Roadway hosted chariots, legions and gravediggers
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In ancient times, chariot-racing was a favourite spectator sport along the Via Appia Antica, the old Appian Way.
Today, watching joggers and bikers might be the 21st-century equivalent for visitors sampling history along this venerable road. You might even want to do your people-watching as the Romans do it — from the vantage point of an osteria, a roadside inn with a garden for dining on capretto, spit-roasted young goat, the local specialty.
The Appian Way was begun as a military highway in 312 BC by the statesman Appius Claudius. Paved with huge lava blocks in a bed of crushed stone cemented with lime, the roadway was wide enough to allow two chariots to pass. Soon it stretched some 550 kilometres to the Adriatic port of Brundisum (now Brindisi) at the heel of Italy’s boot. Alongside it ran the Claudian aqueduct, supplying fresh water for Rome’s gardens, fountains and the baths that could accommodate 3,000 citizens at a time.
Rich Romans built villas, tombs and mausoleums here, against a backdrop of the purple Alban hills. Under ivy-draped walls, early Christians dug catacombs, which were tunnelled graves for their dead. Helmeted Roman legions marched off to war along the road, trading caravans passed through, and visiting princes paraded here, riding elephants and bearing gifts of caged lions for the circus games.
andrew medichini/associated press
A modern-day tour of the Via Appia Antica might start at the end of the Forum, just beyond the Circus Maxentius where charioteers raced seven times around an obelisk cheered by spectators in 10 tiers of stone bleachers.
Near here, weary travelers beheld Rome’s golden milepost, where all roads led. Soon the pleasant road, shaded with cypresses and umbrella pines, passes scattered piles of eroded bricks that once were grand mausoleums.
Then you arrive at the dome-shaped ruins of the ornate tomb of the noble woman Cecilia Metella. She was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Crassus, who shared the triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. Pope Urban VIII ripped up the marble floor of her tomb to build the Trevi Fountain.
At at Porta San Sebastiano stands the largest and best preserved of the fortified gates in the Aurelian Wall that embraced the seven hills of Rome for more than a thousand years. Here you can walk along the top of the wall for postcard views of the Appian Way and the distant Alban Hills. Surrounding vineyards produce Rome’s Frascati wine.
Beyond the narrow ancient gate, the road dips slightly into a valley covering a maze of catacombs where thousands of bodies were buried along five levels of tunnels. Rome has more than 60 catacombs, some not yet fully explored.
pier paolo cito/associated press
The two most important catacombs open to the public along the Appian Way are St. Sebastian and St. Callixtus, where most of the early popes and many martyrs were buried.
Over the centuries, pilgrims scratched graffiti invocations to Peter and Paul on the walls of the catacombs of San Sebastian. Here the two apostles were united in death when their bodies were reburied together for a time during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian.
A year ago, archeologists exploring the Catacombs of St. Peter and Marcellinus uncovered a chamber with more than 1,000 skeletons arrayed in elegant togas, some interwoven with gold thread.
Tests are underway to determine whether the neatly piled remains were victims of mass executions or a deadly plague late in the first century.
The catacombs were dug by crews of “fossores” — gravediggers — who by the dim light of oil lamps tunnelled out the labyrinthine galleries, carrying away the earth in baskets and using “lucemaria” — skylights or air shafts — for ventilation. In these subterranean passages, the early Christians hid out and held services during times of severe persecution. A millennium later, when great gothic cathedrals were rising across Europe, grave robbers plundered the underground tombs for relics.