A Road Trip Along Italy's Ancient Appian Way

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For many people, this time of year is an occasion for road trips — up and down the coasts, across the U.S., through Europe. For Robert Kaster, it was a time to venture along the most ancient roads of all time: the Appian Way in Italy.

Kaster is a classics professor at Princeton University, and he decided to follow the entire 353 miles of the Appian Way, the first direct route between southeastern Italy and Rome.

The road guided the empire's expansion, and today it winds through the vineyards, olive groves, marshes and Cyprus trees of the Italian countryside.

In some areas, cars honk and swerve. In others, farm animals ramble along cobblestones.As Kaster writes, "no road in Europe has been so heavily traveled by so many different people with so many different aims over so many generations."

Book Excerpt: The Appian Way: Ghost Roads, Queen of Roads

By: Robert Kaster

Chapter 1, Rome and the Appian Way

What the hell are we doing here?

The question formed in my mind as the umpteenth car whipped past, inches from my right kneecap, leaving a trail of noxious fumes in its wake. We were making our way back to the city walls of Rome, my wife and I, on a stretch of the ancient Appian Way, between the catacombs of San Sebastiano and San Callisto, where Christians of ancient Rome buried their dead. With about two miles to go, we walked single file, huddling against the walls that hemmed in the left side of the Appia, and flinching as each car went by.

We had begun the day at the spot where the Appia once began, the porta Capena, the main gate in the southeast quadrant of Rome’s most ancient walls. The walls—the Servian walls, according to legend built by king Servius Tullius in the mid-sixth century bce—are long gone, and with them the gate. For that matter, the Appia is gone there too, replaced by one of the busiest intersections in modern Rome, where traffic streams to and from the Colosseum or past the broad expanse of the Circus Maximus. But a plaque on a clump of ancient brick ruins marks the inizio della via Appia, and it’s not hard to follow the path from there, across several lanes of traffic, that the road must have traced, to the point where it split off from the via Latina, which followed a more easterly course out to the hills where Roman grandees had their villas. About a half mile from that point, at the end of a gently rising grade, another gate—the ancient porta Appia, now the porta San Sebastiano—is set in another wall, the Aurelian, that is many lifetimes younger than the Servian but nonetheless eighteen centuries old today, and here still intact.

Just beyond the porta San Sebastiano stood the first of hundreds of inscribed milestones: a replica stands there today, roughly marking the spot where the modern archeological “park” begins. The scare quotes are well earned. For perhaps half a mile, from the milestone to the gate of the San Callisto catacombs, as the Appia descends to the bed of a small stream (the Almo), then arcs left to start back uphill, the road is merely ugly: after a tawdry commercial strip (a car dealership, an auto repair shop, storefronts), businesses are replaced by private homes and eight-to-ten-foot-high walls that form a blind, virtually unbroken barrier on both sides of the road. The next stretch, from the San Callisto gate to the San Sebastiano catacombs, is both ugly and terrifying. The road is still hemmed in by the high walls, but now anything like an adequate walkway is gone: a narrow pedestrian strip is distinguished from the driving surface by no more than a painted white line, which drivers feel no compulsion to observe as they gun their engines going in both directions, here and there producing three lanes of traffic (of course they have to pass each other) in a space that cannot be more than thirty feet wide wall to wall. So the question: what the hell were we doing there?

The literal answer was simple enough. Though teaching the language and literature of ancient Rome has been my life, I had spent little time in Italy, and virtually none in Rome itself, since the summer of 1973, when I endured several sweltering weeks in the Vatican Library as a graduate student doing research for my dissertation. That had not been a happy time: Laura, my wife, had just finished law school back home in Boston and was studying for the bar exam, and we were both lonely in our separate routines. But that was then. Now it was the spring of a sabbatical year, and we were carefree in Italy for a month, half of it to be spent traveling the Appian Way.

That was our mission: to explore the Appia for all it was worth. Our plan: to begin and end in the capital, first tramping over the nine miles of roadway that extend from the city, then changing perspective by picking up from where the Appia ended, at Brindisi (ancient Brundisium) in the heel of Italy, and working our way back by car to Rome. The first stage would get the feel of the road under our feet and remembrances of Roman power in our imaginations. The second would take us through parts of Italy where we had never traveled and layers of Italian culture we had never seen.

We arrived in Rome on the Parilia—April 21, the city’s birthday, with 2,762 candles lit on the imaginary cake—and immediately got lucky, in a couple of ways. First, we discovered that we had scheduled our trip so that the first week coincided with the settimana della cultura—“Culture Week,” a national explosion of pride in Italy’s heritage, when special exhibitions and performances are laid on in towns and cities from the Alps to Calabria, and all the museums and archaeological sites are open free of charge. Second, and better still, I made a phone call.

After getting to the hotel we had booked at the foot of the Spanish Steps, we decided to deal with the jet lag as we usually do, by keeping on keeping on until we dropped. I fished out the phone number of Marina Piranomonte, the friend of a friend and a senior member of the ministry in charge of the archaeological sites in Rome. We had arranged that I would call when we arrived. Now seemed as good a time as any, and Marina in fact had space on her calendar to see us. So we walked the half hour or so it takes to get from the Spanish Steps to the Roman Forum, where we were immersed right away in the consequences of Culture Week.

The place was alive with people, cascading through the entrances and flowing down the slope that sets the ancient site apart from the grade of the modern city. Ancient columns rose among the ruins, watching impassively as the human stream flowed past, and within the stream small patterns emerged. Knots of adults gathered here and there on the old paving stones, listening to their guides, while sinuous lines of schoolchildren threaded among them, their teachers leading them two by two. The morning had turned warm and hazy by the time we walked the length of the Forum along the Sacred Way, past the remains of buildings that had stood for up to sixteen hundred years before serving as quarries in the Renaissance. To the left, a temple dedicated in the second century ce to a deified couple, the emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina, had surrendered large chunks of itself when the Lateran Palace, the residence of the popes, was rebuilt after a fire in the 1360s. Two hundred years later, a temple on the right, raised to the deified Julius Caesar in the first century bce, had given up still more of itself for the sake of St. Peter’s. Just beyond these remains we climbed a short rise and reached the Forum’s eastern end, where the Arch of Titus depicts the sack of Jerusalem in 70 ce and the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Roma have been repurposed to house the church of Santa Francesca Romana and the archaeological ministry. There we presented ourselves.

Marina greeted us warmly, a tall, vivid figure draped in a black cape, her lavender eyeshadow matching her lipstick. (Purple, we discovered, was the color of the season.) After some rapid introductions to her colleagues and staff, she swept us through the ministry, through the remains of the ancient sanctuary of Roma with its marble floor and porphyry columns, and out onto a terrace—once the temple’s grand entryway—that faces the Colosseum, a hundred yards away. Not bad digs, I thought, feeling a stab of the typical academic’s office-envy. Next Marina swept us back into a conference room, where she proceeded to shower us with books about Rome and the Appian Way and with questions about our trip: Where were we going first? How had we made our plans? And why were we doing what we were doing? Her intense interest made plain that what I’d taken to be a courtesy call was turning into something else when suddenly Marina announced, “OK, now we go for a drive.”


First stop: the Baths of Caracalla, the immense complex built early in the third century ce near the start of the Appia. The Baths draw far fewer visitors today than, say, the Colosseum—but if you want to fill your imagination with the grandeur of an empire at its height, this is much the better place to contemplate. With an Olympic-sized swimming pool, exercise rooms, and halls for cold and hot plunges, the place could accommodate up to ten thousand bathers, providing separate but equal facilities for the sexes. It continued to function as spa, art gallery, and major social center into the sixth century; it also happens to be among the sites Marina oversees, and the subject of one of her books. Then, back in the car, around the corner, and speeding past the tomb of the Scipios on the Appian Way, where six generations of one of Rome’s greatest aristocratic families were buried: its members included Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal and saved Rome, and his grandson, Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who destroyed Carthage street by street and stone by stone fifty-odd years later.

By this point I had shaken off the dazed confusion of jet lag and was far along into being seriously thrilled. Here we were on the road I had come to explore. We pulled through the porta San Sebastiano and into the archaeological park, following the path as it climbed past the catacombs, toward the level stretch that begins about three miles out. There long patches of the original road begin to appear, the irregular blocks of basalt, a foot or more in diameter, emerging from the earth in waves that test a car’s suspension, making it pitch and roll like a skiff in a swell. I breathed in the spring air and took in the sights, as Marina pointed out this or that ancient monument, and this or that modern estate that abutted the road. I was blissed out, and utterly, happily oblivious of being the sort of vehicular intruder I’d be cursing as a pedestrian four days later.

So there we were, making our first acquaintance with the Appian Way. But why there, in particular? Why—as Marina had put it—were we doing what we were doing? What was the allure of the Appia that had drawn us to it?

Some parts of the answer are obvious and lend themselves to superlatives. The Appian Way was, after all, the regina viarum, “queen of roads”: so said the poet Statius, who would have used the road numberless times as he shuttled between Rome and his birthplace, Naples. As the first great road of Europe, the Appia in essence defined what a fully built road should be, and it remained for centuries a model of the engineering that was among the Romans’ greatest achievements. As the longest of the roads in Italy, when it reached its full extent, it was central to the network that bound together the peninsula, and in time the Empire, and so fostered the formation of a unified culture. Ultimately, the Empire’s system of public roads extended an astonishing 75,000 miles: in 2006, the United States had only a bit more than 46,000 miles of interstate highways, serving a population roughly five times as large. As the only road that spanned the length of the peninsula below Rome, the Appia became, mile for Roman mile, the most heavily traveled in the entire system, not just at the height of Rome’s Empire but beyond, when it funneled (for example) eager pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. And, fundamental to our story, it was conceived, near the end of the fourth century bce, by one man—Appius Claudius Caecus—who is the first Roman we can fairly claim to know as an authentic historical person.

Other reasons why I was drawn to the road are more elusive, and grounded in the imagination. The Appia was frankly a road of power, following the expansion of Rome’s influence in Italy and its growth to the greatness of an empire. At the same time, it was, in a particular and important way, a road of death, lined for mile upon mile with the tombs of the great and humble alike, all jostling for space to provide a showplace for their memory. The Appia inspires thoughts of power, death, and remembrance that seem essentially Roman: in a culture that had no belief in a personal afterlife, this was all there was, this time right now, and you had better exert yourself with all the strength and cunning you could muster to establish your name for future generations to remember, and so escape oblivion. Then there are the layers—of time, culture, and human strivings—that the Appia invites the traveler to contemplate as it passes through Lazio (ancient Latium), Campania, Basilicata (Lucania), and Puglia (Apulia), four of the six regions of Italy that lie south of Rome. Here memory of ancient empire recedes into the background, replaced by the monuments of the other conquering peoples—Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonesewho placed their stamp upon the land, as control of southern Italy passed from hand to hand and dynasty to dynasty, century after century. One era rubs up against another, here and there throwing off sparks: “Aha!”

All these parts—complex, multiple, associative—speak to me because my fascination with the past accounts for much of who I am, and all the parts need some space to tell. The many layers of history and culture that the Appia’s whole expanse helps to reveal lend themselves better to the next chapter’s story, when we will travel the length of the road south of Rome. The other parts, the parts concerned with power, death, and memory, we can begin to think about here, starting with the man who gave the road his name. A vivid character seizing an opportunity, he was the chief reason why this road was built at just the time it was built.

“Each Man Crafts His Own Fortune”

To put Appius Claudius Caecus in perspective we have to step back even further in time to 509 bce, when the Roman Republic was established. Unlike the monarchy under which the city had been founded two and a half centuries earlier, the Republic was a community of citizens equal (in principle) before the law, governed by the laws they approved and the magistrates they elected, and keeping track of laws and magistrates was a matter of concern to all of the community’s members. So it was under the Republic that the first historical records began to be kept, in the form of the “annals” that the pontifex maximus, or supreme priest, compiled each year (annus = “year” > annalēs = “annals”) and posted on a whitened board for the community to read. These were not narratives by any means, but catalogues listing the magistrates elected and other significant events, like military campaigns, scarcities of grain, or portents—the birth of a two-headed calf, for example—that signaled the gods’ displeasure and called for expiation.

Not much, perhaps; but at least there were facts on record to be used when the Romans themselves began, in the late third and early second century bce, to write narrative history on the model of Greeks like Herodotus and Thucydides, constructing plausible stories by combining the annals’ data with traditions that individual families handed down. The priestly annals themselves are long gone, and those first histories—largely written by Roman statesmen like Cato the Censor—exist today only as fragments found in later learned sources, including the later historians who drew on them. These are the writers we can now read—above all, Livy on the Latin side (though only a quarter of his huge work survives), or Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Diodorus of Sicily, and Cassius Dio on the Greek (none of their works remotely whole)—as they piece together the slender remains they found and, inevitably, give those remains the slant or coloring or spin suggested by their own times and biases.

In view of all this, then, saying that the man for whom our road is named, Appius Claudius Caecus, emerges from the mists of Rome’s poorly documented past as its first historically knowable person is not a modest claim. But it does have the virtue of being true. Relative to some families—the Julii and Sergii, for example—who traced their origins back to the Trojans who came to Italy with Aeneas after the fall of Troy, Appius’s family, the Claudii, were newcomers who first migrated to Rome at the end of the sixth century bce. This is how their story is told by the imperial biographer Suetonius, at the start of his life of the emperor Tiberius, a direct descendent of Appius’s son, the first Tiberius Claudius Nero:

The patrician clan of the Claudii—there was also a plebeian clan, of no less influence and standing—sprung up among the Sabines in the town of Regillum and moved from there to Rome with a large band of dependents soon after the city’s founding [i.e., 753] . . . or (as the more reliable version has it) under the leadership of Atta Claudius just about six years after the kings were expelled, i.e., 504: there they were received among the patricians and given land besides, for their dependents, across the River Anio [northeast of the city].

According to Roman tradition, the Sabines, a rugged people living in the hill-country north of Rome, were the first of the city’s neighbors to be blended with its population, through the capture of their marriageable women (T”he Rape of the Sabine Women”) that Romulus engineered soon after the city’s founding. As Suetonius goes on to say, the clan of the Claudii came to be known for “many deeds of exceptional merit on the part of many of its members, but also many actions committed against the common interest.” The sorts of actions covered by the latter phrase grew (it was said) out of the extreme arrogance for which the family was known, exemplified by the story of one of its members who led a fleet against the Carthaginians in the First Punic War of the mid-third century. Eager for battle and frustrated by the refusal of the sacred chickens on board to give an auspicious sign by greedily gobbling down their feed, he allegedly tossed them into the sea, saying, “Let them drink, since they don’t want to eat!” (He was defeated, of course, and later punished.) But that story should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as should the more general report of the family’s extraordinary arrogance—not because they were more likely meek and mild, but because their arrogance was probably no more excessive than the considerable self-regard that the average Roman aristocrat nurtured. In any case, the patrician Claudii came to have much to be proud of, for once they became established in the city they went on to hold more senior political offices under the Republic than most other clans, including the highest office—the consulship—in twelve consecutive generations.

Given the important role that family played at Rome in promoting such success, we might be surprised that any member of the Claudian dynasty was the source of the sentiment that heads this section, though it is in fact the most famous of the sayings attributed to our Appius: faber est suae quisque fortunae. The thought that each of us is the faber—the craftsman or engineer—of our own fortune, our lot and luck in life, involves notions of individual responsibility and individual freedom, of open-ended achievement and personal potential, that frankly sound more modern American than ancient Roman. But still more surprising and unconventional than his words were the actions he took in shaping his own fortune, when he held his first political office, as censor in the year 312.

The Roman censor’s duties had next to nothing to do with what we call “censorship.” Instead, a pair of censors was chosen every five years to do two main jobs: to carry out a systematic review of the Roman populace—a census, in fact—that included a survey of every male citizen’s financial resources and moral fitness (the latter offers the one point at which the images of ancient and modern censors might overlap); and when that survey was completed, to conduct a ritual purification of the citizen body gathered en masse on the Campus Martius, by leading a pig, a sheep, and an ox around them three times before offering up the animals as sacrificial victims to the gods—scapegoats, in effect, though none of them happened to be an actual goat. In carrying out the census Appius pressed for several measures intended to distribute political influence and authority more evenly throughout the community, beyond the quasi-hereditary oligarchy, centered in the senate, that had come to have a near monopoly on offices and power. It is reported that the measures, with their populist tinge, so outraged his colleague in the censorship that the man resigned.

Now, the depth of Appius’s actual populist fervor is unclear, for there are other actions recorded in his career that show him defending patrician privilege against plebeian incursions. It may well be that he was above all a shrewd operator, using his censorship to build a large base of dependents and supporters for greater things to come: a comparison with the career of a later “populist patrician,” Julius Caesar, is fair. If that was his plan, it appears to have worked, for he went on to have a political career that lasted another thirty years and boasted no fewer than five senior magistracies, including two terms in the consulship.

But it was two other accomplishments of Appius’s censorship that most concern us. Both were public works that he undertook, allegedly without the senate’s sanction and at a cost that depleted the treasury. One was Rome’s first aqueduct—the aqua Appia—which brought fresh water to the city’s people from the Sabine Hills, the Claudian clan’s ancestral home. The other was the via Appia, which left the city not far from the spot at which the aqueduct entered. It’s to the road proper that we can now turn.

Before we do, though, let’s note that Appius gave both of these projects his name, creating for himself what a later observer called an “immortal monument” and setting an equally timeless precedent. Whereas older byways that existed as well-worn, ad hoc paths were known for the direction in which they led (as the via Ardeatina led to the town of Ardea) or the commodities transported on them (so the via Salaria was the Salt Road), after Appius all roads built with public funds carried the name of the Roman magistrate who initiated them. But while those later statesmen gave the projects their clan names—the via Flaminia, for example, built by the censor Gaius Flaminius not quite a century after the via Appia was begun—Appius chose to use his first name. Perhaps this was a mark of Claudian pride: for while most first names, like Gaius or Marcus, were utterly undistinctive—they might in fact belong to any Tom, Dick, or Harry—in the late fourth century bce the first name Appius belonged by tradition only to the Claudii.


This segment aired on May 18, 2012.


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