Romans were not wild about living cheek-to-jowl with their Dearly Departed so burials were confined to spaces outside the city walls. Wealthy citizens were able to buy property on which to erect impressive mausoleums but average Joes usually had to make do with whatever scrap of space they could afford in public cemeteries. Jewish and early Christian citizens were particularly challenged as they were usually on the lower end of the economic scale and needed more space for interment of bodies than Romans who normally cremated.
A solution was found in the volcanic substrata - called tuft - surrounding the city, areas of which had been mined for puzzolana that provided the sand used in making cement. Tuft, very soft when first excavated but hardens when exposed to air, made possible the creation of subterranean cemeteries that would accommodate many graves in a limited space, and there are dozens of them along the old Roman roads leading from the city. Most of them fell into disuse and were forgotten after the legalizing of Christianity although a few which had contained tombs of early martyrs continued to be visited as pilgrimage sites into the Middle Ages.
One of several catacombs open to visitors on the Via Appia Antica are those of San Sebastiano. Not the oldest or the largest they are nonetheless unique as the supposed temporary burial place of Sts Peter and Paul and interment location of St. Sebastian. They were constructed in the 3rd century in a former quarry that prompted the first use of the term 'catacomb' (from 'ad catacumbus' or 'in the hollows') that became the generic applied to similar below-ground cemeteries. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had a basilica built over the tunnels - one of ten erected during his reign - and some of the constructional characteristics evident in the surviving walls are said to be identical to those found across the road at his enemy Maximius' palace. It's possible that after the defeat of the co-emperor, Constantine ordered crews off Max's unfinished villa project to work on the church.
Even after catacomb burials went out of style, pilgrims still came to the old church originally known as Basilica Apostolorum to venerate the presumed graves of saints past and present - as they do today. Constantine's basilica was modified in the 13th century and again in the 17th but the four levels of ancient necropolis beneath with thousands of burial niches are little changed except for their missing occupants. Nope, no bones to see, folks.
You may only visit the catacombs with a tour: given by church guides, available in multiple languages, and lasting about 45 minutes. Only a fraction of the 7 miles of tunnels are explored but it's an interesting look at the the layering of history so often present beneath modern-day Rome. Your guide will cover a variety of subjects from early Christian iconography to burial practices of the time. Most interesting to me? Some pre-Christian Roman mausoleums that were originally part of an earlier, above-ground cemetery, and a dining room for memorial banquets: a custom borrowed by both early Christians and pagan Romans from the ancient Greeks. The tours are not recommended for the claustrophobic or persons with mobile disabilities, and a flashlight is really nice to have along for peering down unlit corridors. Photography/video recording is not allowed with the exception of the interior of the church.
Visiting info for the Catacombs (fee):
Visiting info for the church (free):
I mention in my Baths of Caracalla review that well-sandaled Romans had private spas? Here's where you can see one of those. The ruins are roughly across the road from the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella (photo 2) on mile 3 of the Appian and free for a look-see of an excavation in process. This area was the vast dowry property of Annia Regilla; wealthy young wife of Greek-born Senator and tutor Herodes Atticus who was worth a few smackers himself. The name of the site, Capo di Bove - 'Head of the Ox', was a medieval term for this part of the Appian and originated from the frieze of garlands and oxen heads that ring the top of Celilia's enormous drum-like tomb. This was a common decorative theme symbolizing sacrificial beasts whose severed heads were once suspended from the walls of ancient temples.
The baths were built in the 2nd century AD and were for personal household or maybe a small business society's use. They've uncovered the foundations of the walls, parts of impressive mosaic floors, and there is signage (in English!) that provides the history of the site and info on what parts of the complex you're looking at. We were lucky enough to wander in when several archeologists were painstakingly brushing away a millennia or two of dirt from sections of the mosaics: the big one with a motif of scrolling vines and leaves is especially interesting! There is also an old farmhouse on the site that is said to be constructed of the bits and pieces of the original villa but we missed a closeup of that one.
This pile of rubble is a lot more interesting if you know the stories behind it so here we go:
Between the years 306-312 AD, emperor Maxentius built himself a grand complex on the site of a previous villa on the Via Appia just outside of Rome. Following the style of other imperial compounds being constructed during this era, his finished estate would include three structures critical to the visual language of power at that time: a palace, familial tomb and circus. I mention 'other' of these complexes as this was a time when the Republic was ruled by four emperors - a period known as the Tetrarchy - so Maxentius wasn't the only one constructing nice new digs.
A little about this Max: he himself was the son of a retired emperor (Maximian) and one of the three other emperors he split imperial duties with was none other than Constantine the Great who, incidentally, was married to his sister, Fausta. Having this many rulers was a problem as they got into scrapping about turf, titles and whatnot, and Max Sr. (having ditched retirement) got into the act in 310 AD by trying to unseat Constantine while he was conveniently away on campaign. Bad idea: curtains for Papa Max. In 312, Max Jr. took his own run at the co-emperor - and met a sorry end - in the historic battle at Milvian Bridge. Legend has it that Constantine's victory had been assisted by the Christian God, inspiring his conversion to and legitimizing of the faith throughout the empire, and erection of a commemorative arch near the Colosseum. He rid himself of the last of this meddlesome family in 326 by having the allegedly treacherous Fausta poached in a hot bath. Ouch.
Although not much has survived of Maxentius' compound, the circus - second in size only to the Maximus near Palatine Hill - is the most well preserved of any which remain. Seating somewhere around 10,000 spectators, it would have been intended for more exclusive events than its much larger cousin. The site includes ruins of dual starting-gate towers, foundation of the track's center barrier, a triumphal arch, peripheral walls, traces of the emperor's viewing stand - once connected to the palace by an elevated walkway - and portico walls surrounding a circular mausoleum (not open when we were there). Maxentius had relocated a non-Egyptian obelisk attributed to emperor Domitian from a previous location to the center of his track, from whence Bernini retrieved its broken pieces in the mid-1600's to incorporate the thing into his magnificent Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navonna. That piazza just happened to be the site of Domitian's OWN circus in the first century AD.
Historians and archeologists are at odds as to whether the circus or palace were ever used but records indicate a possible inaugural race during Maxentuis' reign, and recovery of certain artifacts point to activity during later periods. The mausoleum is thought to have contained the remains of the emperor's young son, Romulus, who died AD 309 at age 14.
Closed Mondays and major holidays - small admission fee:
After being dazzled by its larger, grander Roman cousins this simple little chapel on the Via Appia is, at first glance, a ho-hum? Stifle the yawns, folks….
Once upon a time the Romans used to erect little temples, called lararia, to painted or carved images of protective gods they called Lares. Common in their houses, they were also placed in businesses, near harbors, neighborhoods and crossroads. This particular junction of the Appia Antica was once sacred to Rediculum, a Roman 'god of return' worshipped by travelers making arduous journeys. The deity is said to have confronted the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal, when his army attempted, unsuccessfully, to invade Rome during the Second Punic War.
Legend has it that in the first century AD, St. Peter fled Rome along this road to escape Nero's persecution and near this spot saw a spectre of the dead Christ heading the opposite direction. Startled, he asked, "Domine, quo vadis? (Lord, wither goest thou?) "I go to Rome to be crucified again." said the apparition. Peter, shamed by his cowardice, turned heel and headed back into city to face his own torment and death.
The church, called Domine Quo Vadis after the tale, was probably built upon both the Roman god's crossroads temple and a successive 9th-century Christian shrine. The current chapel dates from 1637 and contains a replica of footprints believed by the faithful to have been imprinted into a paver by the Christ when he appeared to Peter. The chapel's other name, Santa Maria in Palmis - 'palmis' in Latin meaning palm, in this case palm of the foot - is a nod to this relic. The original stone, now kept in nearby Basilica di San Sebastiano, is white marble; a material never used in the construction of the Via Appia and more likely an offering to the old Lares by a grateful Roman traveler. It may also have been part of a funerary monument - symbolic of completion of the earthly journey - from one of the catacombs along the road.
Entrance is free; visiting info:
We jumped off the train at tiny Torricola and crept cautiously along a narrow shoulder of modern highway to its crossing at another several thousand years older. Here, surrounded by quiet fields several miles outside of the busy center of Rome, we stepped onto one of the greatest achievements in Roman history: a pre-BC avenue so important to the story of the empire that ten of its once 365-mile reach have been preserved as a national park.
Via Appia Antica was the first of many thousand of miles of road to eventually spring from the center of Rome to the remote provinces. These meticulously engineered surfaces of stones and concrete, enabling the great Roman armies to move troops and supplies quickly from one outpost to another, were instrumental to successful conquest and control of the expanding empire. Built on the orders of one Appius Claudius Cieco in 312 BC, the 'Regina Viarum' - 'Queen of Roads' - was a massive project with one goal: to provide the shortest, most direct route possible from point A to B, obstacles be damned. I've read that it has a 39-mile stretch that is still considered the longest straight road in Europe!
Aside from its purpose as a military artery, it was a triumphal way for victorious legions, trade route, and prestigious location for expensive villas, baths, an emperor's private circus and tombs. Burials being forbidden inside the city walls, the busy road provided visibility for elaborate mausoleums, and easy transport of the materials needed to build them. More darkly, it was also the site of public executions and grisly display of the corpses as a fearful warning against rebellion and crime. Most famous are the recorded accounts of the miles and miles of decaying, crucified remains of 6,000 captives of the Spartacan revolt in 71 BC.
These are the scenes we tried to imagine as we made our way into the city past crumbling ruins and overgrown rubble of sculptured monuments. Most of the original basalt pavers were covered over as this is still considered a drivable road (go figure) but a few feet of ancient surface had been left exposed here and there so our feet could pad across cobbles the sandals of Romans trod over 2 millennia ago.
Walking the Appia Antica is free but some of the larger ruins and catacombs you may visit along the way have entry fees. See the park's excellent website for information, and my individual reviews on those we were able to visit:
You can access and explore the park in any number of ways but however you do it, plan on investing some shoe leather. The website lists these options:
By bike rental:
You may also get a ticket for the Archeobus: a hop-on, hop-off option which stops at various points of interest on the Appian:
Our method? Not listed anywhere and not for the faint of heart but it worked for us: a 1.5 euro BIT ATAC Metrebus ticket got us from Termini to Torricola on either the FR8 or FR7 regional train in 9 minutes flat; walking distance to a point on the Appian about 7 miles from its starting point in Rome, and about 3 miles in from the farthest edge of the park. Torricola is the first stop on this line and the only one covered by a BIT. Any farther and you need a Trenitalia ticket. Leaving the station, we walked Via della Stazione di Torricola west to Via Di Torricola, and north about 1/2 mile to Casal Rotondo and Via Appia Antica.
The good part? Starting our walk early in the morning, and farther from versus closer to the city, gave us a few hours of peace and quiet. I'd downloaded very nice maps from the website in advance as we wouldn't be able to pick them up at the park office.
The no-so-good? Via Di Torricola is a narrow, somewhat busy road with almost no shoulder so some large vehicles had us diving into the bushes here and there. I'd do it again, though.
Best time for this walk? You can jump onto the road anytime but some of the more interesting ruins are closed on Mondays, and the park is very busy on weekends - especially on Sundays when they close it to traffic (yep, the Appian is still a functional road). Tuesday - Friday are your best bets.
See this URL for the descriptive walking map:
See this URL for opening hours and fees for the larger ruins:
See this URL for maps noting location of ruins, cafes, bus stops and other good stuff:
via Appia Antica (Ancient Appian Way) is a bit off the city center but if you have an extra day in Rome it’s worth to spend some lazy hours there.
We visited Appia Antica because we wanted to see the Catacombs but the road itself worth a visit. It’s really a picturesque area with fields full of ancient tombs but we really enjoyed walking up and down the ancient road and enjoyed looking old walls and ancient monuments. The area was known as the final resting place of numerous Romans with hundreds of tombs but also huge catacombs for Christians. It was built in 312BC by the roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus and was first used as a military road.
It’s better to visit Appia Antica early in the morning to avoid the heat. By the way, you can also rent a bike at the café near the bus stop and enjoy the area more but it was very cold on early January so we just walked over the basalt rocks, some of them are there since the ancient era!
Some interesting sites you can see here are the Circus of Maxentius(pic 3), the abandoned gothic church of San Nicola(pic 4), the tomb of Cecilia Metella(pic 5), the sepulchre of Priscilla, the tomb of Romulus, and the catacombs of San Callistus and San Sebastian.
Historic significance: La Via Appia Antica is the queen of roads. Gently cobbling its way south-east of Rome, it has over the centuries been witness to significant historic events. It was the road St Peter followed when he fled Rome; it was lined with the bodies of Spartacus' slaves, crucified by a victorious Crassus; and it was the final resting place of many notable and lesser known Romans, as well as the Christian catacombs.
Construction: The Appian Way was paved with huge polygonal basalt rocks, called basoli. The standard widths was 4.15m (14 Roman feet), which was sufficient to allow two carriages going in opposite directions to cross. Archaic portions of the road is still visible today.
Significant sites: Among the 60 historical sites along the Appian Way is the Sepulchre of Geta (erroneously attributed to the son of Severus whose death was ordered by his brother Caracalla); Santa Maria in Palmis (where St Peter is said to have had a vision of Jesus); the sepulchre of Priscilla; the Catacombs of Saint Callistus; the basilica of Saint Sebastian; the Tomb of Romulus (a mausoleum to the Emperor's son buried there in 309 A.D.); the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (wife of Crassus' son Marcus); the Villa of the Quintili; the Circus of Maxentius; and Casal Rotondo (the largest mausoleum on the Appian Way.
Getting there: the easiest way to see the Appian way is via the Archeobus, which is a hop-on, hop-off bus that is easily boarded at Termini or Piazza Venezia.
I found sections of the Appian Way a good way to spend a morning. We did not do its entire length, but only about a mile long section from Via Cecilia Metella to little past the Catacombs of San Callisto. This is approximately the section that travel writer Rick Steves discusses in his Rome book.
We arrived on a bus that embarked us at the intersection of Via Cecilia Metella and Via Appia Antica (Ancient Appian Way). We hightailed it to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano since they would be closing soon. After the catacombs we continued north, getting off of the Appian Way and onto a walkway at Via D. Sette Chiese so as to avoid a section of road with bad traffic and little pedestrian access. We walked a little past San Calisto, enjoying the bucolic scenery and fresh air, and then turned around hitting some additional sights and making our way back to Via Cecilia Metella where we got back on the bus to get back into Rome's city center.
Catacombs - be sure to pay for the tour of either San Sebastiano (closed Sunday) or San Calisto (closed Wednesday). I enjoyed San Sebastiano greatly (further described in another tip).
Villa of Maxentius - we viewed from the road. It didn't seem worth the entry fee.
Tomb of Cecilia Metella - it wasn't open when we were there, but it was pretty nice just to view from the road.
Abandoned Church - near Cecilia Metella is an abandoned church that was nice to walk through.
Flower Nursery - for flower lovers like us it was nice to view the exotic plants.
Road Itself - the history of this road and being on it was part of the thrill.
Countryside - it was nice to be out of the city for a little bit in this beautiful countryside. Sunday's would be nice since the road is closed to traffic and is full of locals on their weekend walk. Also, there is a beautiful view of the mountains to the east if the weather is clear.
Appian Way is the road of early Italy and is the oldest highway of the Roman Republic.. The Roman censor Appius Claudius Caecus built the road in 312 BC. The Appian Way led south to Capua. It was later extended to Brundisium which is now known as Brindisi. It was also the main road to Greece and ran for more than 560 km. Parts of the old Appian Way are still used today.
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