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Via Appia at Minturnae

Via Appia at Minturnae


Minturno is a city and comune in the southern Lazio, Italy, situated on the north west bank of the Garigliano (known in antiquity as the Liris), with a suburb on the opposite bank about 18 kilometres (11 mi) from its mouth, at the point where the Via Appia crossed it by the bridge called Pons Tiretius.

It has a station on the Rome-Naples main railway line.

When Rome’s history passed through Minturnae

Minturnae – today’s Minturno, in the province of Latina – risked going down in history as the city where Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) was assassinated in 88 BC.

At the time, the ambitious “homo novus” – meaning, the first in his family to be elected consul – was in the office for the sixth time (he would be elected one more time, breaking all previous records, before his death).

His former ally, Sulla, had sent a barbaric slave to kill him in the swaps of this ancient Via Appia city, 140 kilometers from Rome. According to legend, the general who had vanquished Jugurtha and the Germans, was able to stop his assassin by simply asking, Tune, inquit, Marium audebis occidere? , “Will you dare kill Marius?”.

A port built along river Garigliano, colonized by the Romans in the early 4th century BC, today Minturnae is an archeological site with a splendid Roman theater from the 1st century AD as well as ruins of Imperial and Republican Age forums, slaughterhouses (“macellum”), temples dedicated to Minerva, Juno and Jupiter (“capitolium”), “tabernae” and thermal baths built between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD.

Modern Miturno has its own beautiful sights: the 11th-century cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle, the churches of Saint Francis and the Annunziata (14th century), and the Baronial Castle from the 9th century where Saint Thomas Aquinas stayed.

Exploring Minturnae, a forgotten ancient city on the Appian Way

On a recent trip to Italy, I visited the Archaeological Area of Minturnae, a little-known but impressive archaeological site along the Appian Way .

Minturnae was originally an Auruncian city (of which no archaeological traces have been found), one of the three towns of the Aurunci which allied themselves with the Samnites and made war against Rome in 314 BC. After being defeated by Rome the city suffered severe repression and was burned to the ground. The Romans settled in the area and built a castrum along the river Liris after realising the strategic and commercial importance of its close location to the sea.

The military settlement grew into a Roman colony in 296 BC and became an important trading port of the Mediterranean as well as a fortified commercial centre along the Appian Way.

In the 1st century BC Minturnae was a flourishing city provided with a Capitolium (temple dedicated to the triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), a forum and a theatre. During the Imperial era a new forum was built, surrounded by public buildings such as a Basilica, thermal baths, an amphitheatre and a macellum (market).

Today there are still significant Roman remains scattered on both sides of the Appian Way.

On one side of the ancient road one finds the ancient theatre, the Republican forum, the Capitolium and the temple of Augustus.

The theatre, built during the reign of Augustus, had a capacity of 4,500. It underwent several restorations and reconstructions, the latest of which is thought to date to the 4th century AD. Statues from the scaenae frons have been recovered including one of Augustus and another of Livia. They are on display in the Antiquarium inside the theatre.

The Capitolium was an Etrusco-Italic type temple with three separate cella which was built soon after BC 191. It is located in the southern part of the Republican Forum and borders the Via Appia.

On the other side of the Appian Way were the macellum (market), behind which was a large bathing complex, and the tabernae (room shops). Recent excavations have also revealed the Imperial forum which includes the Basilica, the Curia and the public latrines.

The macellum was the emporium of the city where local and imported food poured into the nearby port. The building dates from the Hadrianic period with subsequent intervention during the Antonine era.

The bath complex developped behind the macellum. The examination of the building techniques let archaeologists think that the thermae may have been built during the reign of Hadrian. We can clearly see the caldarium and the tepidarium as well as the natatio (swimming pool) divided into two baths.

Opposite the Republican forum lays the Imperial forum. It is a big square paved in Coreno stone. On the eastern side of the forum stood the most representative buildings of the public life of the settlement: the Curia and the Basilica. The Basilica was built during the reign of Hadrian.

A remarkable exhibition of archaeological materials, stone inscriptions and statues can also be seen in the Museum inside the ancient theatre.

Just outside the archaeological site, visitors can marvel at the 150 majestic arches of the very fine aqueduct. It was built between the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire in opus reticulatum. The aqueduct entered the city at the west gate bringing water from the Monti Aurunci 11 km away.

3D reconstructions of the buildings of Minturnae done by the Istituto Tecnico Statale Costruzioni, Ambiente e Territorio Geometri di Formia can be seen online (website).

Further images of Minturnae can be viewed from my image collection on Flickr.

The Appian Way

Minturnae. This was once the busy main street, with shops, market, baths and temples.

They say all roads lead to Rome – but some are more important than others

Available in e-book for Kindle, Apple Books, Kobo and Google Play and in print from Amazon.

Along 350 miles from Rome to Brindisi, the Appian Way rose from its humble beginnings as a military track to become the engine that transformed Ancient Rome into the greatest empire Europe had ever seen.

Two thousand years later, with the continent in the process of another seismic shift, David Hewson travels its route in the footsteps of the ordinary and extraordinary people who trod its path.

From the gladiator rebel Spartacus to the marauding general Hannibal, via emperors, martyrs and politicians, he uncovers the stories of war, intrigue and ambition buried beneath its cobblestones.

Whether you love history, travel, Italy or all three, The Appian Way is a vivid, personal and fascinating exploration of an ancient journey that has never been more relevant.

‘A seamless mix of present and past. The Appian Way brings Roman history vividly alive.’

Dakota L. Hamilton, Humboldt State University

You can go behind the scenes of the book with two exclusive web features created from David’s travels and photographs. A Google Earth project will take you along the route of the Via Appia from Rome to Brindisi, listing all the locations mentioned in the book, with notes and photographs.

Just use this link. On mobile devices you may be prompted to download the free Google Earth app to view the route more easily.

Take a closer look at the locations through the photo gallery on the right, all from David’s photos collected on location and through trips to Italy over the years.

  • Cryptoporticus
  • The emperor’s fish ponds are still there, and still full of fat fish.
  • Important site on the Via Appia used by the nearby port.
  • Like many road towns, Minturnae offered travellers all the facilities.
  • Ruins, Terracina
  • The Via Appia is the cobbled lane on the right.
  • Lions on duty
  • That green diagonal line to the right is the route of the Via Appia and its accompanying canal, once travelled by the poet Horace who wrote about it too.
  • The burial place of Rome’s first true emperor is now a ruin awaiting reopening.
  • A reconstruction of the original meeting place of the Senate. Somewhere near here, in an earlier building, Appius was elected censor and embarked upon building the Appian Way.
  • The Appia running through the heart of today’s town.
  • In the remote Caffarella Park near the Appian Way, just outside Rome, this farmhouse keeps a flock of sheep and sells cheese to passing walkers.
  • The arch of Septimius Severus and behind the Curia.
  • This huge statue of the emperor who made Rome Christian once stood in a temple erected by the man he defeated, Maxentius.
  • Inside what was once the tomb of a Roman noblewoman, later a fortress.
  • Maxentius built this as a palatial home for his family along the Appian Way. The shape of the race course there is still visible.
  • This stretch of an older road than the Appian probably looks more like the original than the Appian these days.
  • Inside the actual tomb, a massive barrel-like structure on the Appian Way.
  • The restored stretch of road just outside the city, the barrel-like structure of the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the left.
  • The original gate in the walls at the Appian Way is now a museum with excellent views of the surrounding countryside.
  • Signs like this all over Italy make research notes easy.
  • The huge park is a rural paradise a short bus journey from Rome.
  • A ruined church in the Caffarella park modelled on a previous Roman temple on the site.
  • Farmer taking his flock to pasture in Caffarella.
  • Remains of the altar of Caesar where the dictator was cremated after his assassination.
  • People still lay flowers and throw coins on the site of Caesar’s cremation.
  • This recent find was part of the emperor’s pleasure palace on the coast.
  • Generals liked to boast of their triumphs in death as in life.
  • The historic village of Nemi is known for its connections with Caligula and as a place where wild strawberries are grown. The local aperitif, made with the strawberries, is delicious.
  • Figures found in the subterranean mithraeum in what was once one of the most important cities in Italy.
  • View from inside.
  • View of ruins
  • This was where the Via Appia entered the city after the Romans defeated the Samnites in the campaign that caused its construction.
  • The Appian Way divided at this point after Trajan built a new branch down the coast by modern Bari.
  • It was from here that Spartacus broke free and began a revolt that shook Italy. Today’s ruins post-date the arena from that time.
  • Cicero lived close to here and was murdered there on the orders of Augustus and Marc Antony. A mausoleum to him stands nearby on the Via Appia.
  • ‘Orazio’ is everywhere in his home town in Basilicata, a wonderful spot well off the beaten tourist track.
  • Once an important road town on the Via Appia, Venosa is now a sleepy rural spot.
  • Choose your fish and they cook it.
  • An ipogeo in the Old Town.
  • Modern Taranto is beset by problems, unemployment and pollution among them. But people still know how to eat well.
  • Brundisium, at the end of the Via Appia, was a busy port for the Romans.
  • Beautiful circular church built by warriors leaving for the Holy Land.
  • Revered as a mystical spot in pre-Roman times, Nemi was the site of Caligula’s pleasure boats.

Short history of the Appia

The “Via Appia” construction started in 312 B.C., at the height of the second Samnite war, a crucial period of the history of Rome that had recently suffered the bitter humiliation of the Caudine Forks (321 B.C.).

The Road was named in honour of its creator, the censor Appius Claudius Caecus, “the Blind”, an enlightened and ambitious member of the administration and an advocate of the expansion of Roman domination into the southern regions of ancient Italy. He conceived the project to connect Rome with Capua (today’s Santa Maria Capua Vetere) in order to allow fast movements of armed troops in the heart of the territories inhabited by Oscan populations.

Elogium d’Appius Claudius Caecum (inscription on marble found in the forum of Arezzo, now at the Archaeological Museum of Florence – photo MiBACT) – Appio Claudio the Blind, son of Caio, censor, twice consul, dictator, three times senator with supreme power, twice pretore, twice edile curule, questore, three times military tribuno, conquered many Sannitic fortresses, caused the defeat of both Sabini and Etruscan armies, was against the peace with King Pyrrhic, when he was a censor he built the Appia Way, brought water to the city (of Rome), and built the temple of Bellona.

The Roman expansion towards south had already started with the first Samnite war (343-341 B.C.) contrasting the Samnite people aims in the same direction and resulting in the submission of Capua, granted with the citizenship without voting rights (civitas sine suffragio). Once a rich and powerful Etruscan town, Capua was at the head of the League formed by the Campani cities on the northern part of modern Campania. Rome had concentrated its attention on this fertile and wealthy region inhabited by this Oscan population, just like the Samnites.

The construction of the Via Appia at an advanced stage of the second Samnite war (327-304 B.C.) marked the consolidation of the expansion project.

Appia in Terracina (photo Giovanni Biallo)

During the third Samnite war (299-290 B.C.) the Latin colonies of Minturnae (Minturno) (295 B.C.) and Sinuessa (Mondragone) (296 B.C) were established to defend both the important border of the Garigliano river and, indeed, the route of the Appia that formed the decumanus maximus, the main street of these towns. The colony of Venusia (Venosa) was established a few years later (291 B:C.) to control the wide area South of the Ofanto river and in a strategic position on the border between Irpinia, Lucania and Apulia.

Appia in Minturnae before site restoration

In 268 B.C., when the union and the resistance of the Samnite populations had been completely vanquished, Romans established the Latin colony of Malventum, the capital city of the Hirpini Samnite tribe, and renamed it Beneventum (Benevento). Emphasizing its strategical role, also in this case the Appia formed the decumanus maximus of the city continuing its route South.

Probably the design of the project extension was maturing by then, including Taranto, the glorious Greek colony subjected a few years before (272 B.C.), and targeting Brundisium, bridgehead to the East, where a new colony was established (246-243 B.C). Supposedly the foundation of the colony in Beneventum and the extension of the route to Taranto were part of a single project that was not achievable before, crossing a territory full of obstacles and hostile populations.

Leproso Bridge in Benevento

Conceived for a military use, the road marks and follows Rome’s power gradually rising through the extreme southern regions of the Italian peninsula. The extension to Brindisi probably was planned after the establishment of the colony and the end of the first Punic war (241 B.C.). In fact the clash with the Fenicians had highlighted the need of fast routes in the Mediterranean Sea, leading to the completion of the project presumably in between the first and the second Punic war (241-219 B.C.).

The long course of the Via Appia gives a concrete representation of the consolidation and realization of a great dream. After the Punic wars, Roman could set off the conquest of the Balcanic peninsula and Asia Minor.

At it’s final completion, the Via Appia, regina viarum, as named by the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius, measured 364 Roman miles (530km).

Appia between Fondi and Itri (photo Giovanni Biallo)

The relevance of the Appia is testified by the attention reserved to it by rulers at different times. Many emperors binded their name to great restoration and enhancement plans and many milestone inscriptions remind us these events. Important examples were Traianus and Nerva, while Iulius Caesar and later Marcus Aurelius backed the restorations with their own wealth. Even Teodorico, king of the Goths, promoted a restoration along the Decennovium, the canal running abreast the Appia in the Pontina plane.

The columns of Brindisi (the right column is a virtual reconstruction. Scenes from the 2007 video made by Digitarca and SIT Territorial Information Systems)

At the mid of the VI century A.C. Procopius in the history of the Gothic Wars, De bello Gothico, still praised the perfect state of the Road. The Appia was therefore scene of Barbarian raids and later on of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Surviving all these tormented centuries until our times, many segments of the Road were abandoned, branching out in different trails to overcome temporary obstacles. In any case, also if in time it underwent several resettlements that resulted in the abandonment of different portions, the role of principal connection route from Rome to Brindisi was never neglected. Finally a new route, only partially following the ancient one, is still running today, the SS 7.

(A head image of Appio Claudio blind in the senate – fresco by Cesare Maccari – Palazzo Madama, Rome)


The need for roads Edit

The Appian Way was a Roman road used as a main route for military supplies since its construction for that purpose in 312 BC. [5]

The Appian Way was the first long road built specifically to transport troops outside the smaller region of greater Rome (this was essential to the Romans). The few roads outside the early city were Etruscan and went mainly to Etruria. By the late Republic, the Romans had expanded over most of Italy and were masters of road construction. Their roads began at Rome, where the master itinerarium, or list of destinations along the roads, was located, and extended to the borders of their domain – hence the expression, "All roads lead to Rome".

The Samnite Wars Edit

Romans had an affinity for the people of Campania, who, like themselves, traced their backgrounds to the Etruscans. The Samnite Wars were instigated by the Samnites when Rome attempted to ally itself with the city of Capua in Campania. The Italic speakers in Latium had long ago been subdued and incorporated into the Roman state. They were responsible for changing Rome from a primarily Etruscan to a primarily Italic state.

Dense populations of sovereign Samnites remained in the mountains north of Capua, which is just north of the Greek city of Neapolis. Around 343 BC, Rome and Capua attempted to form an alliance, a first step toward a closer unity. The Samnites reacted with military force.

The barrier of the Pontine Marshes Edit

Between Capua and Rome lay the Pontine Marshes (Pomptinae paludes), a swamp infested with malaria. A tortuous coastal road wound between Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber and Neapolis. The Via Latina followed its ancient and scarcely more accessible path along the foothills of Monti Laziali and Monti Lepini, which are visible towering over the former marsh.

In the First Samnite War (343–341 BC) the Romans found they could not support or resupply troops in the field against the Samnites across the marsh. A revolt of the Latin League drained their resources further. They gave up the attempted alliance and settled with Samnium.

Colonization to the southeast Edit

The Romans were only biding their time while they looked for a solution. The first answer was the colonia, a "cultivation" of settlers from Rome, who would maintain a permanent base of operations. The Second Samnite War (327–304 BC) erupted when Rome attempted to place a colony at Cales in 334 and again at Fregellae in 328 on the other side of the marshes. The Samnites, now a major power after defeating the Greeks of Tarentum, occupied Neapolis to try to ensure its loyalty. The Neapolitans appealed to Rome, which sent an army and expelled the Samnites from Neapolis.

Appius Claudius' beginning of the works Edit

In 312 BC, Appius Claudius Caecus became censor at Rome. He was of the gens Claudia, who were patricians descended from the Sabines taken into the early Roman state. He had been given the name of the founding ancestor of the gens, Appius Claudius (Attus Clausus in Sabine). He was a populist, i.e., an advocate of the common people. A man of inner perspicacity, in the years of success he was said to have lost his outer vision and thus acquired the name caecus, "blind".

Without waiting to be told what to do by the Senate, Appius Claudius began bold public works to address the supply problem. An aqueduct (the Aqua Appia) secured the water supply of the city of Rome. By far the best known project was the road, which ran across the Pontine Marshes to the coast northwest of Naples, where it turned north to Capua. On it, any number of fresh troops could be sped to the theatre of operations, and supplies could be moved en masse to Roman bases without hindrance by either enemy or terrain. It is no surprise that, after his term as censor, Appius Claudius became consul twice, subsequently held other offices, and was a respected consultant to the state even during his later years.

The success of the road Edit

The road achieved its purpose. The outcome of the Second Samnite War was at last favorable to Rome. In a series of blows the Romans reversed their fortunes, bringing Etruria to the table in 311 BC, the very year of their revolt, and Samnium in 304. The road was the main factor that allowed them to concentrate their forces with sufficient rapidity and to keep them adequately supplied, whereafter they became a formidable opponent.

The main part of the Appian Way was started and finished in 312 BC.

The road began as a leveled dirt road upon which small stones and mortar were laid. Gravel was laid upon this, which was finally topped with tight fitting, interlocking stones to provide a flat surface. The historian Procopius said that the stones fit together so securely and closely that they appeared to have grown together rather than to have been fitted together. [6] The road was cambered in the middle (for water runoff) and had ditches on either side of the road which were protected by retaining walls.

Between Rome and Lake Albano Edit

The road began in the Forum Romanum, passed through the Servian Wall at the porta Capena, went through a cutting in the clivus Martis, and left the city. For this stretch of the road, the builders used the via Latina. The building of the Aurelian Wall centuries later required the placing of another gate, the Porta Appia. Outside of Rome the new via Appia went through well-to-do suburbs along the via Norba, the ancient track to the Alban hills, where Norba was situated. The road at the time was a via glarea, a gravel road. The Romans built a high-quality road, with layers of cemented stone over a layer of small stones, cambered, drainage ditches on either side, low retaining walls on sunken portions, and dirt pathways for sidewalks. The via Appia is believed to have been the first Roman road to feature the use of lime cement. The materials were volcanic rock. The surface was said to have been so smooth that you could not distinguish the joints. The Roman section still exists and is lined with monuments of all periods, although the cement has eroded out of the joints, leaving a very rough surface.

Across the marsh Edit

The road concedes nothing to the Alban hills, but goes straight through them over cuts and fills. The gradients are steep. Then it enters the former Pontine Marshes. A stone causeway of about 31 kilometers (19 mi) led across stagnant and foul-smelling pools blocked from the sea by sand dunes. Appius Claudius planned to drain the marsh, taking up earlier attempts, but he failed. The causeway and its bridges subsequently needed constant repair. No one enjoyed crossing the marsh. [ citation needed ] In 162 BC, Marcus Cornelius Cathegus had a canal constructed along the road to relieve the traffic and provide an alternative when the road was being repaired. Romans preferred using the canal.

Along the coast Edit

The Via Appia picked up the coastal road at Tarracina (Terracina). However, the Romans straightened it somewhat with cuttings, which form cliffs today. From there the road swerved north to Capua, where, for the time being, it ended. Caudine Forks was not far to the north. The itinerary was Aricia (Ariccia), Tres Tabernae, Forum Appii, Tarracina, Fundi (Fondi), Formiae (Formia), Minturnae (Minturno), Suessa, Casilinum and Capua, but some of these were colonies added after the Samnite Wars. The distance was 212 kilometers (132 mi). The original road had no milestones, as they were not yet in use. A few survive from later times, including a first milestone near the porta Appia.

Extension to Beneventum Edit

The Third Samnite War (298–290 BC) is perhaps misnamed. It was an all-out attempt by all the neighbors of Rome: Italics, Etruscans and Gauls, to check the power of Rome. The Samnites were the leading people of the conspiracy. Rome dealt the northerners a crushing blow at the Battle of Sentinum in Umbria in 295. The Samnites fought on alone. Rome now placed 13 colonies in Campania and Samnium. It must have been during this time that they extended the via Appia 35 miles beyond Capua past the Caudine forks to a place the Samnites called Maloenton, "passage of the flocks". The itinerary added Calatia, Caudium and Beneventum (not yet called that). [7] Here also ended the Via Latina. [8]

Extension to Apulia and Calabria Edit

By 290 BC, the sovereignty of the Samnites had ended. The heel of Italy lay open to the Romans. The dates are somewhat uncertain and there is considerable variation in the sources, but during the Third Samnite War the Romans seem to have extended the road to Venusia, where they placed a colony of 20,000 men. After that they were at Tarentum.

Roman expansion alarmed Tarentum, the leading city of the Greek presence (Magna Graecia) in southern Italy. They hired the mercenary, King Pyrrhus of Epirus, in neighboring Greece to fight the Romans on their behalf. In 280 BC the Romans suffered a defeat at the hands of Pyrrhus at the Battle of Heraclea on the coast west of Tarentum. The battle was costly for both sides, prompting Pyrrhus to remark "One more such victory and I am lost." Making the best of it, the Roman army turned on Greek Rhegium and effected a massacre of Pyrrhian partisans there.

Rather than pursue them, Pyrrhus went straight for Rome along the via Appia and then the Via Latina. He knew that if he continued on the via Appia he could be trapped in the marsh. Wary of such entrapment on the Via Latina also, he withdrew without fighting after encountering opposition at Anagni. Wintering in Campania, he withdrew to Apulia in 279 BC, where, pursued by the Romans, he won a second costly victory at the Battle of Asculum. Withdrawing from Apulia for a Sicilian interlude, he returned to Apulia in 275 BC and started for Campania up the Roman road.

Supplied by that same road, the Romans successfully defended the region against Pyrrhus, crushing his army in a two-day fight at the Battle of Beneventum in 275 BC. The Romans renamed the town from "Maleventum" ("site of bad events") to Beneventum ("site of good events") as a result. Pyrrhus withdrew to Greece, where he died in a street fight in Argos in 272 BC. Tarentum fell to the Romans that same year, who proceeded to consolidate their rule over all of Italy. [9]

The Romans pushed the via Appia to the port of Brundisium in 264 BC. The itinerary from Beneventum was now Venusia, Silvium, Tarentum, Uria and Brundisium. The Roman Republic was the government of Italy, for the time being. Appius Claudius died in 273, but in extending the road a number of times, no one has tried to displace his name upon it.

Rediscovery Edit

The Appian Way's path across today's regions Lazio and Campania has always been well known, while the exact position of the part located in Apulia (the original one, not the extension by Trajan) was unknown, since there were no visible remains of the Appian Way in that region. [10] [11]

In the first half of the 20th century, the professor of ancient Roman topography Giuseppe Lugli managed to discover, with the then innovative technique of photogrammetry, what probably was the route of the Appian Way from Gravina in Puglia (Silvium) up to Taranto. When analysing aerophotogrammetric shots of the area, Lugli noticed a path (Italian: tratturo) named la Tarantina, whose direction was still largely influenced by the centuriation this, according to Lugli, was the path of the Appian Way. This path, as well as the part located in today's Apulia region, was still in use in the Middle Ages. A further piece of evidence for Lugli's proposed path is the presence of a number of archaeological remains in that region, among them the ancient settlement of Jesce. [12] [13]

By studying the distances given in the Antonine Itinerary, Lugli also assigned the Appian Way stations Blera and Sublupatia (which also occurs on the Tabula Peutingeriana) respectively to the areas Murgia Catena and Taverna (between masseria (estate farmhouse) S. Filippo and masseria S. Pietro). However, the toponym Murgia Catena defined too large an area, so that it didn't allow a clear localization of the Appian Way station. Recently Luciano Piepoli, based on the distances given in the Antonine Itinerary and on recent archeological findings, has suggested that Silvium should be Santo Staso, an area very close to Gravina in Puglia, Blera should be masseria Castello, and Sublupatia should be masseria Caione. [14] [15]

Extension by Trajan Edit

The emperor Trajan built the Via Traiana, an extension of the Via Appia from Beneventum, reaching Brundisium via Canusium and Barium rather than via Tarentum. This was commemorated by an arch at Beneventum.

Travellers could cross the Adriatic Sea through the Otranto Strait towards Albania either by landing at present day Durrës through the Via Egnatia or near the ancient town of Apollonia and continue towards present day Rrogozhina in central Albania. [16]

A Brief History Of Via Appia Antica, Rome's Oldest Road

Via Appia Antica, or the Appian Way, is the reason why we hear the phrase ‘all roads lead to Rome‘. This ancient and storied path connected Rome to the port town of Brindisi and enabled movement and trade to flourish throughout the empire. With its large cobblestones now smooth from the course of centuries, Via Appia Antica boasts an intriguing and lengthy history closely tied to the rise of Rome.

The Appian Way is named for Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman politician who implemented this major project in 312 B.C. During his career as a Roman censor, which saw Appius supervising the government’s finances, he implemented a number of crucial undertakings that benefitted Rome from a strategic standpoint in addition to the first major road system, Appius also oversaw the building of the first aqueduct of Rome, the Aqua Appia, that provided drinking water for the city.

The Via Appia was built in an ingenious way, first by leveling the dirt surface and then laying mortar and stones as the foundation. Gravel was subsequently added and large, tightly fitting interlocking stones were placed on top to create a flat surface. Via Appia began at the Roman Forum, the center of Roman daily life, passed along Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla and then extended past the Aurelian Walls into the suburbs of Rome. Today, Appia Antica is considered to begin at the 5th century Porta San Sebastiano, the largest gate of the Aurelian Wall. It was originally known as Porta Appia but was later changed due to the influx of pilgrims who passed through it on their way to visit the Basilica of San Sebastiano and its catacombs.

Once Via Appia extended past the Aurelian Walls, it traveled through what used to be considered the wealthy suburbs of Rome. It stretched over a distance of over 600 kilometers through the Appian Mountains, the Pontine Marshes, the Campania region and then all the way to Brindisi. The road was crucial in helping the Roman army move military supplies throughout the empire, assisting the army in many victories.

A stretch of the Appian Way is preserved in the regional park Parco dell’Appia Antica in Rome, allowing visitors to enjoy scenery, history and cultural monuments while walking along this historic path. Along the way you’ll notice a number of important Christian catacombs, including the Catacombs of San Callisto and the Catacombs of San Sebastiano. Don’t miss the top six landmarks to see along the Appian Way to make the most of your visit to this impressive and legendary road!

The Regina Viarum, among all ancient roads, is the richest in memories and testimonies. Also defined by the Latin authors as insignis nobilis, celeberrima, it soon became in fact the unsurpassed model of the road system that from Rome lead to the furthest regions ofthe world known at that time. The Appian Way was in fact the first arterial of а complex and articulate road system, which is still the base of the modern road network, and instrument of great communication.

The Appian is probably the most visionary among the great ancient enterprises, which shaped the Italian landscape. Planned in order to connect Rome to the ancient Capua, (Saint Maria Capua Vetere) in the midst of the second Sanmite war, had since the beginning a great political meaning. It had to respond, in fact, to the need of Rome to progressively expand its power into the Southern regions and lay the foundation for the Empire.

Chapter X: The Sad and Perpetual Compromise

Have you ever had to watch as one of your favorite places disappeared or changed forever?

Once there was a tiny bar near a bus station in Rome, where an old man made the best cappuccino in the world. He would drop the saucer on the counter at an angle, making it spin for a few seconds, rattling faster and faster as it settled in front of you.

He whipped the steamed milk with a loud, clattering flourish, folded it into your coffee with a wire whisk, and poured out the last bit of foam into spiral shapes that would turn into a heart, a smiling face, or the colosseum.

Any barista could use this kind of showmanship to mask a mediocre coffee, but this guy didn’t need to. The cappuccino itself was even better than the performance. Rich flavors arose from a perfect balance of espresso and milk. There was a subtle sweetness, and the temperature was always just right.

This place was too far from my apartment for a daily visit, but I know the owner had a lot of regulars. The maestro would greet many of his visitors by name, and get into long, interesting conversations.

I loved to sit and listen in as I sipped my cappuccino. And I could do it, too, because this was one of the few bars in the center of Rome that didn’t charge you extra for sitting down.

Today the old man has long since retired, and now his bar is just another random place to get average coffee. I’m telling you about it because maybe you also know a magical place or two like my bar. Cherish these places, because they won’t last forever.

I could write an entire book about old bars, cafes, crafts shops, and art galleries up and down the coast of California, places where friendly people laughed and shared jokes, places that have gone out of business. I’ve danced in crowded rooms to live music that you’ll never hear on any radio station, in buildings that are now banks or corporate headquarters.

This is all a smaller ripple in the trend that is reshaping our planet. In my youth I hiked and played in wild forests. I saw the trees cut down and the ground criss-crossed with roads and construction. This happened in my backyard in Illinois, it happened in the redwoods where I went to college, and it’s happened to many of the best places where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled.

In Minturno I had a favorite place, a place that was vanishing. What’s different is it became a favorite even before I ever got to see it first-hand.

A book called The Appian Way: A Journey contains a photo taken in the early 1970s. The picture is in black and white, but you can see the sparkle of the sunlight. It's easy to imagine the bright colors of flowers basking in the sun. You can practically feel the breeze, and hear the stalks and leaves whipping in a gentle wind. It’s wild. It’s raw.

But a skeletal arch looks like it's ready to fall down. Broken pieces of marble are hiding in the tall weeds. The earth is slowly absorbing the familiar basalt road bed of Via Appia.

This is the site of the ancient Roman city Minturnae.

People lived here. They felt and experienced many things. They loved, labored, suffered, thought, and dreamed. Now all that's left of their life is a stone boneyard in a field of wildflowers, and that won't last.

The photo shows the effects of ecological succession. Bits of grass take root in the cracks. They die, decompose, and turn into soil that can hold deeper roots and nourish slightly larger plants.

The weather goes to work on the rock, releasing minerals into the soil. The birds and the wind carry in the seeds of bigger plants. The plants become a habitat for insects, which become a food source for birds and other animals.

All of this biological activity produces acid and moisture, which slowly wear down the rock and widen the cracks.

The land changes from the ground up. Plants, bugs, birds, and their droppings decompose and form more soil. A forest grows where there was once a city. Every trace of human work is slowly dissolved by the ages.

I’m a big fan of this regeneration. It gives me hope for our future, for the millions of species who share the world with us. But I wanted to see this lonely, man-made city before nature reclaimed it forever.

The Appian Way: A Journey talks a lot about the natural decay of human monuments. The authors, Dora Jane Hamblin and Mary Jane Loeb Grunsfeld, spent years driving and hiking along the Appian way. Their verdict on Minturnae, in the 1970s: “It will not last another decade.”

Their photos of Minturnae charmed me into dreaming up a bike tour down via Appia. I have to see it, I told myself. Even if all that’s left is a half-buried pillar like the skeleton of some giant reptile, I have to see it.

But I may already be more than thirty years too late.

I was in a hurry, but I stopped in Formia for a shot of espresso. First things first.

I went to lean my bike against the wall outside a cafe, where three old men sat around a table playing dominos. The drink in their glasses was definitely not coffee.

“Posso?” I asked permission, before leaning my bike against the wall very close to their game.

“You can leave it here,” one of them joked, “but only if you stay for three more hours.”

“But I have to go sooner,” I told them in the best Italian I could. “I'm looking for the via Appia Antica.”

This caused a flurry of inebriated laughter.

“Ragazzo,” insisted one of the men, “la via Appia Antica e' proprio qui!” and he swept the back of his hand towards the busy street a few yards away. “Via Appia is right here.”

Inside the bar, I bought five tomato and mozzarella tramezzini, triangular sandwiches made of white bread with the crusts cut off. The tomatoes were still green. An Italian had once explained to me that green tomatoes keep longer, and they don't make the bread wet. Best of all, they're crisp as lettuce.

I wanted to sit down, talk to the old men some more, and eat my sandwiches here. Everyone I met in Formia was super friendly, like the town didn’t want me to leave. But I was impatient to keep moving.

This quiet little village offered peace, companionship, and good food. This was the real charm of Italy, the country I had called my home for several years. But I rode right past the towers and churches, and didn’t even notice one of the world’s largest Roman cisterns. I was oblivious to the coastline.

Formia is one of the highlights of Via Appia, but I was in such a hurry to reach Minturno that I barely stopped for a coffee.

That photo of ancient Minturnae, that fear of missing out, that’s why I zipped through Formia and rode hard enough to make my quads burn. I was so close, and I was certain the last glorious marble columns of Minturnae would melt away forever in the next two hours!

By the early afternoon I reached a campground outside Minturno, the modern town near the ancient city. The couple who ran the campground offered me a coffee and asked about my travels.

“This is a very beautiful trip,” the husband said. “But tell me, why are you traveling alone?”

This is a question that always jabs me in the side. It feels like they think I’m not capable of finding like-minded friends and companions. This isn’t totally wrong, but it’s only part of the truth.

Most of the time, I prefer to travel alone. I like to be spontaneous and go wherever I want, eat when I want, and not have to tie myself to someone else’s schedule. When I plan any kind of travel, I usually picture myself being alone most of the time.

And let’s face it, how many people do you know who would be happy to spend their vacation sweating on steep hills, sleeping in a tent on the ground and mostly eating nothing but bread and olives?

There might be something pathological about wanting to travel alone. Am I afraid to share my best and most interesting moments with someone else? Am I really just bad at making friends?

I was anxious to find whatever was left of Minturnae, and I didn’t want to answer the man’s awkward question. His wife could sense this, and as we finished our coffee, she changed the subject and told me we were close to the river that marks the border between Lazio and Campagna.

Italy is divided into 21 regions, in the same way the USA is divided into states. Lazio is one of these regions, from the ancient “Latium,” the land of the Latins with Rome in the center. The region of Campagna, which just means “countryside,” is probably best known for Mount Vesuvius. (To be fair, Campagna is also the home of Naples, one of Italy’s finest cities)

The Garigliano river separates these two regions, Lazio with the Eternal City and a center of civilization, and Campagna the home of nature in all her savage glory.

Over the ages, Italians have built half a dozen bridges across this river. The ancient Roman bridge is now underwater. Today, via Appia runs across a 19 th century bridge that was destroyed in World War II and restored in the 1990s. The bridge is suspended by thick black chains, and guarded by a pair of stone Sphinxes.

Just to the west of this bridge, you'll find what’s left of Minturnae.

Via Appia at the remains of Minturnae

In the early 1980s, the locals decided to do something about the burglars who were carrying off the remaining stones of ancient Minturnae. Today, the site is enclosed in a tall steel fence. Skilled and caring hands have restored and protected the place.

It turns out the writers who brought me here were wrong in their prediction. As I followed the river to the site of Minturnae, marble columns and a large amphitheater saluted me from above the shrubs.

Minturno has seen decades of economic growth, along with a growing interest in preserving ancient historic sites.This has led to improvements, not destruction. The Appian Way runs on through an expanded and restored Minturnae, which is carefully guarded and proudly promoted.

I gladly paid a few Euros towards the cause, and bought a ticket to walk inside among the ruins. Clean basalt and sun-baked travertine gave off their warmth. Insects scurried along the stones of the amphitheater. I walked the old Appian Way where it passed through Minturnae, complete with deep ruts carved by centuries of wagon wheels.

I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t going to escape disappointment so easily.

Here’s the problem. Today we enjoy a level of comfort and convenience that most people couldn’t have imagined a century ago. But as a result, we’ve become too insulated and protected. Many people feel the loss, and miss the randomness of the real world.

I think this explains the popularity of mountain bikes, surfing, and games that force you to use your wits and reflexes.

Bike tours are my way of escaping the comfort zone and entering the unregulated universe where anything can still happen. To enter a beautiful, chaotic place is to experience the real world. The real world is unpredictable and dangerous, but going there is a necessity if you want to feel alive.

Reconstructed Minturnae has been tightly insulated from the real world. Gone are the gorgeous, tragic scenes of the old photo images. Instead, ropes and chains guide you along a pathway through the site. They dictate exactly where you can walk and what you’ll see.

Minturnae would have been gone in a decade without this preservation and restoration, and I’m glad that they saved her. But when I planned this trip, I had pictured muddy treks in search of unfettered ruins. I had imagined seeing ancient walls and arches without the benefit of a guide or a guardrail.

“What, do you want to be Indiana Jones?” an Italian once taunted me when I tried to explain my feelings. I answered “Yes,” without pausing even a second to think about it.

Ancient Minturnae really is gone forever. All we have now is an outdoor museum. I love museums, but I have to report a sad conclusion to Hamblin and Grunsfeld’s story: Their prediction was thankfully wrong, but the second-worse outcome has happened, perhaps inevitably. Minturnae has fallen victim to the sad and perpetual compromise between freedom and security.

After I left the archaeological site, a carabinieri gave me an impromptu tour of the bridge across the Garigliano River.

The Italians give the carabinieri a hard time. They are accused of being the most thick-headed dullards in all of Europe. Any Italian can tell you a dozen jokes about the stupidity of the carabinieri, but most of these officers don’t deserve this maltreatment.

It turned out this man was an expert on local history. He told me the story of the great bridge in front of us, called the Ponte Borbonico, or “Bourbon Bridge.”

The "Bourbon Bridge" over the Garigliano river

It was the first suspension bridge in Italy. About a hundred years after they built it, the government decided the Ponte Borbonico was too old for modern usage. They built another, mightier bridge out of steel and concrete. It was promptly destroyed by a storm, while the proud old Ponte Borbonico stood her ground. People used the old bridge once again, while they waited for the government to repair the modern one.

“Look at the old bridge,” said my impromptu tour guide. “It is far superior! These chains were used on ships that sailed the Bay of Naples. The lions were carved out of volcanic rock from Mt. Vesuvius.”

“It looks like the best way to cross between Lazio and Campagna,” I said.

“It’s the only way to cross it,” said the policeman gravely. “This bridge represents the Imperial might of Roman Latium, combined with the earth and labors of Campagna!”

The man clearly had knowledge and passion, so I decided to ask him about the legendary “Ponte degli Aurunci,” the Aurunci bridge. This was an old, hidden bridge named after a vanished Italian tribe. It was supposed to be a short distance away from here, near a crossroad, covered in vegetation and mystery.

“Ah!” he said. “Non e’ facile.” It’s not easy. “La ponte degli Aurunci e’ tutto nascosto.”

It’s completely hidden. I got excited chills at the thought of an upcoming adventure that would make up for the mild disappointment at Minturno.

It turns out I would have my fill of muddy adventures in the unknown before the week was finished, but not in Minturno. If you, too, wish for ruins in the wilderness, via Appia will not let you down.

This is the 10th Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xi-seeking-the-fourth-way/

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Watch the video: Minturnae: una antigua ciudad romana en la via Appia (January 2022).