by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Strolling Back Into Rome's Past Along the Appian Way

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 20 February 1998
Via Appia Antica at 4.1 km from Porta San Sebastiano



The honking maelstrom of Rome's traffic is one of the most abiding memories many visitors to the Eternal City carry away with them.

For those wishing to take a break from it, the Palatine Hill, a 30-hectare oasis of calm, right in the heart of Rome, with its verdant and well-kept gardens and panoramic views, has long been a merciful refuge, and worth taking time out to savor on any day of the week.

Meanwhile, every Sunday, in a recent and rare concession to pedestrians, a long stretch of one of the city's most attractive historic roads, the Via Appia, is closed to traffic, making it possible at last to enjoy a wonderful walk or bicycle ride from the ancient Rome's center out into peaceful countryside (or vice versa using the special shuttle bus).

Indeed, a visit to the Palatine Hill and the newly and admirably reorganized and refurbished Palatine Museum (closed since 1984) on its crest makes an excellent start to a leisurely stroll along the Appian Way, dropping in to some of the other sights along the way, and lunch at a traditional Roman trattoria or a picnic on the grassy verges of its rural section.

Rome was born on the Palatine Hill in the eighth century B.C. The fragments of pottery displayed in the lower floor of the museum, which is housed in a former convent, coincide with the legendary era when Romulus killed Remus on the Palatine and, according to the epic poet Virgil and others, the city was founded on this strategic prominence. Also in these rooms are models of the mud-and-wattle thatched huts that constituted this first prehistoric settlement.

The hill later became the residence of leading figures of the Republican epoch, such as Cicero, Crassus and Mark Anthony, and from the time of Augustus, the site of the emperors' palaces. The Palatine Museum is entirely devoted to ceramics, frescoes, mosaics, inscriptions, sculptures and portrait heads actually found on the hill, and given the enormous and continuous importance of this relatively small area of the city, the museum's mere nine rooms offer a remarkably rich and compact tour through the whole sweep of ancient Roman history and art.

The Farnese Gardens, opposite the museum, bear witness to the Palatine of the Renaissance, when papal and aristocratic families built villas and laid out gardens on the hill. Almost all these later buildings have now been demolished in the course of archaeological digs, but part of one next door to the museum remains containing the Loggia Mattei, decorated with 16th-century frescoes inspired by the ancient wall paintings then coming to light in contemporary excavations.

Walking down from the Palatine to the Via Sacra, which runs through the Forum (now a pedestrian thoroughfare free of charge), we descend toward the Colisseum. Then a sharp right turn into Via di San Gregorio leads down to the vast, sunken, grass-covered oblong depression of the Circus Maximus, once the scene of chariot races, athletic competitions and, when artificially flooded, spectacular displays of naval warfare. On the far side of the circus, a few yards above the Line B Circo Massimo metro entrance on Via del Circo Massimo, is the stop for the special, Sundays-only No.760 shuttle bus that runs up and down the Via Appia every 10 minutes (for which standard ATAC tickets, available at bars and tobacconists, are needed).

The Via Appia, which began here at the foot of the Palatine, was started in 312 B.C. by the Republican magistrate Appius Claudius and eventually covered the nearly 600 kilometers (370 miles) to Brindisi, making it the gateway to Greece and the Empire in the East. The Queen of Roads, as it was dubbed, became much more than just a road, the land on either side of it near Rome in particular, being lined with patrician villas and cemeteries, and in due course the site of the underground complexes of major Christian catacombs.

The first, much-broadened stretch of the Via Appia, now called Via delle Terme di Caracalla, passes the towering brick vaults of the Caracalla Baths, opened in 217, the largest and most opulent Roman leisure center of all, which apart from accommodating 1,600 bathers in various pools, had an art gallery, Greek and Latin libraries, public reception rooms and gardens. (Shelley wrote much of 'Prometheus Unbound' amid these ruins of past glory.)

On the other side of the junction at Piazzale Numa Pompilio, the Via Appia narrows, becoming more recognizably a Roman road. This one-way section, now called Via di Porta San Sebastiano, runs between the high walls of secluded villas on either side. It is from here on that on Sundays the road is closed. Walking this part during the week is somewhat hazardous, as there is no sidewalk.

But the traffic light at the junction does produce one curious effect. For minutes on end the road is completely deserted with hardly a sound but the twittering of birds. Then all at once a torrent of jockeying, speeding traffic rushes past, before silence falls abruptly again - as though some invisible controller is switching the 20th century on and off at will.

A few meters from the top of Via di Porta San Sebastiano, at No. 8, is the so-called House of Cardinal Bessarion, the Greek scholar and humanist (1389-1472) who made vigorous and vain attempts to end the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. This frescoed villa and garden is a miraculously preserved time capsule of a gracious Renaissance residence in a quasi-pastoral setting. (The house can be visited at 11 A.M. and noon on Sundays.)

Close by, also amid gardens, at Via di Porta Latina 5, is one of Rome's best trattorias: Orazio (tel. 7049-2401). A few hundred meters farther on is the most impressive surviving gateway in Rome's ancient walls, the Porta Appia, now Porta San Sebastiano. It was last the scene of a Roman-style triumphal entry when the victors of the battle with the Turkish fleet at Lepanto arrived here in 1571. Inside the gate is the Museum of Walls, a small but interesting display recounting the various stages of the building of the city's fortifications, which gives access to the views from the top of the gatehouse and a walk along a section of the antique walls.

The first tract of the Via Appia beyond the gate (from here on officially called Via Appia Antica), before it forks into the continuation of the Via Appia on the left and the Via Ardiatina on the right, is made ugly by a series of motor mechanics' workshops and junkyards, but it is worth taking a look at the first milestone, a column on the right. The Domine Quo Vadis church opposite the fork in the road marks the spot where supposedly St. Peter, fleeing from Rome met Christ going in the opposite direction and asked him 'Domine, Quo Vadis?' (Lord, where are you going?), and on being told that Jesus was on his way to Rome to be crucified again, turned back to embrace his own martyrdom.

At this point we can either take the Via Appia itself or better still, for the first kilometer and a half, the private road, open to pedestrians and bicycles, that runs parallel to the Appia through fields from the gate opposite the church, rejoining the Via Appia near the San Sebastiano church. In this area there are a number of catacombs that can be visited on guided tours, the remains of the Circus of Maxentius and the massive tomb of Cecilia Metella, wife of one of Julius Caesar's generals. Here, too, are some picturesque, old-style trattorias, serving local Roman specialties at moderate prices, which are still favorites for family outings, especially Sunday lunch. Among the most frequented are: at Via Appia Antica Nos. 125-129, Cecilia Metella (tel. 513-6743), and at No. 139, L'Archeologia (tel.788-0494).

From here the classic stretch of the Via Appia - dead straight, gently undulating, its wide green verges lined with Roman tombs and shaded by lofty umbrella pines, and with sheep grazing in the surrounding pastures - runs on for several majestic kilometers. And, without the motor traffic, this haunting survival of a vanished world regains its captivating magic once again.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023