What a disappointment! I had hoped to get onto the ancient Via Latina from the Via Demetriade, but the archaeological terrain with the remains of the road turned out to be closed off with a fence. And that fence happened to be locked. I therefore took a couple of photos through the wire mesh and walked around the terrain taking the Via Appia Nuova. It was only then that I realised that the entrance to the park of the Via Latina tombs was on the other side… The park was open as usual and could be entered for free, but apart from a mother and child there was not a single visitor. Conveniently, there is a toilet in the small visitors centre, so that fervent hikers can empty their bladders after a long walk.
Tombs along the Via Appia
In the area that I now explored, excavations were carried out between 1857 and 1858, for which the then pope, Pius IX, had given his consent. These excavations were led by one Lorenzo Fortunati, who was more of a treasure hunter than an archaeologist. Fortunati discovered the remains of a Roman villa that had belonged to members of the gens Anicia. This was of great interest to the Church, as there was a historical connection between members of this noble family and Saint Benedictus of Nursia (see Rome: San Benedetto in Piscinula). Moreover, members of this family had converted to Christianity as early as the fourth century, after the victory of the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). Still more interesting was the discovery of the remnants of the basilica of Santo Stefano Protomartire, a popular destination for pilgrims until well into the thirteenth century. The basilica was said to have been founded in the fifth century by Demetrias, daughter of the consul of 395, Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius. Demetrias fostered contacts with the church fathers Hieronymus and Augustinus, and also with one of the latter’s rivals, the British theologian Pelagius. The Via Demetriade is named after her.
The area along the ancient Via Latina was acquired by the Italian state in 1879. At the time Rome had been the capital of a unified Italy for a couple of years and the city was rapidly expanding. By transforming the terrain into a public park, the authorities made sure that a patch of green was preserved in a heavily urbanised area. Roman citizens may thank Guido Baccelli (1830-1916), a government minister, for this decision. A small tomb in the park is named after him, the rather underwhelming Sepolcro Baccelli.
Two tombs in the park definitely warrant closer inspection. Near the entrance is the Sepolcro Barberini. The tomb was named after the Barberini family, the previous owners of the terrain. The most famous scion of the family was probably Maffeo Barberini. In the seventeenth century he was elected Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644). The tomb dates from the second century and was possibly intended for a certain Quintus Cornelius. Judging by a sixteenth-century drawing, this name was on the façade of the tomb, but unfortunately it is now illegible. The tomb has two floors and an underground space or hypogeum. Research has demonstrated that dozens of people were buried here. The hypogeum also contained a sarcophagus with a scene of the Greek hero Protesilaus and his wife Laodamia. Protesilaus was the first Greek warrior to die in the Trojan war. Laodamia was unable to cope with the loss and commissioned a bronze statue of her husband, which she worshipped every day. When her father melted down the statue, the grief-stricken widow also jumped into the fire and thus ended her life. The sarcophagus, which was removed from the hypogeum in the seventeenth century, is currently in the Vatican Museums.
The second interesting tomb can be found at the end of the park. The Sepolcro dei Valeri or Tomb of the Valerii is said to have belonged to members of the gens Valeria. However, the information panel at the tomb says that there is no evidence to back up this claim. Unlike the Sepolcro Barberini, the Sepolcro dei Valeri was little more than a heap of rubble when it was discovered. Only the hypogeum had been preserved. The two levels above ground are a reconstruction from the nineteenth century (1859-1861). Here the tomb also dates from the second century. Brick stamps indicate that the monument was built in or shortly after the year 159. The hypogeum of the tomb also contained a sarcophagus, parts of which were recovered by Lorenzo Fortunati during his excavations. These should be in the Vatican Museums as well.
The Sepolcro dei Valeri has splendid stucco work inside and the smaller Sepolcro dei Pancrazi – tomb of the Pancratii – opposite has beautiful frescoes. Unfortunately I could not find a way to get a took at the tombs from the inside. Perhaps one has to book a guided tour for this. I visited the archaeological park in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic, so presumably no tours were offered at the time. It did not matter much. Although I found the tombs interesting, the best part of the park was a small stretch of (the third mile of) the original Via Latina. Now that I had discovered some of the original basalt blocks of the road, my walk along the Via Latina could be considered a success.
From the tombs one can follow the new Via Latina, but a walk through the green zone called the Parco della Caffarella is much more fun. I had been to the park before and decided to pass by the tomb of Annia Regilla (a cenotaph at best) and the Casale della Vaccareccia (a large farmstead). Via the park and a couple of streets I got back onto the modern Via Latina. I found a few traces of funerary monuments, but these are mostly hidden from view. It was not until I had crossed the railway tracks that I saw something substantial again at the crossing of the Via Latina and Via Vescia, i.e. a funerary monument called the Torre dell’Angelo. The monument is a former columbarium from the first or second century where the urns of several deceased were enshrined. In the Middle Ages the building was converted into a watch tower. Remarkably, a cardboard sign with the word VENDESI (‘for sale’) was attached to the fence in front of the tower.
Five hundred metres further down the road the Via Latina reaches one of the city gates in the Aurelian walls from the third century, the Porta Latina. After walking through the gate, I got onto a part of the Via Latina that I had already seen during a previous walk. I passed by the chapel of San Giovanni in Oleo and the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina from about 500. Ultimately I arrived at the junction of the Via Latina and Via Appia. It was here that I declared an official end to my walk along the Via Latina.