right has two gladiators, with a retiarius surviving completely intact. The mosaic on the left has horses from the races in the Circus. If the floor of the frigidarium or cold room had mosaics, these have not survived. The cold room had two cold water baths, one semi-circular, the other rectangular.

Mosaic featuring gladiators.

There is an interesting theory that the residential rooms and the baths were used by the imperial guards stationed at the adjacent Villa of the Quintilii, which had been confiscated by Commodus and was therefore imperial property at the time (the Villa will be discussed in part 10). This is certainly possible and some evidence for the theory can be found in the classical sources. In the year 190, Rome was struck by a plague and famine. People came to complain to Commodus, who was probably staying at the aforementioned Villa[1], but the emperor’s praetorian prefect Cleander had the horse guards charge them and chase them back to the city. These horse guards (likely turmae of the equites singulares augusti) might have been staying at the residential complex mentioned above.

Mosaic featuring horses.

Tombs of the Horatii and Curiatii

Tomb of the Curiatii (?)

To conclude this part, I will focus on three strange artificial hills which can be found near the Santa Maria Nova farmhouse. The hills are known as the tombs of the Horatii and Curiatii. The first hill can be found at the intersection of the Via Appia Antica and the Via Appia Pignatelli. It is topped by the scant remains of a tower, which looks more like a chimney. The other two hills are located some 250 metres further down the road. The story of the hills is closely connected to the legendary tale of a war fought between Rome and Alba Longa during the reign of Rome’s third king Tullus Hostilius (ca. 672-640 BCE).[2] The king of Alba was called Gaius Cluilius. He marched his army into Roman territory and made his camp some five miles from the city. There he had a huge trench, the Fossa Cluilia, dug. Since Alba Longa was located southeast of Rome, probably near modern Castel Gandolfo, the trench – if it ever existed – must have been dug somewhere near the Santa Maria Nova farmhouse. Tullus, however, bypassed the trench and invaded Alban territory. A confrontation between the two armies was now imminent.

In order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, both army commanders then agreed to settle the conflict by having three Romans, the brothers Horatius, fight against three Albans, the brothers Curiatius. Whoever won this battle would win the war. Even though his two brothers were killed, the Roman Publius Horatius managed to strike down all of three of his opponents, winning the war for Rome. The two slain Horatii and the three dead Curiatii were buried with honours. Livius write that:

“The tombs stand on the spots where each fell; those of the Romans close together, in the direction of Alba; the three Alban tombs, at intervals, in the direction of Rome.”

Tombs of the Horatii (?)

Unfortunately, this does not match with the situation along the Via Appia. There are indeed two tombs in the direction of Alba Longa, but just one in the direction of Rome. One can speculate whether two tombs simply disappeared or whether the Curiatii were buried together in a single tomb, but such speculation seems rather pointless. The story of the Horatii and Curiatii and the almost bloodless conclusion of the war is surely fiction. In reality there must have been a violent confrontation between the two armies, in which the Romans were victorious. They subsequently destroyed Alba Longa – traditionally considered their metropolis – and moved its population to Rome by force. The heroic battle between the Horatii and Curiatii was later immortalised by Giuseppe Cesari, the Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640). He painted a large fresco of the battle in the Salon of the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline.

The Horatii vs. the Curiatii by Giuseppe Cesari (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

To part 10


[1] The Greek text of Cassius Dio (Epitome of Book 73.13) states that he was staying ἐν τῷ Κυιντιλίῳ προαστείῳ (‘in the Quintilian suburb’).

[2] The story is told in Livius 1.23-1.25.

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