The Appian Way often gets overlooked by visitors to Rome. And that’s an extraordinary shame. A stroll on the Appian Way (or, to Italians, Via Appia Antica) is more than a mere walk. It’s a time machine that takes you back to ancient Rome, a way to experience the Italian countryside without leaving the city, and a twist on a passeggiata all in one.
The Appian Way was built all the way back in 312 B.C. (hence why Italians call it Via Appia Antica). And it was crucial. The first road linking farther-flung parts of the Roman empire with the capital, it first ran to Capua, just north of Naples. Since it allowed Romans to transport soldiers and supplies, the Appian Way proved integral to the Romans conquering the Samnites of southern Italy. In 191 B.C., the Romans extended the road all the way to Brindisi, in modern-day Puglia.
The really cool part?
You can still walk on the Appian Way today. On stones ancient Romans would have walked on. Again, it’s called Via Appia Antica for a reason.
Or even take a bike ride. Check out my video of bicycling down the Appian Way (and hold onto your handlebars — those paving stones make for a rocky ride!).
Not to mention that the Appian Way boasts ancient catacombs, tombs, mausoleums, and even fragments of villas that once would have lined this all-important entrance to the city — a way for Romans to flaunt their wealth and status.
But let’s put the Appian Way today aside for a moment. Even if this were just a dirt road — no ruins, no ancient stone paving — it would give you shivers to walk on this path. Let’s just think about what’s happened here:
- Spartacus, the famous leader of Rome’s largest slave revolt, was crucified on the Appian Way along with 6,000 of his followers in 71 B.C. Just imagine the bodies lining the 125 miles between Rome and Capua. Shudder.
- St. Peter took this road out of Rome, fleeing Nero’s persecutions, in 64 A.D. According to legend, he saw Christ — crucified years earlier — coming into the city as he left, provoking his famous phrase “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?), a question immortalized in the name of the church built on the spot.
- In the villas along the road, early Christian converts allowed their fellow Christians to worship and, ultimately, to be buried beneath their gardens; catacombs sprung up along (and beneath) the Appian Way of Rome.
That’s all, of course, aside from the fact that this was a busy thoroughfare that would have been used by soldiers and plebeians, patricians and consuls, throughout the Roman empire’s existence. In other words: Yes, Caesar walked here.
And in a lot of ways, the Appian Way hasn’t changed much. As it would have been in earlier times, the Via Appia remains a chic address, one that shows wealth and breeding. Villas are still set off from the main road, gated, just as they would have been 2,000 years ago.
Like the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (shown below). The best-preserved tomb along the Appian Way, this was built for the daughter-in-law of Marcus Licinius Crassus — a guy who suppressed Spartacus’ slave revolt, entered the First Triumvirate with Pompey, and who was the richest man in Roman history. In the early 14th century, Pope Boniface VIII acquired the tomb for his family, and it was turned into the fortress you see today.
Or the Villa dei Quintili, a huge villa built by the wealthy Quintilii brothers in the 2nd century… so huge that, when it was first excavated, locals thought it must have been a town. In fact, the villa was so incredible that Emperor Commodus put its owners to death — just so he could get his own hands on it.
Or the Circus of Maxentius (below). Erected in the early 4th century, its fragments still give an idea of the grandeur of what was once the second-largest circus in Rome, after only the Circus Maximus.
Or the Capo di Bove, an archaeological site that’s just a sliver of an enormous property; the villa was built in the 2nd century by Herodes Atticus, the tutor to future emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, and Aspasia Annia Regilla, his aristocratic (and 25-years-younger) wife. The excavations today reveal what would have been the villa’s thermal baths, complete with original flooring and mosaics.
A murder mystery is hidden here, too: Annia was kicked to death at eight months pregnant… and it’s thought her husband may have been responsible for her murder.
Or the Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, the church of the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. It’s most fascinating — at least to me — for having a Bernini sculpture no one seems to know about: the “Salvator Mundi,” a bust of Christ that art historians think was Bernini’s very last work. (It’s on the right as you enter the church, beside the Relics Chapel).
Still not convinced? I’ll say it again: If you can’t tell from the photographs, the Appian Way is a peaceful, surprisingly rural-feeling part of Rome. It helps that after the first part of the Via Appia, the road becomes closed to most traffic, so it’s perfect for pedestrians.
And it’s not far. The best way to get to the start of the Via Appia is to take a bus. From the Colosseum, for example, it’s just 15 minutes on the #118. The 118 also stops close to the bike rental at Via Appia Antica 42, if you’d rather bike than stroll. (If you’re using Google Maps, don’t just put in “Appia Antica”, which takes you to a random spot far down the road. Instead, put in “Appia Antica regional park” as your destination).
Just remember not to take your stroll on a Sunday if you want to enter the sites, as that’s when the catacombs are closed.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.