This post is a chapter from my new book, Tutto Nascosto: A bike ride down the Appian Way. I'm publishing the book a chapter at a time on this blog, and a Kindle-friendly version will be available later this year. If you're interested in getting the complete book, leave a comment at the end of this post, and I'll make sure you get a copy(only I will be able to see your email, and I'll never share it with anyone else)
“It’s good for the bones,” an old man says in Italian as he fills his bottles from an old fountain. The bubbling water appears carbonated and smells like sulfur.
After filling a number of plastic jugs and packing them into an old and dented Fiat, he gestures to me. “Bevi!” he commands me to drink.
So I do as the Romans do. I follow his lead, fill my bottle, and gulp down a few swallows. It tastes like the mineral-rich sparkling water that shows up at your table in expensive bars and restaurants all over Italy and the world. Drink some when you pass this way. It’s good for your bones.
I began my bike tour on a Sunday, and there’s a good reason to do it this way. Every Sunday the City of Rome shuts down the roads in the historic center of the town. Bikers and pedestrians take over the Via dei Fori Imperiali, street musicians fill the sunny air with music, and vendors’ carts filled with good things to eat rattle across the cobblestones.
Fori Imperiali runs through the forums, connecting the big white monument at Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. This was Mussolini’s parade ground, and it’s a great way to start a bike tour, heading to Rome’s famous icon with the imperial forums on your left and the republic’s forums on the right, dodging tourists and locals enjoying the scene.
Two thousand three hundred and seventeen years ago, most of this wasn’t here. The only highway to the south of Rome was a series of well-trodden dirt paths, and this land was the domain of a complex league of tribes known as the Samnites.
This was the Rome in which a cantankerous Roman named Appius Claudius was elected Censor and ordered to “guard the public morals.”
Claudius used his position to upset the status quo. He appointed the sons of freed slaves to the Senate, a privilege reserved for wealthy landowners. He gave administrative positions to poor and landless citizens, and broke the power of lawyers by making copies of the sacred “Twelve Tables” available to the public.
But the deed for which Appius Claudius will always be remembered is the construction of the road that bears his name.
At the time, it seemed like a good idea. The military and political situation to the south was precarious. Rome had established a loose peace with the local Samnites, but Roman citizens had begun to colonize the land. Perhaps Claudius knew that a permanent, all-weather road was the key to stability.
A road would allow the movement of armies and supplies to support the colonies and subdue the Samnites, if necessary. The added commerce would help both sides prosper, so that war would be less desirable. And the road could eventually be expanded as an artery for control of the entire Italian peninsula.
Appius got his road, ensuring that his name would last for millennia. One thousand six hundred and eighty-eight years later, I stepped on the Appian Way for the first time.
If you’re looking for the via Appia Antica, start out by heading southeast from the Colosseum, past the baths of Caracalla. You’ll go through a busy 6-lane road past a park called “Piazza di Porta Capena.” This was the original start of the Appian Way, and you’ll see a small bit of bricks and concrete—all that remains of the original gate.
When the road branches in three directions, take the middle.
The first ten miles outside of Rome are a laundry list of tourist attractions that I’ve visited too many times and never enough. Everyone from Saint Peter to Mark Anthony to Spartacus passed this way. Jesus himself is said to have left his footprints nearby.
The road here is lined with stone walls, giving you less than 2 feet of shoulder space. Cars rush me head on as they try to pass each other. I will myself, my bike, and my panniers to become pizza crust flat as I dodge cars and buses and even an ambulance wailing its siren.
At the Gate of Saint Sebastian, where the Appian Way officially leaves Rome today, there’s a museum where you can step up onto the top of the wall and patrol the battlements like a defender of old.
But don’t get carried away. This is where things really start to get interesting, and if you want to avoid the baby strollers and dogs, take a short cut through (actually over) the catacombs.
Once you’re in the park, the cars disappear but the road gets rougher. People relax in the grass along either side of via Appia. A group of kids playing soccer all stop to watch me pass, and a bunch of them give me the thumbs up sign.
This is the real Roman road. Huge hexagons of basalt rattle underneath my wheels. This choppy road tapers off into the Alban hills along the horizon. These are the same stones that ancient Romans crossed—I keep getting stuck in the ruts left by their chariot wheels.
Along the first ten miles via Appia treats you to a garish display of tombs and monuments to rich dead people. But somehow, being on the Appia makes you feel alive. Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together, but there’s always an energy you can feel when you’re alone in these places.
In 1998 I stumbled into the park, slowly recovering from a late night wine-filled orgy with Romans, French, and ex-pats from just about every English-speaking country on the map. A warm spring breeze soothed the pounding in my head. As I wandered past old statues and crumbling walls, Roman ghosts promised they would haunt me until I fulfilled a quest.
I’m not an especially big fan of roads. I once got in a lot of trouble for protesting the government’s effort to build a road through a pristine wilderness in Idaho. If I had lived in ancient Rome, would I have tried to block the Appian way? Maybe. Hannibal did it.
The preservation and survival of old things is always a big question. But the remains of ancient Rome remind us what is best and worst in human nature. That’s the whole reason the Renaissance happened.
Two thousand years ago, a crazy wealth of power was concentrated in the hands of a small political body. The result was corruption and excess and horrible misdeeds. But Rome also created opportunities that had never existed before. Some people rose to the challenge and discovered greatness.
When you follow via Appia on your own power, you’ll feel the spark of your own potential for good or bad. The Appian way is one of those very old reminders of what we can do—and it’s a warning of the same.
If you ever come this way, you’ll want to become part of this millennium-long story. Add your voice to it in a personal way. I did. I have my own way of bonding with a place. I caress it from the back of a bicycle. And on that haunting, hung-over springtime walk long ago, I knew that someday I would ride my bike from one end of the Appian way to the other.
It took me seven years to gather up the time, the money, and most of all the confidence to make the trip. But the idea was never far from my mind.
Seven years later, I followed a series of roads out of the park, roughly following the old route through suburbs, farmland, and vineyards. The air smelled like sulfur, and I found an old fountain spewing a bubbly, smelly water. An old man told me this water was good for the bones, so I drank to the skeleton of an ancient road that was going to show me her hidden secrets, and unveil some of my own.