It was a summer when most of the metro was taken up. We packed into a bus like roasting sardines as it puffed out to the suburbs of Rome. Armed only with a map, back in the days when I didn’t own a smartphone, we took a congested journey out to the Arco di Travertino. This part of Rome looked different. We couldn’t see the grandeur of Bernini’s fountains or columns echoing Rome’s grand past, but rather a dry concrete jungle of residential buildings and flaking billboards occasionally interspersed with stone pines. We asked the guard ushering us off the bus the way to the Appian Way, but instead he pointed us to get back onto the chaotic metro, where it began to run again. He pointed to the next stop, Punta Furba.
Instead we found ourselves going deeper into Roman suburbia. The map pointed to a path taking us beyond the housing estate, towards a patch of grassy land and walled gardens. We stopped for a beer, sitting under a rationed spot of shade under the hot sun. The air was still without that humidity or the breeze coming from the Tiber this far outside the city centre. We followed the map, which took us past crumbling houses, dusty roads running past grassland or fences – Toto this was no longer the tourist trail. The heat rose in intensity, and even the bottles of water we had in supply were running short.
Tips of the pine trees peeked up above the fence and crumbling ruins came into view. On first impression it seemed like we had finally found the Appian Way, but circling the complex to the entrance, turns out we not only were metres from where the bus had put us down initially. But this still wasn’t the Appian Way, but something just as interesting, the Via Latina Tombs.
The Tombs of the Via Latina
Like the Appian Way, the Via Latina was also one of the many ancient roads that led to Rome. A part of the road lies enclosed in a small small archaeological park that stretches just under half a kilometre. A dusty path marks part of the Road that once ran for hundreds of kilometres, once connecting Rome with Campania. Mausoleums flank the road to each side in the archaeological park, towering two storeys in places, but the main burial chambers lie underground.
Once inside the gate, the sounds of the city disappear behind the pines, drowned out in favour of birdsong and the wind brushing against the bristles of the trees. While the Tombs of the Via Latina dwarf the grand monuments in central Rome, this small archaeological park is one of the most important funerary complexes in Rome’s suburbs. Each tomb has its own story to tell, from the tombs belonging to the Barberini Family, former landowners in the 2nd Century AD, whose sarcophagus you can find in the Vatican Museums today. But after being a place of rest, the tomb became used as a barn for a while. And the Tomb of the Valerii, an impressive two-storey building remains a mystery, as its name has no relevance to those entombed.
But even without the context of the historical monuments, we were relieved to take a break under the shady pines for a rest. The heat turned the air hazy and cast dark shadows along the old flagstones and yellowed grass. Besides the bench, a small drinking fountain gave us the chance to refill our water bottles when a tabby cat slinked out of the bushes, falling by our feet, rolling in our dust and meowed for our caresses. Although since Rome is a cat lover’s destination, with the Cat Sanctuary in one of the downtown ruins, it’s not such an unusual site to behold.
We soon discovered we were not at the Appian Way, but we could get there easily, by taking a bus from round the corner. The August heat still burned, but we were this close. After a stroll round the tombs, we bid the park and the cat goodbye before embarking on our mission to find the legendary road.
Finding the Appian Way
We finally made it to one of the most famous of Rome’s ancient roads. It pre-dates the Via Latina, having been built in 312BC, and stretched over 500km from the Forum to today’s Brindisi. Today, the paving slabs have been smoothed down into a marble-like fineness after centuries of having been walked upon.
Much of the Appian Way, also known as the Via Appia Antica, is still preserved, with the Christian catacombs, Roman ruins, and crumbling palaces. Tired after spending time wandering lost in Rome’s suburbs, we simply strolled the Appian Way without any sightseeing agenda.
Within minutes we stumbled upon the Villa Capo di Bove, a vast 2nd century property once belonging to Herodes Atticus famed for the mosaics of its thermal baths. Today, it’s more akin to an archaeological garden, sheltered by leafy trees and guided pathways. The villa has a curious history, being purchased by a cardinal in the 14th century, before becoming a hospital in the 17th century and a monastery in the 19th.
Today, the museum is free to visit, and worth it for the bath’s mosaics, but the collection of vintage photographs of the Appian Way are also interesting for anyone curious about the history of this legendary road.
But wandering away from the villa and the catacombs, the Appian way opens out into a peaceful road where there is no sign of other tourists. I slipped off my sandals and walked barefoot along the smoothened road, whose stones were still warm from the hot sun. The sound of birds and wind in the cyprus trees turned it into a place of tranquility.
It was hard to believe that parts of the Appian Way were once lined with over 6000 crucified slaves in 73 BC, during the revolt of lead by the infamous Spartacus. However, much of Rome is like that – peaceful and tranquil today, even if it had a bloody history. In the hidden gems of the city this is true, but also in the main tourist sites. Where the stones of the Colosseum are silent under the hordes of tourists, once saw blood being spilled, to the steps of the Roman Forum, where Caesar was stabbed.
Whether it’s in the center or away out on the Appian Way, each stone has its story to tell on the roads that all lead to Rome.