Ancient Rome comes alive on the Appian Way. This eight-mile walk takes four hours at an easy pace. Come back another day to linger; today you’re a Roman citizen off to your country estate, drinking in the ambiance. Bring water and a snack – but maybe you’ll hold out for porchetta at the end! You’ll need bus and Metro tickets: see below.
This first and most famous Roman road charted a 330-mile course to the Adriatic port of Brindisi, gateway to the East. A vital military and trade conduit, it doubled as visual propaganda for the emerging superpower: join us and here’s what we can do for you. Massive stones carefully fitted together, wide enough for two carriages to pass, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, each mile marked with a stone obelisk. Such a road had never been seen before. It personified commercial prosperity, efficient administration and military strength.
Two thousand years later the impression is still compelling. From the gates of Rome the Via Appia plunges straight across the countryside toward the Alban Hills. Umbrella pines frame green meadows, grazing sheep and grand villas. Lining the road are tombs of ancient Romans, some with sober faces summoning our attention. Many are freed slaves, proud to be known as citizens. At Mile 6, this man speak poignantly:
Stop, stranger, and look to your left, at a tomb that holds the bones of a good man, merciful, a friend to the poor. I beg you, traveler, do no harm to this tomb. Inside lies Caius Ateilius Euhodus, freedman of Serranus, pearl merchant on the Via Sacra. Farewell, traveler.
The evocative atmosphere has long been immortalized in art and poetry. In the eighteenth century the Via Appia became a requisite stop for artists and literati on the European “Grand Tour”: Goethe, Stendhal and Byron were among the admirers.
Today a regional park protects the road and a wide swath of surrounding countryside. Sundays are best for walking; the road is closed to most traffic. Tour buses are allowed, however, and the first part is narrow. To bypass this take bus 118 from Metro Piramide out to the most famous monument on the road, the huge cylindrical Tomb of Cecilia Metella. High up you can make out a marble band of garlands and ox heads; the latter have given this neighborhood its name (Capo di Bove in Italian). The crenelations and fortifications attached are medieval additions.
The crowds thin out quickly as you walk south. You can fuel up at the pleasant Appia Antica Caffe on the next corner. Just ahead is the new Capo di Bove archaeological zone. In this stretch the road is walled in by modern villas, but soon views begin to open up. Tombs of many shapes and sizes appear; some are stripped to a rough concrete core; others have been reconstructed. A few are topped with towers or other odd constructions.
With so much to look at, you may not notice you’re straddling a low ridge that climbs gently toward the Alban Hills, birthplace of Latin civilization and sacred ground to the Romans. But they didn’t realize it was a circle of dormant volcanoes; the ridge you’re following is a twelve-mile lava flow, now called the Capo di Bove flow.
Volcanoes were not recognized as a geological phenomenon at the time. In Sicily, Mount Etna was known to spew rocks and fire but was thought to be an isolated case – perhaps caused by the anger of the fire god Vulcan. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D., was a baffling surprise.
Although not understanding volcanoes, the Romans reaped their benefits. Volcanic soil produced excellent wine grapes and other crops. Volcanic ash was used in concrete, enabling new architectural forms – most famously, the dome of the Pantheon. Capo di Bove has tunnels where ash was quarried two thousand years ago – and where mushrooms were grown when food was scarce during World War II.
Also quarried here were the basoli (chunks of solidified lava) used to pave the Via Appia, still in place on much of the road. Wear comfortable shoes – they are famously hard! Even so, ruts from ancient wheels are visible. In some stretches the basoli have been covered with asphalt, replaced with smaller stones, or removed entirely.
About two miles from your starting point stand the imposing ruins of the Quintili Villa. In the second century A.D. the wealthy Quintili brothers were put to death by the Emperor Comodus, who then took possession of their villa. Further ahead are Casal Rotondo, a house and garden perched on a huge cylindrical tomb, and Torre Selce, a mounded tomb surmounted by a striking medieval tower.
Rome’s ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare, marks your halfway point. Few visitors venture this far, but strange and wonderful apparitions continue all the way to Frattocchie, ancient Bovillae, home of Julius Caesar’s ancestors. At a way station here in 53 B.C., the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher was killed in a clash with the entourage of his rival, Titus Annius Milo. Mayhem erupted in Rome. Unsuccessfully defended by Cicero, Milo fled into exile. This affair is portrayed fictionally in Steven Saylor’s novel, A Murder on the Appian Way.
The ancient way station is long gone; now Frattocchie bustles with traffic. At the main intersection there’s a rustic kiosk called Il Buon Gusto, with picnic tables under umbrella pines. Here you can ponder the story of Milo and Clodius while savoring Cristian’s delicious porchetta, washed down with local Romanella wine. Thus refreshed, ask Cristian to point out the COTRAL bus stop across the highway. Make sure the bus says “Roma”: it will take you to the Anagnina Metro station.
Transportation: you’ll need the bus and Metro within Rome, and a COTRAL bus from Frattocchie. Buy tickets before you go! If you already have a Rome pass, just buy a #2 COTRAL ticket, sold at many newsstands. If not, buy a 3-zone “B.I.R.G.” instead: a regional pass for Rome and beyond (train and Metro stations have these). Ask for “un BIRG, tre zone” (oon beerg, tray zonay). Remember to validate your ticket in the machine the first time you use it!