Ten days ago, the Upstairs Vegetarian and I went on a guided tour of Via Appia Antica for journos. Because she’s a famous newshound, the UV is always getting invited to these sorts of things (the night before the Appia jaunt we went to the Rome premiere of the movie Rush, complete with red carpet, Ron Howard and after party. Go see it btw, it’s great.) and sometimes I get to tag along, pretending to be a well-known blogger. We started at the Villa dei Quintilii, which is way out in the suburbs, or at least it would have been back in ye olde Roman times. Now it’s flanked by the car dealerships and bad pizzerias that line the Via Appia Nuova. The villa was built by the Quintili brothers, Sextus Quintilius Maximus and Sextus Quintilius Condianus. These were rich and cultured guys who both served as consul in the same year, 151 AD. Their mother must have been super proud. The place is HUGE. In fact, when the villa was first excavated people called it Vecchia Roma. (Old Rome), thinking it was an entire town. The villa has large baths, by which I don’t mean a couple of big tubs but caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium, the whole novi metri (nine yards). Not to mention its own aqueduct. Later on, a racetrack was added during the villa’s imperial phase. You see, unfortunately for the Quintili brothers, the Emperor Commodus took a major shine to their digs. He had them strangled in the baths so he could have it all for himself.
Commodus was seriously crazy. Mind you, being emperor back then was fairly stressful what with everyone trying to assassinate you all the time (including his sister and his girlfriend). He went around telling everyone that he was Hercules reincarnated and he loved to play gladiator. Wounded soldiers and crippled Romans were tied up in the arena so he could stab them or beat them with clubs while pretending they were giants, according to a fun little detail provided by Cassius Dio. Commodus also liked naming things after himself. In 192 AD, he renamed Rome Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. He also renamed all of the months of the year (he apparently had 12 names, just like a British prince!). The legions were called Commodianae, the Senate was named the Commodian Fortunate Senate, his palace and the Roman people were given the name Commodianus and the day this all happened was called Dies Commodianus. At that point, the assassination attempts stepped up a notch and he died the same year, strangled by his wrestling partner.
The Appian Way, dubbed regina viarum (queen of roads) by the Roman poet Statius, was built for the specific purpose of transporting troops and military supplies out of Rome. The road was 212 k long when it was first constructed in 312 BC but the Romans kept thinking up new people to conquer and the road eventually stretched north to Capua and all the way down the coast to Brindisi. Spartacus’ army of 6 000 slaves was crucified along the Via Appia and, more recently, a big World War II battle took place along a stretch of the road in Anzio. The road also inspired the last movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome (Respighi, being Italian, called it pini di Roma), which is the punchline of one of the brilliant jokes my college roommate Andy and I concocted during our boring Music 101 class senior year: What do you say to sleepy and fat Italian fir trees? Get it? Andy’s coming to visit for a few days and I can’t wait!
The hills in the picture below are supposedly the tombs of the Horatii and the Curatii. These were two sets of triplet brothers who, during the war between Rome and Alba Longa were assigned the job of fighting to the death to determine the outcome of the war. The Roman Horatii won. It seems strange to me that the victors should be buried next door to their enemies and that the Alban Curatii should be buried just outside the walls of Rome but it’s probably just a legend anyway so let’s just go with it.
There are many tombs along the Via Appia because Romans didn’t allow the dead to be buried inside the sacred boundary of the city (known as the pomerium, y’all) for fear of polluting the living. They had a very serious belief in life after death so the tombs were often designed to look like houses. There were a couple of festivals for the dead every year during which people brought along food and drink for their ancestors to enjoy. Since the ancestors were not up to partaking, the food all rotted and stank up the tombs and that’s when they started to put doors on the house tombs. The other thing that happened is that people used to build very ornate and fancy tombs to show how rich and important they were. (These days, Via Appia Antica is lined with ornate and fancy homes to show that rich and important the people live there).
When Mussolini was busy restoring all the glories of Rome, he sent some people out on the Via Appia to put back together the ancient gravestones, most of which had been reduced to rubble by the passage of time. But they were in a big hurry because you don’t drag your feet when Il Duce is calling the shots and they basically just glued all the bits together whether they belonged on the same tomb or not. So you got some really hodge-podgy looking tombs out there. I do love me a good Mussolini story.
Here are some tombs.
The big round tomb in the photo below was built for Cecilia Metella, daughter-in- law of Crassus, an ancient Roman moneybags who led the battle against Spartacus and was in the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. You can learn all about him here. Later on, in the 14th Century, Pope Boniface VIII gave the tomb to one of his relatives who turned it into a big fortress and fortified town with which to guard the roads and exact tolls. The crafty Romans started using alternate routes out of town, eventually building Via Appia Nuova in the 16th Century. Via Appia Antica fell into total disuse after that, which sort of protected the antiquities. Until the treasure hunters arrived. But that’s another story. Today you can walk about 17 k down the Via Appia Antica. It’s open to traffic from the Porta San Sebastiano to Cecilia Metella and it’s not very easy to walk that bit without dying. You can avoid the scary cars by cutting through the San Callisto catacombs (Sorry Jo and Paul – I didn’t know this when you were here and almost got flattened on the Via Appia Antica). The entrance is at the crossroads between the via Appia Antica and via Ardeatina. After that the road is closed to traffic except for residents.