The peculiar nature of Rome is that it hides its history in plain sight. This is not an intentional thing, but rather an accident of that history. Rome – the city, as well as the city state that became Italy – has a history so multi-layered and omni-dimensional, that it naturally and unintentionally hides itself, layer upon layer.
For example, the Largo di Torre Argentina, a relatively non-descript (by Roman standards) square with a sprinkling of ancient ruins is currently a cat sanctuary and a busy thoroughfare. Cars, buses tourists and Romans alike traverse it daily. Previously it has been the site of an opera house, four Roman temples as well as the Theatre of Pompey – this latter incarnation therefore pinpoints it as the site of the assassination of Julius Caesar. A momentous act of tyrannicide, re-enacted on stage and screen through the ages and memorialised so vividly by Shakespeare, is largely obscured by the day to day humdrum of Roman life, in a comparatively unattractive part of the Centro Storico.
So, it should not really be surprising that it takes us some time to find the beginning of the Via Appia antica, the Appian Way. Despite stretching for some 500km, originally from the Circus Maximus to Brundisiumf (Brindisi), the beginning of the road is not particularly obvious, at least when trying to find your way via a tourist map and using the local bus services that takes us on the bounciest, shakiest bus route ever. The Appian Way is now considered to begin, at the Roman end, at the old Aurelian Wall (named for Marcus Aurelius – one of the few, true Philosopher Kings), at the Porta San Sebastiano. Which – when you do finally find it – is thoroughly, completely, forehead-slappingly, obvious. But as I said, these things hide in plain sight.
Rome is an historical palimpsest. Ancient, papal, baroque, fascist, and modern histories all interlock and intertwine, leaving their footprints here. The Appian Way is an absolute example of this, and each of these histories form a stratum in the Via Appia. Even in the extent of the 4 miles that we walk, we pass through and over a history that stretches from before Christ, and comes down to us through war, plague, invasion and everything in between.
Around a slight curve in the road, stands the Church of Domine Quo Vadis, which memorialises the legendary meeting between St Peter – who is fleeing from Rome on the expectation that he is about to be martyred – and the newly risen Jesus Christ. ‘Quo, Vadis? (Where are you going?)’ asks Peter, to which Jesus replies ‘Romam eo iterum crucifigi’ (‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’). Christ’s words encourage Peter to turn back and return to the city where he continues to promote the new religion – and eventually meet his fate as a martyr for the faith. The church reportedly has an impression of Christ’s foot in the floor. It is closed when we pass, so there is no impression of that imprint of the holy foot that I can present.
We pass on another half mile or so to the catacomb of St Callixtus, where many of the early Roman popes and church martyrs were buried (many have now been repatriated to various points within the city itself). These catacombs developed from early Christian burial places, among many catacomb complexes found outside of the city as it was illegal to bury bodies within Rome. The catacombs are a musty, dusty labyrinth of burial sites, not as confronting as the catacombs of Paris with their garish arrangements of bones, but full of relics and identifiable traces of the ancients buried here. Here are – literally – layers of history; when the catacombs began to fill they would just dig deeper to create another level. The cool tunnels are sweet relief from the heat outside, but we eventually return from the dead, to the sunshine and deafening noise of cicadas.
The stones that make up some sections of the Via Appia are large and set quite high above the level of the road surface, making the turning of ankles a real possibility. No macadam this, where stones were worked so that they were small enough to fit into a man’s mouth. We see a woman fall off her bike and hit the large stones hard, as her wheel catches a rut. The road can be arduous, even the small section we walk. The legions march along here before us, on their way to Brundisium to mount their final invasion of Carthage perhaps, walking as if in a trance, tired. Their stench precedes them, and they cut a swathe through the countryside as the need to keep the column supplied sucks in resources from the surrounds. They are followed closely by Allied and Nazi legions, battling their way to a standstill, and a standoff at Anzio in the latter stages of WWII. On side of the road, some of the 6000 who were crucified along the Via Appia after the revolt of Spartacus hang upon their crosses. Not the blessed crucifixion of Christ for these ones, but rather a terrifying and agonising demise under the same sun that beats down upon us. Next to those hordes dying their slow death in the sun are areas secluded and quiet on such a weekday as ours that one could sit and have a picnic; but the Piranesian landscape encroaches, though the views he illustrated along here are probably as fanciful as he could be. And hidden behind their walls as always they will be, the rich country houses of the aristocracy falling into dust as we all always will be.
Along to the residence of the Emperor Maxentius. The Tomb of his son Romulus is one of those wonderful, circular domed buildings that the early Romans did so well. Dust motes and shafts of light, quietness, coolness. This penchant the rich have for memorialising their dead with these outsized tombstones is at once ridiculous and desperately sad. He must have been loved, this Romulus. But that is perhaps part of the illusion also. We can shut our doors to the plight of others, but we also need to express outwardly that we are capable of the boundless human emotions, we must express our love, expansively. The scale they required to express their love is apparent throughout this complex – who has a 10000-seat chariot racing circus in their backyard? Maxentius, apparently.
After a quick gallop around the circuit, we eat at a leafy, shaded restaurant. Our host brings us cool, fresh drinks and fresh, simple food, and talks to us about Roman film history, about Cinecitta – he is passionate, protective and defensive. Exhausted tourists sit restfully, the few walkers we have seen along the route so far seem to all have come here to eat, though the place is only half full. There are not many out today and the road is almost empty for us, which allows us to overlay our own imagery, connections and meaning on this empty road.
At Capo di Bove, we look over the old thermal bath complex, now reduced to a stubble-like foundation. I find it difficult to reconstruct these buildings in my mind the way they might have been. The walls look extremely thick and the rooms excessively small, when viewed in this foundational state. I imagine tiny people, squeezing past each other in hallways too small for them. There is a museum here, with 3 wall friezes made up of aerial photos of the Appian Way across the last century. Arranged chronologically, they are aligned so that it’s very easy to compare this section of the road and surrounding district across time. I am fascinated by this, by how quickly the district has changed, even across a hundred years – imagine how it has changed across two millennia. So is it the same road, or is it like the apocryphal story of the grandfather’s shovel – the handle and the blade have changed so often, it is surely not the same shovel. But when did it become a different shovel? So many lives have passed down the road, down the many miles toward Brundisium and toward oblivion. We forget what has happened in the world, it turns to aught.
I follow a couple down a small pathway as they disappear around a corner. As I come around the corner they have stopped, and start laughing when they see I have followed. I realise she is looking for some privacy so she can go to the toilet. I laugh and wave apologetically. We are at the 5th mile, and such reminders of a very human need tell us it is time to turn back. We go to catch the vibrating bus and jolt our way back to the city.