When the ancient Romans built the via Appia and other roads, they marked the way with milestones. The milestones usually showed the distance from the nearest large city, so you could look at one and know, for example, that the Appian Way ran right at this spot, and it was 17 miles to Benevento.
The trouble is, we don't know exactly where each of these milestones stood. Throughout the centuries, collectors and even well-meaning archaeologists moved the milestones and put them in museums, gardens, piazzas and palaces.
That's why nobody really knows with 100% certainty exactly where the via Appia really went. We do have a fairly good idea for most of it. On my own bike trips in southern Italy I try to strike a balance between following the known original route and having a scenic, safe, and interesting bike ride.
But now we know a little more.
Yesterday, a southern Italian newspaper, the Corriere del Mezzogiorno, reported the discovery of a milestone on the ancient via Traiana. Here's a quick history lesson on what this means:
Once you get past Benevento, you're in unknown territory for a lot of the Appian way. This is always the most confusing (and fun!) part of every bike tour, and things weren't much different in ancient Roman times. The via Appia was twisted and difficult after Benevento. It winded over mountains and was sometimes little more than a few cuttings on the rocks.
In 109 AD, the emperor Trajan built an alternate route, the Trajan Way--or via Traiana in Italian. This route starts in Benevento and follows the coast of the Adriatic sea to Brindisi. It's longer in the number of miles, but was easier to follow. I haven't biked the via Traiana yet (please leave a comment if you have!), but I've been to a lot of the towns it passes through. Highly recommended.
Anyway, the via Traiana poses a lot of the same challenges as far as knowing exactly where it went. This latest milestone dug up is a fantastic piece to the puzzle, one of the very few milestones for which we know the exact location and orientation.
You never know what you'll dig up.
If you'd like to bike the Appian way with me next spring, leave a comment below and I'll give you the details, which will be posted soon.