Ancient Via Appia

First and most important among the great consular roads that left Rome was the Appian Way, the so-called 'Queen of Roads', commissioned in 312 BC by the censor Appius Claudius Caecus to directly connect Rome to Capua. As Rome expanded into the South, the road was extended multiple times until it reached Brindisi in the 2nd century BC, becoming the main route of communication with the East, spanning a total distance of 365 miles, equivalent to approximately 540 kilometers. It took 13-14 days to cover the entire journey, during which travelers could stop at numerous post stations to change horses, often equipped with refreshment and lodging facilities.

The layout followed a remarkably modern concept, aiming straight towards the destination and connecting to various locations through secondary links. Of course, significant obstacles were encountered during its construction, which were overcome through impressive engineering works. The Appian Way was approximately 4 meters wide (14 Roman feet), allowing for two-way traffic, and it was flanked by two beaten-earth sidewalks, delimited by a stone curb and about one and a half meters wide. Along the route, at one-mile intervals, milestones and columns were placed.

Approaching populated areas, the road was bordered by grand patrician villas, including the famous Villa of the Quintilii, the largest suburban residence consisting of numerous buildings, nymphs, and an extensive peristyle garden. Above all, the road was lined with funerary monuments and tombs. Among them, the tomb of Cecilia Metella is renowned, located at the second mile, built shortly after 50 BC for the daughter of Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus and the wife of Marcus Crassus, son of the well-known triumvir (together with Caesar and Pompey).

It is a large cylindrical tower, 11 meters high and 29.50 meters in diameter, clad in travertine and crowned with a marble frieze in relief featuring the classical decoration of festoons and bucrania. Originally, it must have had a earthen tumulus covering, while the inner funerary chamber was likely vaulted. The battlements on the outside are part of a medieval elevation dating back to the 11th century when the tomb was transformed into a tower and incorporated into the fortification of the Tusculum Counts, which included the Appian Way.

Along the route, starting from the second mile, some of the most important Roman catacombs are encountered: the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus – the most important Christian necropolis in Rome since the 2nd century, with many burials of martyrs and popes, extending over 15 hectares of land with a network of tunnels that stretches almost twenty kilometers – the Jewish Catacombs, and the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian – connected to the basilica of the same name , they were the first to be called by the expression derived from the Greek "Kata'Kymbas," meaning "near the quarries," which later became the designation for all underground cemeteries.

The Catacombs of St. Sebastian, initiated in the 3rd century and subsequently expanded to encompass four levels of galleries, are among the very few Christian cemeteries that have always remained accessible. As a result, they have suffered significant damage over time, and today only part of the second level is visitable.

At the location of the sixth mile, in a state of abandonment and disrepair, one reaches the largest tomb on the Appian Way, known as Casal Rotondo. Dating back to the Augustan age (1st century BC - 1st century AD), it is of cylindrical shape, originally clad in travertine and topped with an earthen mound. In the following stretch of the road, numerous traces and remains of tombs, architectural fragments, and inscriptions can be found. Upon reaching the seventh mile, at the end of a deviation, likely due to the need to respect a pre-existing sacred site, one can glimpse a long section of the aqueduct's arches that supplied water to the Villa of the Quintili. However, shortly thereafter, the road is abruptly interrupted by modern roads.

The Appian Way remained in use until the Middle Ages but then fell into abandonment. It was reopened only in the late 18th century, and in the early 19th century, the first proposal to turn it into an archaeological park was made. The actual restoration work began under Pius IX, carried out by Luigi Canina. It was with the 1931 Master Plan that the realization of "a vast park encompassing the entire area adorned with antiquities located between the Via Ardeatina and the Via Appia Nuova, with the ancient Appian Way as its axis" was planned. This project was finally materialized in 1988 with the establishment of the Appian Way Regional Park.

The itinerary, although compromised by a state of increasing decay, constitutes one of the few surviving testimonies of what a Roman road must have been, preserving the splendid evocations of the few remaining glimpses of the Roman countryside as it appeared until the early decades of the 20th century.

The Roman Tombs along the Appian Way

The best-preserved section of the road is immediately outside the city walls, where the construction of the first tombs began. Initially, these were chamber tombs, such as the ones belonging to the Scipiones, Servilii, and Metelli families mentioned by Cicero.

Then, starting from the late 2nd century BC, with the spread of isolated funerary monuments, the road took on the appearance that it still partially retains today: two almost uninterrupted rows of tombs from different eras and in various forms, adorned with inscriptions inviting passersby to pause, read, and remember.

Later, Christians also followed this tradition and opened the most important catacombs in this area. During the Republic, cremation was prevalent, and since cremation urns took up little space, so-called "columbaria

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 24 Jun 2023

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