I didn’t find out about Via Appia Antica, or The Appian Way, until after I had left Rome. Now, it’s on my “to do list”.
In 312BC the censor of Rome Appius Claudius Ceacus, who was known for initiating large-scale public works to ease the daily life of Ancient Romans, built Via Appia. At that time is was known as “Regina Viarum”, “the Queen of all Roads”, which eventually could take Roman troops and citizens from Rome through Benevenutum, Venusia and Tarentum to leave them at the end in Brindisi, a port city on the southeast coast of Italy, about 350 miles from Rome. From there boats left for Egypt, Greece and North Africa. The road was over 13.5 feet wide – big enough for two carriages to pass by each other – and paved with large stones of basalt cut in polygons called “basoli”.
Along the road are villas, crypts and churches, one of the most interesting (to me) being a small church called Santa Maria in Palmis. This is supposedly the spot where St. Peter had a vision of Jesus as he was fleeing Rome, escaping Nero’s persecution of Christians. Peter asked this vision of Christ, “Domine, quo vadis?” (“Lord, where are you going?”) and Jesus replied to him, “To Rome, to be crucified anew”. This response convinced Peter that he should return to Rome and accept his own martyrdom. How would history be different if he hadn’t?!
There is supposed to be physical evidence of Peter’s vision in the form of Christ’s footprints, a replica of which can be seen in the church later built on that spot to honor the event. The “originals” were moved to the Church of St. Sebastian, also on Via Appia, next to large catacombs of the same name. In the first few centuries of the millennium Christians were not allowed to be buried in Rome and so massive catacombs were built outside of the city, many along this major thoroughfare. The bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul are said to have been buried in the catacombs at San Sebastian for a while. In fact, there is an inscription above the altar of the basilica here that reads “Domus Petri”, “Home of Peter”.
The largest catacombs in the area, San Callisto, are nearby. Twenty kilometers long, San Callisto was the official catacombs of the Church of Rome in the 2nd century, housing the tombs of 16 bishops and over 50 martyrs, including St. Cecilia.
Villa dei Quintili lies about six miles out. It was once the largest suburban villa around Rome and there have been recent excavations there that I’ve heard are worth taking a look at. Nearby is one of the largest and grandest tombs outside of Rome on Via Appia, the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. Cecilia was a Roman noblewoman during the time of Julius Cesar. During the middle ages it was built up into a fortified castle and has only been expanded over the centuries.
If you don’t feel like walking the 16 or so kilometers from Porta San Sebastiano that it would take to see all of these sites, you can rent bikes from the Tourist Information Point (Via Appia Antica 58/60) for about 15 euros a day. No cars are allowed on the road on Sundays, making it a nice day for a stroll or bike ride and maybe a mid-day picnic, but be warned that many of the sites are closed on Mondays.
Here are a couple videos of Via Appia Antica:
This one is by Rick Steeves (who I love but always have to be very awake when I watch or run the risk of falling asleep):
And this one, believe it or not, is even more painfully boring, but gives some good information and lovely photos:
To walk the Appian Way, start at the San Sebastian gate in Rome or take the 118 or 218 bus and get off around Fosse Ardeatine, a few steps away from the St. Sebastian and St. Callisto catacombs.