Via Appia Travel Guide
The Appian Way or Via Appia is known as “the queen of the long roads”. The road takes its name from the Roman censor who began and completed the first section of the road in 312 BC, and when the entire road was completed, it was the widest and largest road at the time, spanning 330 miles. It was also one of the earliest roads in the Roman Empire, and the most strategically important because it directly connects the Roman Forum to the city of Brindisi, all the way to the southeastern end of Italy in Puglia, on the Adriatic Coast. It should be noted that at the time, Brindisi was known as the Gateway to the East because of its ports from which Roman vessels headed for Greece, Egypt, and North Africa were launched.
The Via Appia is also steeped in legend and history. In one Christian legend, it was on this road that Christ appeared to Saint Peter as he was fleeing Rome. This vision of Christ caused him to return to the city and face martyrdom. In another story, the road also plays a part in the historic slave revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC, for when the revolt was quelled, the Roman army crucified the more than 6000 slaves who participated and lined the Via Appia for up to 130 miles with their bodies.
Another unique feature of the Via Appia is that it is lined with ancient monuments and tombs. This is mainly because as early as 5 BC, burial within the city walls of Rome was forbidden, and so the patrician Roman families commissioned their own burial sites or mausoleums nearby, along the edges of the Via Appia. There are also the catacombs UNDERNEATH this famous road. These catacombs and its connecting tunnels were hewn from the tufa stone, and it was here that the early Christians in Rome buried their dead, a practice that they preferred over the Roman custom of cremation. It was also here that they worshiped, away from the eyes of Roman soldiers and spies, during the height of the persecution.
These days, the Via Appia Antica which stretches from the city to the countryside is much more benign, and has since become a major tourist destination where people can walk on the remarkably well-preserved paving stones, and take in the remains and ruins of ancient Roman history. Some of the catacombs are also open to the public and visitors can view thousands of burial niches, as well as remnants of early Christian art.
What to See
The length of the Via Appia is simply peppered with points of interest, the most prominent of which are*:
1st to 4th mile
Porta Appia (Porta San Sebastiano), the gate of the Aurelian Walls
Church of Domine Quo Vadis
Tomb of Priscilla
Catacomb of Callixtus/Catacomb of San Callisto
San Sebastiano fuori le mura (church)
Catacombs of St Sebastian
Circus of Maxentius
Tomb of Cecilia Metella
Roman baths of Capo di Bove
Tomb of Hilarus Fuscus
Mausoleum of the Orazi and Curiazi
Villa dei Quintili, with nympheum, theatre, and baths
Mausoleum of Casal Rotondo
6th mile and beyond
Temple of Hercules
Berrettia di Prete (tomb and later church)
Mausoleum of Gallienus
Besides those listed above, there are also the remains of ancient Roman bridges that visitors will be encountering, including including the Ponte Antico, Ponte Alto, Ponte di Tre Ponti, Viadotta di Valle Ariccia, and the Ponte di Vigna Capoccio.
Most famous among the catacombs to visit would be the Catacombs of San Callisto, with a complex composed of five levels that stretches 19 kilometers. It is considered as the most sacred of all the Roman catacombs, and is located not far from the visitor center and the Via Appia Antica. It is the most important of the Christian cemeteries of the time, because within the catacombs are the remains of 16 popes and more than 50 martyrs. Other impressive Christian catacombs are those of San Sebastian, and San Domitilla.
The most impressive tomb along the way would be that of Cecilia Metella, which is located close to the catacombs. The elaborate tomb was built in memory of the wife of one of Julius Caesar’s commanders from the Republican era, and though the person it was for isn’t exactly well-known, the tomb itself is mostly celebrated for being one of the best-preserved examples from that area, as its contemporaries have long since decayed.
Other tombs along the way include that of Emperor Gallienus who was murdered in 268 AD; Romulus the son of Emperor Maxentius; the Roman philosopher, Seneca; and perhaps most poignant of them all is the tomb of the family of Sextus Pompeius Justus which bears an inscription that shares the grief of a father as he buries his children. Along the way can also be found the Temple of Hercules; the wonderfully-preserved ancient chariot race venue, Circus Maxentius; the remains of the Gothic church of San Nicola; the church Quo Vadis where Saint Peter is said to have met Christ; the ancient baths and beautiful sculptures of Villa dei Quintili, and a palace built by Emperor Maxentius.
Tips and Advice
- There are a LOT of sights to see along the Via Appia, and it may seem a little overwhelming. According to the map handed out by the Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica, the agency that maintains the area, there are at least 54 attractions to visit, so don’t worry if you don’t get to see everything in a single day.
- There are many ways to enjoy the Via Appia, and one of these is by taking the Archeobus sightseeing bus. It goes between the visitor center and the tomb of Cecilia Metella and takes visitors through 10 attractions. Getting an Archeobus ticket costs about eight euros, and is valid for the whole day, which means that you can get on and off the bus as you please. Sometimes, it also comes with discounts to bicycle rentals at the visitor center, or entrance fee discounts at some of the other attractions.
- For those who prefer exploring on their own, it’s possible to rent bicycles at the visitor center, as mentioned previously. Take note, however, that some of the basilicas, temples, and tombs may or may not be closed, and may or may not charge a few euros for entrance, so keep small change in your pocket just in case. As an added tip, the best day to take a bicycle ride along the Via Appia would be on Sundays, as the road is closed from private vehicles. On these days, the road is mostly populated by cyclists, in-line skaters, as well as just people strolling along, or having picnics along the sides.
- And then of course, you can just choose to walk. It is a long stretch of road, most of which is open to most vehicle traffic six days a week, so wear comfortable shoes and be an alert pedestrian. You might also want to bring a water bottle and some small snacks. Be aware as well that there isn’t much shade along the way, so it may also be a good idea to slather on some sunblock, or bring a foldable umbrella to shade yourself from the sun, or both. When going on foot, make sure to grab a map from the visitor center to guide you along, and prepare ahead of time by acquainting yourself with local transport options, or you might find yourself having to walk all the way back to the visitor center!
(* – list taken from Wikipedia)