The Appian Way
Of all the architectural marvels built by the ancient Romans none was as integral to the daily life of the empire as Rome’s main road. But it wasn’t just any road, it was mighty Via Appia, or Appian Way: 300 miles of immaculately-maintained stone highway running all the way from Rome to Brindisi and effectively connecting all of southern Italy. In its day (the 4th century BC) “The Queen of Roads” was the longest in the world and probably the most economically important. It was a thoroughfare for Roman armies as well as the main artery for commerce between Rome and some of her most important trading hubs. In its vision and ingenuity, it anticipated the modern highway by more than 2,000 years. Along with the aqueducts, it’s one of ancient Rome’s most impressive engineering feats.
Visiting the Appian Way: What to See
The Appian Way Regional Park
Outside of the city center and Roman Forum, the Appian Way Regional Park contains more ancient Roman ruins than any other area of the city. Two Roman catacombs, the park of the aqueducts, the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, the church of Domine Quo Vadis, and the Circus of Maxentius are all dotted along miles of greenway easily accessible by foot or on a bike – just watch out for the occasional uneven stone, 2 millennia of wear and tear have put a few potholes in the Appian Way.
Roman Catacombs and Aristocratic Tombs
The Catacombs of San Sebastiano and Callixtus are both located along the Appian way. These ancient burial sites for Christians were the final resting places for many of the early popes (though most of their remains have since been removed to churches) as well as thousands of Christians. Contrary to popular belief, the catacombs were neither places of worship nor hiding places during times of persecution. Despite their periodic persecutions of Christians, successive Roman governments were quite content with the Catacombs because they were able to tax the land in which they were located.
A tomb with a decidedly more pagan feel is the enormous mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. So imposing is the central tower of this 1st century AD noblewoman’s tomb that in the Middle Ages it was repurposed as a guard tower by the somewhat shameless Caetani family. From their perch in the tower the family leveled large tolls on everyone passing down the Appian Way. Luckily, their descendants are no longer enforcing the tolls.
The Church of Domine Quo Vadis
According to Catholic tradition, in AD 69 Saint Peter (who at the time, was just “Peter”) was fleeing Rome in the wake of the first large-scale Christian persecutions, instituted by Nero to scapegoat someone for the fire that had recently gutted the city. When Peter was safely outside the walls he suddenly had a vision in which Jesus appeared to him. “Domine quo vadis?” (Lord, Where are you going?) he asked. Jesus replied that he was heading back to Rome to be crucified and Peter took it as a sign that he should return and face his fate. The rest, as they say, is history. A church has stood on the supposed spot of this fateful meeting since at least the 9th century. The church contains a replica of a marble slab with two footprints said to be those of Jesus Christ (The original slab is in the nearby Basilica of San Sebastian Outside the Walls).
The Circus of Maxentius
Chariot races were perhaps even more popular in their day than the famous gladiator games of Imperial Rome. They attracted huge crowds to purpose-built Hippodromes (the latin for “horses” is hippos) and made stars out of the most successful racers. The less successful racers often became cadavers. The best-preserved of the ancient hippodromes is the Circus of Maxentius. It is smaller by orders of magnitude than the Circus Maximus at the foot of the Palatine Hill, probably because it was rarely, if ever, used. It appears to have been part of a large civic improvement program undertaken by Emperor Maxentius to bolster his credibility with the Roman Populace. It didn’t work, and he was ousted by Constantine not long after it was built.
If any civic engineering project can rival the Via Appia Antica it has to be Rome’s mind-boggling aqueducts. In an age where most people in the world were forced to build their settlements close to water sources, the Romans piped fresh, clean water into their city 24 hours a day. They accomplished this engineering feat with a system of aqueducts that used simple gravity (i.e.: one end of the aqueduct is higher than the other) to bring in water from the surrounded countryside, sometimes over distances as long as 56 miles. Even though they are over 2,000 years old and were routinely sabotaged during the various sackings of the city, some of the aqueducts are still in use. In fact, the Trevi Fountain is fed by the famous Aqua Virgo whose source was purportedly discovered by a young girl – the titular “virgo” or virgin.
The Villa of the Quintilii
Although we may think that modern rich people have cornered the market on opulence, they can’t hold a candle to the ancient Romans. In the 2nd century AD the Quintilii brothers built themselves a villa so large that when it was later re-discovered it was called Roma Vecchia (Old Rome) because people believed it to be an old town instead of a private residence. In its own time it was such a coveted residence that the Emperor Commodus actually put the Quintilii brothers to death and took it for himself. Today the ruins house a museum and also sit close to one of the aqueducts.
Tips for Visiting the Appian Way
The Appian Way Regional Park is not a gated park and therefore does not close, as such. However the main attractions, including the Catacombs, the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, the Circus of Maxentius, and the Villa of the Quintilii close every day around 5:00pm. They are also closed on December 25, and January 1. For a full list of opening and closing times check out the listings over at the Italian Parks web page.
The Park of the Aqueducts does not close – you can go visit it whenever you like at any time of day.
On Sundays and holidays the entire park is closed to vehicles and it becomes the largest pedestrian area in Rome.
You don’t need tickets to visit the Appian Way Regional Park but you do need tickets to go inside some of the attractions located within. Both the Catacombs of St. Sebastian and the Catacombs of Callixtus cost €5.00. The Circus of Maxentius, along with his villa and the mausoleum of Romulus, costs €5.00. The tomb of Cecilia Metella costs €2.00. The Villa of the Quintilii, which includes an aqueduct, costs €2.00. You can also visit various parts of the park in our Rome as a Local tour.
The Best Time to Visit the Appian Way
In the summer high season visiting the Appian Way Regional Park is a very good excuse to go outside the old city walls for a relaxing afternoon away from the crowds in the city. It’s much less crowded than the city center and full of hiking trails and green spaces. All the green space makes the park a few degrees cooler than many other parts of Rome, too. The best day to go, hands down, is Sunday, when the park’s roads are closed to vehicles and you can enjoy exploring, bike riding, picnicing, or just taking a leisurely stroll.
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