In my last blog post I discussed my adventure into the depths of the Colosseum basement at midnight, following my characters footsteps through their second adventure in Rome. This time I followed my characters to a different part of the city. In Echoes of the Eternal City my team of teenage archaeologists find themselves needing to leave the city, whilst its history hangs in the balance, and head out down the famous Appian Way. Whilst they raced down the cobbled street on Vespa’s with time shifting all around them, I had an altogether more leisurely experience, walking with my husband on a hot and sunny day.
When we were in Rome 10 years ago we rather foolishly tried to do the Appian Way on our last day, wearing our heavy travelling clothes and dragging suitcases. Needless to say it did not go well! We walked across Rome, trekked about half a mile (if that) down the road that we thought was the Appian Way and eventually just gave up, both tired, hot and very grouchy as we couldn’t work out where we were. This time we were sensible and took the bus straight to the Appian Way visitor’s centre opposite the church of Quo Vadis, where according to tradition, St. Peter had a vision of Christ who told him to return to Rome (where he was fairly swiftly executed). Here we collected a very useful map.
The Appian way is still a major road out of Rome, at least it is whilst it’s close to the old city gates, a little further along the road splits and a route that looks suspiciously like the private driveway to a church takes pedestrians up the hill towards the first of the catacombs away from the traffic. And as luck would have it, right to the spot where on their return to Rome my teenage characters find themselves in the battle for Rome’s history.
From the crest of this hill it was possible to stand and see the gates of Rome to the north and the peaks of the Alban Mountains to the south, the tallest of which, Monte Cavo, is another key location in Echoes of the Eternal City. We continued southwards past the catacombs of St. Callistus, past the church of Saint Sebastian and the second set of catacombs located below the church.
Further south the road has less traffic and in some places still retains its original Roman cobblestones. We did actually watch someone carefully manoeuvre a scooter over them, all I can say having watched someone try it for real is that my fictional team had one hell of a bumpy ride!
Whilst the amble along the Appian way was itself a pleasant enough walk we were delighted to discover a number of well-preserved Roman ruins along the route, one of which was the Imperial residence of Maxentius, emperor of the early 4th century. Whilst most of the villa is inaccessible, Maxentius’ personal Circus is in a much better state of preservation than the more famous Circus Maximus in the city. Here the Spina remained standing for several courses of brickwork, gates and towers were clearly visible, as were the stands and part of the villa to which the whole thing was attached! Now I have villa envy, should I ever sell enough books to build myself a Roman villa I will now have to ensure that I have enough space for a private circus that could hold 10,000 spectators! Within the same grounds as the circus was a mausoleum known as the tomb of Romulus, built by Maxentius to house the remains of his eldest son in 309AD. Next door to this lies the large tomb of the wife of Crassus, (Crassus was one of the triumvirs with Julius Caesar and Pompey – he’s the one who led the ill-fated invasion of Parthia and came to a rather nasty end involving molten gold and his throat), like Viserys in Game of Thrones but more violent). The tomb was later used as a 14th century fortified tower. Another villa, Torre di Capo di Bove, or part of it further to the south was open to observation, with mosaic tiles still in place on the floor.
Every few hundred yards there was something to look at, be it more modern houses (people still live on the via Appia after all) or Roman tombstones from the cemetery that used to flank the route into the city. It was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls during the Roman period and so the roads outside Rome were flanked by tombs for miles in all direction, this made it a good place for thieves and murderers to hang out after dark. In fact, one of Cicero’s early orations was in defence of a man (Milo) accused of murdering another (Clodius Pulcher) on the Appian way outside a tavern. For those who have read Echoes of the Eternal City I will confess that I was enough of a Geek that the body my characters drive past in the road, is supposed to be the murdered Clodius Pulcher.
We passed a pleasant day wandering roughly five kilometres up the Appian way before heading back and investigating the first of the catacombs. The catacombs were a vast maze and without a guide we would surely have wandered there forever. I highly recommend a trip down at least one set of the catacombs, and in fact a day walking or cycling on the Appian Way itself. For those who manage to venture further along the road than I managed there are vast villas, aqueducts and plenty of mausoleums of Roman date to be seen. Should I have the chance to return to Rome I’ll be heading there equipped to attempt a hike of the whole road, perhaps I can even follow my characters and reach Monte Cavo, although there is nothing up there but an aerial mast these days, so I’m told.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.