Uncovering Antique Rome without hordes of tourists [Via Appia]

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Cycling past the monumental Circus Maximus where a quarter million spectators used to rave at chariot races, the gigantic Bath of Caracalla where Romans bathed 2,500 years ago, the Via Appia Antica unveils. Just past the Arch of Drusus marking the start of the very first Roman highway, we stand on top of the tower of the Gate of San Sebastian. Following the Via Appia as far as we can see it, we are picturing the rural landscape surrounding antique Rome dotted by large agricultural estates thriving on these fertile lands with the snowy summits of the Abruzzo Mountains in the background. If we are only a short bike ride away from the extremely touristic centre of Rome, we are already far from the hustle and bustle, and about to discover an off-the-beaten gem…

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Started in 312 BC by censor Appius Claudius Caecus as a military tool for the Roman Empire, the Via Appia became an indispensable trade route where wheat, gold, silver, iron, etc. were transported in large quantities linking Rome to the harbour of Brindisi 360 miles* (580 kilometres) further southeast in the heel of the peninsula. Pilgrims also travelled along it on their way to Jerusalem, as well as ideas, philosophies and religious currents. The success of the Via Appia led to the construction of another 28 Roman highways covering more than 50,000 miles to travel efficiently from Rome across the vast empire, all following the same model: straight, wide and durable.

The courses of these Roman vias were so well designed by Roman engineers that many modern European highways still follow their layout, and only little of the ancient roads is left to be seen. Luckily, the best-preserved section of the antique Queen of Roads as the Via Appia is nicknamed is just outside of Rome, and takes us through the Appia Antica Archaeological Park.

We pass by the small Church of Domine Quo Vadis, marking the location where Saint Peter had his vision of meeting Jesus. Despite the fact he was fleeing Rome to escape execution, this vision gave him the courage to return and sacrifice himself as a martyr for his faith in Christ, being considered later as the first pope.

There is still some traffic as we bike by the entrances to various catacombs where hundreds of thousands of early Christians were buried. Along the Via Appia, pagan sepulchres are also displayed, such as the mausoleum the 3rd century AD Emperor Maxentius built for his beloved son Romulus**. Next to it, his complex includes a peaceful circus for chariot races taken over by wildflowers. Some of the opera mixta (bricks alternated with small tufa blocks) survived the millennia of wear and tear.

Further away from Rome, the 30 BC Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella is one of the best-preserved tombs of Roman Antiquity and the third largest mausoleum built in Rome, hinting to her social position. As Romans were not allowed to bury their dead in town for hygienic reasons, the roads were lined with sepulchres, and only the most prestigious citizens could pretend to be entombed along the Queen of Roads.

Amongst agricultural estates, magnificent villas were also a way for wealthy Roman families to showcase their influence. After a bumpy ride on large slabs lined by flat-topped pine trees and yews, along green fields with wild flowers and poppies, we soon arrive at the most majestic of these villas: the Villa of the Quintilin. The estate was so splendid that the two brothers (and consuls) who had it built were simply killed in AD 151 by the emperor of the time to take possession of it! We walk its extensive grounds, marvelling at its utmost luxury. Some delicate mosaics have survived to this day and are still being excavated by archaeologists we can see at work. Geometric patterns and even a circus scene with horses and a gladiator with a net and trident are simply beautiful. The shear dimensions of the buildings are gigantic. When Emperor Commodus (AD 180-192) became owner of the residential complex, he had the Nymphaeum built, a monumental fountain with water flowing in basins of marble slabs and mosaics and decorated with statues that have impressed passers-by along the Via Appia for millennia.

We continue on our mountain bikes through the peaceful landscape, sometimes favouring a narrow trail along the Appian Way for a smoother ride. If on most of its distance it has been covered by the asphalt of modern roads, the longevity of the antique via is very impressive. It was a true civic engineering prowess. Based on the specific location, sometimes large slabs only were placed on the stable soil; and more often after levelling the ground, layers of materials such as sand or dried earth, cemented crushed rocks and gravel were piled up, topped off by large basalt stones such as the ones we ride on at times.

Taking a break and listening to birds, enjoying the scents of Spring, we transport ourselves 2,093 years ago, in May 71 BC. That year, in order to tame the rebellion led by the former gladiator Spartacus and to make an example against uprisings, General Crassus had 6,000 slaves of Spartacus’ army crucified along 120 miles (200 kilometres) of the Via Appia from Rome to Capua. Every 60 meters (60 yards), the body of a slave was left to rot on a cross for months. Thankfully, we are extracted from this gruesome thought by the laughter of children ringing in our ears. Today, the Via Appia is a bucolic heaven with a few runners and bikers working out, some families strolling it, and dogs being walked.

Looping back to Rome along the nearby Claudio Aqueduct – another prowess of civil engineering that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – we take in a slice of Roman life: kids playing soccer in fields, lovers enjoying picnics, elderlies resting on benches. The hectic capital shows a different side through its parks and before we know it, we are back in the midst of Rome by the Colosseum where queues to enter one of Rome’s most visited attractions seem to never end.

The Via Appia had us experience Antique Rome, its villas, bathhouses, circuses, sepulchres and statues in a quiet and privileged way. Beyond the monuments, the infrastructures that made these constructions possible from walls to aqueducts, from farming estates to vias were also revealed to us while biking along the Queen of Roads, giving us insights into what greatly contributed to making the Roman Empire the longest lasting one in history.

*Romans measured distances in mille passus (literally “thousand paces”, one pace being the distance between every other step, and it is in the mille passus also known as the Roman mile (1,473 meters) that the modern mile (1,609 meters) finds its roots.

**Not to be confused with Remus’ brother. For more insights into the founding of Rome, check out our article about Antique Rome.

Travel tips:

  • The best way to enjoy the Via Appia is by bicycle or e-bicycle. We strongly recommend a mountain bike. For bicycle, including mountain bikes and e-bikes, and scooter rentals, including Vespas, refer to Easy Bike Rent Rome.
  • For more details & to plan your visit, refer to Parco Archeologico dell’Appia Antica.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Italy, click on these images:

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