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The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads

The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads

by Robert A. Kaster

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Named after Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor who built the first section in 312 BCE in order to move troops to the south during the Samnite Wars, the road served both Rome’s military and its provincial citizenry, providing a way for them to travel to and from the capital for business, politics, and religious pilgrimages.  For centuries carts and


Named after Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor who built the first section in 312 BCE in order to move troops to the south during the Samnite Wars, the road served both Rome’s military and its provincial citizenry, providing a way for them to travel to and from the capital for business, politics, and religious pilgrimages.  For centuries carts and wagons laden with produce and rare merchandise rumbled along the Via Appia. Tiny towns sprang up alongside, as did inns, spas, markets, and lavish monuments.  Even today, as one travels the road, one encounters the magnificent ruins of tombs, memorials, villas, and temples erected by Rome’s elite.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

"A wonderful preface for any traveler planning an outdoorsy day in Rome or, especially, a trip through southern Italy. Kaster's enthusiasm for the road and the people (past and present) who populate it is contagious."
Guardian - P. D. Smith
"Slim but evocative. . . .  Kaster proves himself a knowledgable and engaging guide on this journey through the past and present of Italy."
Times Higher Education
“This delightful, literally lightweight book takes you on a brief journey from Brindisi in the heel of Italy's boot to Rome; but what an engaging journey!”

Adrienne Mayor
“Layer upon layer, Italy’s storied past unfolds in Robert Kaster’s captivating journey along the venerable Queen of Roads. I cannot imagine a more perfect guide to such a rich trove of ancient and modern memories. Illuminating, erudite, entertaining, and evocative.”

Christopher Stray
“Robert Kaster is well known to classical scholars for his combination of philological expertise and vivid historical imagination. In this delightful little book he brings his scholarship and his mastery of the art of exposition to a new genre, the travel book. At once historically informed, engagingly written, down to earth and vividly descriptive, The Appian Way brings the first great road of Europe to life and provides an informative and practical guide for other travelers.”

Peter Stothard
“How many Great Pyramids match the earth moved to make the greatest Roman road? Many more than you think—until you have read Robert Kaster’s The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads, a work of erudite classical commentary as well as excellent advice for travelers today."—Peter Stothard, author of On the Spartacus Road, A Journey through Ancient Italy 

Edward Champlin
"Fascinated by Rome's greatest road as a monument to power, death, and remembrance, and determined to trace its path today, Kaster makes a first-rate guide through time and through space, through the layers of history and the jostling of diverse cultures from Rome to Brindisi, from Appius Claudius the Blind to Kurt Vonnegut. En route, travelers should award him 5 stars for the clarity of his exposition, the accuracy and concision of his lightly-worn erudition, and the charm and relevance of personal anecdotes and striking observations. Many books will lead you down the Appian Way, but this should be the one to start your journey."

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Culture Trails: Adventures in Travel Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

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University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42571-9

Chapter One


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 fl owed 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, Aragonese—who 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.


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" → annales = "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.


Excerpted from THE APPIAN WAY by ROBERT A KASTER Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert A. Kaster is professor of classics and the Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin at Princeton University.

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