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Every single person is a temple, carrying a sacred fire within. When you combine your passion with self-discipline, you can wield the power of your sacred fire. 

Every single person is like a temple, carrying a sacred fire within.

Do you have a purpose, something you strongly believe in, something you want with a burning desire?  When you combine your passion with self-discipline, you can wield the power of your sacred fire. 

This sacred fire is one of the secrets of the ancient Mediterranean.

A long time ago, a traveler named Aeneas carried the sacred fire of Vesta, as he crisscrossed the Mediterranean sea, looking for his final destiny. 

Roman coin showing Temple of Vesta
Temple of Vesta on Roman coin

Vesta became one of the most important gods of ancient Rome. Most of the Greek and Roman gods are depicted as people, but Vesta is more obscure.

A few rare statues and engravings show Vesta as a woman, usually veiled and with very little detail. Instead, she’s almost always represented as a fire. 

Fire was often a violent, destructive force, but Vesta was the goddess of hearth and home. She was the benevolent side of fire, the energy that cooks our food, the source of light and warmth. 

Vesta was also described as “the fire of Earth,” or “fire of life.” Vesta was the life force, the energy of life itself. Vesta was a symbol of power, energy, passion--but all of these things contained and controlled. 

Aeneas carried Vesta’s sacred fire relics across the sea, seeking a place for them to take root. She was the fire that fueled his mission and destiny. 

In fact, the whole story of Aeneas begins with fire. The city of Troy was burning. 

You’ve heard the story of the wooden horse. It was the end of the Trojan War, but this was just the beginning of a new story for Aeneas. 

Aeneas escaped from the fallen city, and led his family and a large group of survivors on a journey around the Mediterranean. 

Eventually they made their way to central Italy. Aeneas married the princess of a local tribe, and their descendants were Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

The Roman poet Virgil tells the story in the Aeneid. It’s similar to the Odyssey, covers a lot of the same ground, and takes place at roughly the same time. (It’s surprising that Aeneas and Ulysses never ran into each other. I’m a little disappointed about that.)

All through his journey, Aeneas carried the religious relics of Troy, especially the pieces belonging to Vesta.

There’s an important story in the Aeneid, which is related to Vesta and very relevant to the current state of the world.

At one point, Aeneas and his people were shipwrecked near Carthage, in modern day Tunisia. The travelers were fed and clothed by the generosity of Dido, the queen of Carthage.

Dido was an extraordinary woman, and there’s evidence that she wasn’t merely a mythological character. Carthage prospered for centuries thanks to Dido, and her life was filled with clever and heroic deeds. 

But she was about to meet her doom.

The goddess Venus (or Aphrodite if you prefer) set Dido's heart on fire. She afflicted Dido with an insatiable love for Aeneas. For a while the feelings were reciprocated, but Aeneas eventually sailed off to find Italy. 

When he left, Dido lit her own funeral pyre, stepped into the flames, and stabbed herself. The fire that consumed her body was the beginning of centuries of war.

Carthage would have her revenge. Many generations later, the Carthaginian general Hannibal would invade Italy and bring Rome to her knees for two decades.

Rome would return the favor by conquering Carthage, slaughtering her citizens, demolishing the city down to the last brick, and covering the land with salt so nothing would ever grow there again.

This story shows the violent, destructive side of passion. The internal fire that goes unchecked.

This fire has never stopped burning. The Mediterranean has been torn apart by centuries of violence. 

Religious passion, the sacred flame that should make people love one another and perform deeds of kindness, has exploded into a conflagration. It goes back to biblical times, burns through the Crusades, and continues today in conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, Shi’i and Sunni, Bosnians and Serbs, Greeks and Turks…

I often think about what it would take for us to hold the sacred fire in our hearts again, and turn it away from destruction. 

Justice would be the obvious answer, but we can never seem to agree on what that  means.

Understanding, compassion, and forgiveness are harder to imagine, but they are easier to reach.

I’m writing this on a cold morning in February. My fingers are numb, but there’s a fire burning inside of me. I want to learn and have new adventures and experiences. I want to bring other people together to do the same. 

Travel and learning are two bright lamps than can light a pathway out of the flames.

This is my sacred fire. What is yours?

No matter what adversity you’re facing, no matter what metaphorical Pyrrhus is invading your life, keep on striving to be the best possible version of yourself. Eventually you’ll become so good that you’ll make your biggest worries irrelevant.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

In 282 B.C.E, the Romans had a bad relationship with the Greeks in southern Italy. When Roman warships approached a harbor near Tarentum, it was the last straw. The Greeks invited a king named Pyrrhus to fight for them against Rome.

Pyrrhus loved war. He spent much of his career invading other lands and getting rich off the spoils. Pyrrhus also had a knack for marrying wealth. He had 5 wives during the course of his life, mostly princesses or queens who helped to fill his coffers and finance his wars.

Pyrrhus may have had a sincere desire to help his fellow Greeks. But he also recognized a tremendous opportunity. If he could conquer Rome, he could become the king of the whole Italian peninsula.

Pyrrhus arrived in Italy with a mighty army. Three thousand cavalry. Two thousand archers, plus another 500 warriors armed with slings. Some twenty thousand foot soldiers. Altogether, more than 25,000 highly-trained Greek warriors.

There were hoplites, tough men reared in the hard country life on the rocky slopes of Greece. The best of them could split a tree trunk with a javelin from 100 feet.

There were the Epirotes, fierce and loyal subjects that Pyrrhus hand-picked as his elite personal guard.

But the pride and might of his army consisted of 20 elephants trained for war. Their tusks could sweep away soldiers like blades of grass. Their feet could crush the survivors. The archers on their backs would rain death upon their foes.

Over the course of a few years, Pyrrhus drove back all the Roman armies that came up against him. The other parties in Italy left him alone, or actively helped him. Pyrrhus was already planning how to run his new kingdom, and even expand it into Sicily. Total victory seemed inevitable.

 But he was about to be stopped by a grumpy old man.

In 279 BCE, Pyrrhus sent envoys to Rome, demanding her surrender and offering generous terms. If the Romans had accepted Pyrrhus’s offer, southern Italy might have remained Greek to this day. The Roman Empire as we know it would never have existed. There would have been repercussions for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and ultimately the conquest of America.

For better or worse, you would be living in a different world today.

The Roman leaders could have accepted, and it would have avoided bloodshed in the short term. Has life ever offered you a tempting bargain like this? 

Give up some of your freedom, stifle a little bit of your creativity, compromise your vision and your dreams. In return, things will be comfortable for you, and you can avoid confronting the scary obstacle that’s in your way.

There’s no shame in accepting such an offer. Many people have done it. I’ve done it. But the world becomes a little bit sad every time it happens.

You probably think of Rome as a decadent empire. They invaded three continents and subjugated the inhabitants. They destroyed cultures and enslaved populations. There’s a reason that Rome has been the villain in many stories around the world.

Still, I’m begging you to take the Roman’s side in the story of Pyrhus. Most people had at least some rights and freedoms in the early Roman Republic. You could improve the quality of your life through merit. Even if you were a woman or a slave, and life was brutally unfair, you had some legal protections and the chance to make things better for your children, if not for yourself. 

The Roman Republic wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the dictatorship that Pyrrhus wanted to impose.

This is why Appius Claudius was able to sway the people, and even inspire them. When he said, “Every man is the architect of his fate,” he was telling Pyrrhus’s envoys that Rome intended to remain the architect of hers. This was also his way of reminding the Romans that they were responsible for their own destiny. 

The Romans utterly rejected Pyrrhus’s call for surrender, and a war began.

Things went well for Pyrrhus in the beginning. He defeated one Roman army after another. But there was a cost. He couldn't easily replace his fallen soldiers. In contrast, the Romans could draw upon a large supply of loyal warriors.

After an expensive victory in the battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, Pyrrhus said, “If we defeat the Romans one more time, it will destroy me.” This is said to be the origin of the term, a Pyrrhic victory.

At last, the Romans were becoming the architects of their own fate. Even while they were losing battles against Pyrrhus, they kept on building aqueducts, writing philosophy, growing crops and establishing trade. 

That’s how you overcome your biggest obstacle. You do the best you can with what you have. 

No matter what adversity you’re facing, no matter what metaphorical Pyrrhus is invading your life, keep on striving to be the best possible version of yourself. Eventually you’ll become so good that you’ll make your biggest worries irrelevant. 

That’s when the universe usually throws you a chance to finally overcome an obstacle. This has happened to me twice. Maybe it’s happened to you. I call it a Beneventum Moment, and pretty soon you’ll know why. 

Pyrrhus pounded his way north like an unstoppable juggernaut. If he could keep going long enough to overpower the city of Rome itself, the war would be won. 

If his strength failed before taking Rome, it would be the end not only for Pyrrhus in Italy, but for all the Greeks in Italy and for the Samnites, too. The outcome would determine the future of the Italian peninsula, the history of Europe, and the destiny of people all over much of the world.

The final battle took place somewhere south of Maleventum, the place of the evil wind.

Now, let’s remember that somewhere south of Maleventum, in a dark grove of olive trees, I was looking at a strange, pale light on the path between me and my bicycle. 

“Ciao,” I called out. There was no reply.

 “Buona sera,” I tried again.

Still no answer, but the light bobbed gently up and down. It looked like someone was walking with their phone held out.

“My name is Jacob,” I continued in Italian. “I'm touring Italy on a bicycle and I want to ask your permission to stay here in my tent for one night. Is that ok?”

The light stopped moving, but still nobody replied.

I had a flashlight in my pocket. I turned it on and pointed it at my own face. “You can see me now,” I said in Italian. “I don't want to cause any problems. I'll leave if you want.”

There was no reply, but the mysterious apparition stood its ground.

I waited for half a minute for a voice, for the light to move, for anything to happen. The poor man or woman must have been terrified of me, rooted to the spot. That’s what I told myself, but the truth is, I was feeling scared.

“Do you speak English?” I asked. “Parlez-vous francais?” 

I repeated my greetings and introductions in every language I could remember. This went on until I exhausted my linguistic acumen a few seconds later. All I got was a disturbing silence. The strange light quivered in the distance.

All I wanted now was to leave. I just wanted to get on my bicycle and ride away. I didn't like being lost in a dark forest, with a frightening apparition right there on the path between me and my bicycle.

Finally I said, “OK, I'm going to walk towards you. I just want to pick up my bike. I'll take my bike and go away. I'm sorry if I disturbed you.” I pointed my light towards the ground, and waited a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark again.

I walked slowly down the hill, and I kept the hovering pale light in my sight. It looked like I would have to walk past this person to reach my bike. 

As I got closer to the light, I thought that maybe the person standing between me and my bike was just distracting me while his accomplices waited in ambush along the sides of the path. Murder or abduction, velociraptor style.

My heart beat faster. I tried to remember everything I had ever heard people say about self-defense. In a few seconds I worked out a plan.

When I got close to the person who stood there, I would suddenly raise my flashlight and shine it right in his eyes to blind him for a few seconds. Maybe bash him in the nose with it, so his eyes would water. Then I would run for my bike and get the hell out of there. 

The light was now about five feet away. With a shout, I leaped across this last distance and aimed my flashlight where I thought his head would be.

I tripped over a rock or a stick, jarred my knee and dropped my light. I rolled on the ground, then got back up and limped for the bike. It was laying on the ground where I had left it. I groped clumsily for the handlebars. The weight of the panniers made it hard to raise, and one of the pedals banged my shin.

During these perfectly-executed maneuvers, I was certain somebody would run out of the pine trees and grab me. But they didn’t. I only heard a faint wind. The sound of crickets. A small rodent lurking among the olive trees.

I saw my flashlight light laying on the ground, the beam shining on the grass and shrubs. A small bush waved its branches in the breeze.

As I finally picked up my bike, the mysterious light re-appeared, bobbing gently up and down.

“Okay,” I said. “I guess you’re not going to hurt me. I’m just going to pick up my flashlight and leave now.”

I set down my bike again, and inched my way to the light on the ground. Then I couldn’t resist the temptation. I pointed my beam straight at the glowing bit of light, and I yelled, “Show yourself!” 

I might have done this a little too dramatically.

All I could see was a young tree. I walked closer, and saw a thick caterpillar on the tip of a branch. White bands ran along its back. I took away the light, and the white bands glowed in the dark. 

All this time, I had been talking to a glow-worm on a branch. 

Somewhere south of Maleventum, the Romans made camp and prepared for a final stand. They knew it was only a matter of time before the Greeks and Samnites attacked.

The fight began at night, and lasted most of the next day. Neither side could seem to get the upper hand.

Then, a Roman soldier noticed that the elephants were steering clear of the watchfires. He and his companions grabbed flaming branches and threw them towards an elephant, who reared up and ran back. 

This turned the tide. The Romans drove the elephants back with burning sticks, hot coals, anything they could set on fire. They wrapped their arrows in oil-soaked rags and turned them into flaming missiles. The huge animals ran back and trampled their own masters.

Even after this new development, Pyrrhus still drove the Romans out of their encampment. But it was an expensive victory. The Battle of Maleventum depleted his army and killed more than half his elephants. He packed up and sailed back to Greece.

From the Roman perspective, this battle was a change in the wind. To recognize the fact, they renamed the city of Maleventum to Beneventum, which means “good wind.” 

The city of Benevento was born, and Rome had her Beneventum Moment.

Somewhere south of Beneventum, I laughed out loud as I set up my tent. So many dangers and worries turn out to be nothing. Pyrrhus turned out to be a footnote in Roman history. My biggest fear turned out to be a cute little bug. Whatever troubled me for the rest of this journey, I would just shrug it off.

By the time I was ready for bed, the trees were flashing with lightning bugs. Overhead, a million stars twinkled in answer. Far away on the horizon, bolts of lightning added to the brilliant light show. Before I went to sleep, I saw a meteor scrape a bright line across the sky.

This dark, mysterious place was full of light, rich with omens. As I fell asleep in my tent, the ghosts of cavalry, of bandits, of poets and pilgrims marched through time only a dozen meters away.

This is the 15th 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:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

The exact place is one of the unsolved mysteries of via Appia. Nobody knows the precise location of the Battle of the Caudine Forks. But it was somewhere on the way to Benevento from Capua.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

Somewhere very near this area passing beneath the tires of my bike, a Samnite leader turned an impressive victory into tragic loss.

The exact place is one of the unsolved mysteries of via Appia. Nobody knows the precise location of the Battle of the Caudine Forks. But it was somewhere on the way to Benevento from Capua.

I had a battle of my own to deal with. It took a long time to get through rush hour traffic and put Caserta behind me. There weren’t any bike paths, and often there was no shoulder. At one point I got stuck in an underpass, and there was no room to get out of the way of the cars and trucks blaring their horns.

Eventually I made it through the heavy traffic, and reached the charming little town of Maddaloni.

Did I say “little?”

“No,” a man in the bar set the record straight, as I sipped a cappuccino and enjoyed a cornetto spread thick with Nutella. “Maddaloni is bigger than Caserta!” 

The barista wore a bow tie and jacket with faded jeans and polished brown shoes. He told me his city’s history as he made coffee for a throng of customers. It seems that Maddaloni had encountered every race or civilization that ever existed.

“The Greeks were here. The Arabs were here,” he ticked off a list of conquerors. “The Bourbons. The Lombards. The Normans. Every great civilization came to Maddaloni.”

“The Chinese?” I asked.

“Si!” he insisted gravely. “The Chinese are here right now, today. We have two Chinese restaurants! Every civilization gave something to Maddaloni. We have paintings. We have sculptures. We have bigger cathedrals than Caserta!”

He seemed to have a special contempt reserved just for Caserta. He nodded sympathetically when I told him about my battle with the traffic.

“In Caserta they have commerce,” he said, “but in Maddaloni we have culture.” He gestured towards a wide screen in the back of the bar. “I play music and movies here at night.”

While I finished my cappuccino he turned on the screen and showed videos of musicians playing Miles Davis and other hits.

“In Maddaloni, we listen to good music,” he said. “In Caserta, they listen to trucks all day. Baah! Baah!” he imitated the sound of honking horns. 

As I finished my cappuccino he asked me, “Do you like Italian coffee?”


“In America you drink coffee in big cups, big like my hand! In Italy we prefer espresso in these little cups.” He held an imaginary cup between his thumb and finger.  “Our coffee is small.”

“But it is bigger than Caserta,” I suggested.

This made him laugh so hard, he wouldn’t let me pay for my cornetto.

As I left  Maddaloni, both sides of the road were crowded with industrial warehouses and chain-link fences. Bulldozers and heavy farm machinery rested on concrete pads. It was a disappointment after the natural beauty of the last few days.

But eventually the road headed upward into the forest and mountains, towards the area most scholars agree upon as the general location of the Caudine Forks.

In 312 BCE, the same year construction began on the Appian Way, the Samnites managed to trap a huge Roman army in a narrow ravine. They barricaded the exit with fallen trees, and manned the ridges with warriors.

The Romans couldn't fight from here. There was no cover. The Samnites could rain arrows, rocks, and javelins on them, and the Romans would have to climb steep slopes and cliffs under this fire in order to fight back or get out.

There was a long deliberation over what to do with the trapped Romans. The leader of the Samnite army, Gaius Pontius, sent a messenger to his father to ask advice. His father, Herennius, suggested he release the Romans unconditionally. He said to let them keep their lives, their arms and their dignity.

“What, are you crazy?”

Pontius sent a reply that he could not possibly throw away this golden opportunity. Herennius then advised Pontius to kill every single Roman soldier.

Meanwhile, the Romans were growing hungry, tired, and eager to have their fate resolved. Pontius didn't understand his father's contradictory advice, so he asked Herennius to come in person and explain what he meant.

Herennius told his son that if the Romans were released, this would be a noble and generous gesture. The Romans might cease hostilities, and the Samnites could enjoy years of peace. 

On the other hand, if he massacred the large Roman army, he would cripple Rome’s military for years. It might take a generation to recruit and train enough soldiers to replace the losses and launch another assault on Samnite territory.

Pontius wanted to find a middle course. His father warned him that anything other than the two extreme solutions would have dire consequences. 

Pontius should have listened to his father. Instead, he sealed the fate of his people forever.

The two parties negotiated a truce. Pontius released the Romans, but he couldn’t resist humiliating them first. He stripped them of their arms and possessions, and made them pass beneath a yoke on their way out of the valley.

The yoke is an insult that's hard to understand in modern times. It was a device to link animals to a plow or a cart. By forcing the Romans to pass under a yoke, he was essentially forcing them to behave like cattle. He was degrading them and asserting his dominance over them.

Psychologically, it was the same as sodomizing the entire army.

It must have been a wonderful sight for the enemies of Rome. Just beyond the edge of their territory, the might of the growing Republic was helpless and her soldiers were forced to grovel like animals. But it ended badly for the Samnites.

Depending on the sources you read, a truce may have lasted as long as five years. But the Romans made their way back to safe territory with zero casualties and dreams of revenge.  When war broke out against the Samnites again, the Romans fought with the ferocity of a bitter grudge. 

Pontius had managed to enrage the Romans without causing them any harm. Without any casualties on either side, he had won a battle but lost the war. Rome would be ruthless in her dealings with the Samnites as long as the Romans remembered the humiliation of the Caudine Forks. 

There’s no consensus on the location of the Caudine Forks. Your guess is as good as anybody’s, and this adds to the fun of trying to find the place. 

I rode steadily up through a steep, hilly country. The road moved in wide, slow curves like the maneuvers of armies.

The SS7 does pass through a narrow valley where a town is called “Forchia.” This could be interpreted as “Fork,” and can also mean a yoke. But there are other narrow valleys nearby. I passed one of the possible sites, a shadowy ravine that leered out of the earth beneath a cloud-darkened sky. Thick forest surrounded the road, and the wind smelled like anise.

There was a strong, unmistakable feeling of defiance and resistance in this place, as if the land itself rejected foreigners and invaders. Everything seemed cold and grey as old asphalt. The sky was the same color as the road beneath me. The tree trunks, road, and sky all looked like dead, stale marble.

I felt an overwhelming sense of being unwelcome here, an unusual feeling almost anywhere in Italy. I stopped at a bar to shake the bad mood with a coffee, but the owner and patrons grew noticeably bitter when I told them I was American. As I left, someone muttered, “Imperialiste,” loud enough to be certain I could hear it. 

I couldn’t find the Caudine Forks. There should have been a deep ravine, some place where an army could be trapped. My own mind seemed to be caught in a narrow channel, following the route which might not even be the right way, dumbly marching like a centurion into my doom.

The oppressive atmosphere lifted as I got closer to Benevento. The sun returned to the sky as I crossed the Ponte Leproso, the bridge over the Sabato River. This is where the Via Appia entered the city of Beneventum, which we'll get to in a minute.

The well-placed stones of the bridge reminded me of the Ponte degli Aurunci. But I looked over the edge and saw part of a decaying couch, two shopping carts, and piles of plastic trash bags in the river. This bridge has seen better days, as most of the Italian websites will remind you.

Benevento was originally called Maloentum in the Oscan language spoken by the Samnites and the Aurunci. It means the place where the flocks return. But when the Romans arrived, the name Maloentum was corrupted into Maleventum, which means “bad wind” or “bad event.” Later that would change.

Here, the Romans put a final stop to Pyrrhus and became the architects of their own fate. Not long afterwards, the Romans themselves would be the invaders of many lands. 

Benevento was a crossroads, both historically and literally. It was about to become an important turning point for me, as well.

This is the 13th 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:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

"If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person," he went on, "can you imagine the world? We would solve all our problems!"

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

In 73 BCE, gladiators in Capua broke free and started a slave revolt. 

They were led by a man named Spartacus, a name that everyone knows today. As his rebels fought their way across Italy, thousands of slaves joined their ranks. They defeated four Roman armies in battle, and outwitted the Romans for two years.

In the end, the rebels became the victims of their greed. They had the chance to escape over the alps and enjoy freedom for the rest of their lives. Instead, they marched south in search of loot. A coordinated effort by two Roman generals led to their capture, and their fate has a gruesome connection with my journey.

As a warning to others, the Romans crucified the Spartacus rebels along via Appia. 

The real Capua, where gladiators were trained to fight, is the modern town of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, a few miles away from modern Capua. This was where I was ultimately headed. But I had an important reason to stop in Capua first.

Sometime during my quest for the Ponte degli Aurunci, I broke a spoke on my rear wheel. Now I crossed a bridge with strong, solid arches like immovable soldiers, and wobbled into town, looking for a bike mechanic. 

The bike shop was literally a hole in the wall, a 10-by-20-foot space excavated into the side of a hill. A man who introduced himself as Zio Mario had my wheel off and the tire removed before I thought to ask how much it would cost.

There were no windows in the shop, but Mario did most of his work right out on the street. It seemed like he was constantly rolling cigarettes. He would work with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, sometimes lit but often not, while he chatted with people who passed by.

“This guy is from California,” he bragged to a lot of these folks. “And he rode his bike all the way here from Rome.” 

These distractions didn’t stop Mario from doing a great job on my bike. He carefully inspected my wheel when he was done, and took the time to carefully adjust the spokes until the wheel was true. He put a new lining around the inside of the rim, and when he replaced the tire he lined up the label over the valve stem. He checked the pressure with a gauge that was designed for bicycles and not cars, and he wiped down the entire bike with a clean rag.

When he was done, I took out my wallet and I thought I heard him say “Venticinque.” 25 euros. Not cheap, but I didn’t have much choice. I should have expected some price gouging. 

But when I handed him the money he asked, “Wait. How much did you hear me say it would cost?”

He had actually said, “Viene cinque.” It comes to 5 euro. I was amazed. He was charging about seven bucks for a first-rate professional job, parts and labor included. He wouldn’t even let me tip him.

“We are not in Rome,” he said as he handed most of my money back to me.

I have no words to tell you how much I love Rome. A week-long vacation in Rome turned into a 3-year stay, and I never stop thinking or talking about it. 

But whenever I’m there, I watch my back. There are people in Rome who will try to rip you off, usually in petty ways, especially if you’re a foreigner. The people in smaller towns are more trusting and also much more trustworthy.

I suspect this is true in every country. Cities offer great opportunities for work, a social life, and to pursue almost any ambition. I moved to Los Angeles for all of the above reasons. Many gifts of society are only possible when you have a large concentration of people in one place. But what have we lost in exchange?

Both the old and new Capua are on the edge of Caserta, a major transportation hub. The area surrounding these cities is heavy with traffic. As I reached Santa Maria in Capua Vetere, the traffic got worse.

The amphitheater and other Roman ruins are worth seeing if you’re ever near Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. But overall this is possibly the most difficult, dangerous, and unattractive part of the Via Appia bike route.

With nowhere to camp, I checked into a cheap hotel. My room had a concrete floor with a gritty, non-stick paint that reminded me of a swimming pool. After a shower I was anxious to get out of my room and into town.

I grabbed some pizza al taglio and gelato, but there wasn't much to see. A few hours after sundown, every place in the city seemed to be closed. I felt like the only person on the street. I missed Mario and his friendly stream of patrons.

My phone buzzed with a call from my dad. As we spoke for a while, he asked “What’s bugging you? You don’t sound as happy as you should be.” 

Before I left on my bike tour, I spent several days in Rome preparing for the trip. I also had a long list of Italian friends, former neighbors, students and acquaintances whom I would have loved to see. I could have called or visited at least a few people. What stopped me? 

Did I really want to get going on my road trip, more than I wanted to see all those people? How many of them would have wanted to see me? 

It’s the unavoidable irony of traveling alone. It’s easier to meet and talk to people on a solo tour, because you don’t have anyone else to talk to. You’ll almost always come back with stories of interesting people, local experts, and fellow travelers. 

But even when you’re enjoying the solitude and the freedom it brings, your enjoyment will be tempered by the feeling that maybe you should be spending this time with your family and friends. I always carry a small weight of guilt with me on these trips.

My dad was encouraging. Before we hung up he said, “It's better to be lonely by yourself than to be lonely with other people.”

After the call, I noticed the smell of fresh-baked bread. It was out of loneliness, more than hunger, that I walked into what seemed like the only open pasticceria in all of Santa Maria in Capua Vetere. 

The light was on, and the door was propped open. There were pastries in a glass display case, and behind the counter a scrawny man with greying hair was sliding a sheet of confections into a huge oven.

I greeted the baker with a smile and the usual “Buona sera.”

“It’s okay, I speak English,” he answered. He had an accent that didn’t sound Italian. He also sounded tired and annoyed.

“What part of America are you from?” he asked, as he handed me a warm cornetto.

“How did you know I’m American?”

“You’re wearing shorts. You have an American accent. The way you walked in here screams ‘American.’ I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. There are a million things I can see in you.”

He spoke slowly and intensely, and he warmed up a little bit when he found out I was following via Appia on a bicycle. I learned he was Greek, but he married an American woman and sold real estate in Sherman Oaks, California, for several years. It didn’t make him happy.

“Now I stay up all night and sell cornetti to Italian kids. But I found the secret of life. Do you want me to tell you?”

How could I say no?

“Listen,” he said slowly, even more slowly than he had been speaking already. “All my life I was a salesman. I know how to read people. I know what they want before they do, and that’s how I can sell to them. I know you are searching for something. I seen a million people like you, from every country in the world.”

He paused dramatically. He put his fingertips on his temples, looked down at the floor, and took a deep breath. I half expected him to start singing “The Gambler,” but he didn’t.

“The secret of life is to learn as much as you can. Find something important to you and get very good at it.” He kept looking down as he said this, his elbows propped on the counter and his head in his hands.

I waited for more. I could hear a car driving past in the street outside. Finally he looked up at me. 

“You have to learn and experience as much as you can. Keep traveling. Keep reading. And find one thing to be very good at.”

“Yes,” I said. “I agree with you. It’s what I’m trying to do.”

“So am I,” he said. “But I am a Kassandra. Do you know about Kassandra, from Troy?”

I nodded. Kassandra was a woman who had been cursed by the Greek god Apollo. She was given the power to predict the future and see the truth, but nobody would ever believe her.

“People don’t want to know the truth,” he went on. “If everybody tried to be the greatest possible person, can you imagine the world? If everybody tried to learn and be great at something. Everybody! We would solve all of our problems. We would cure the cancer. Everybody would be happy if they tried to learn more and do better.”

He said all of this quietly and slowly, and he sounded terribly sad. 

I munched on my pastry as he stared at the counter without blinking. Finally I broke the silence by saying the dumbest thing possible: “Most people would rather just watch a football game and eat their cornetti.”

He put his head down on the counter, like he was going to fall asleep.

“Go away,” he said wearily. “You know everything. Now go away.”

This wise old baker who knew the secret of life didn’t seem especially happy or fulfilled. I fled his lair, walking quickly past a row of glass windows. The mannequins were dressed in the latest Italian fashions. In Italy, the female mannequins have erect nipples pointing through their clothes. I’ve always found this amusing and a little bit weird.

Lamps lit up the street. I saw another person walking alone in the distance.

It was too dark to really see any details about the other person. I was clearly getting sleepy, because when the walker turned and looked at me it looked like he was dressed in a toga. I imagined I was looking at Cicero.

Cicero regarded friendship as one of the highests, greatest blessings any human being could ever enjoy. What would he say about me? Here I was, free to travel the world, but Cicero would have pitied me. He would have only seen a friendless vagabond in a silent town.

I thought about what Pyrrhus might say. “Setting off on your own, seeking adventure and conquest and achievement--that’s the way to really live!” I used to agree with Pyrrhus.

Old Appius Claudius would probably also agree with his enemy Pyrrhus on this point. Appius Claudius never seemed concerned about other people unless they were useful to him. 

Nobody’s going to name a road after me, but most of my goals have centered around achievement, mainly achieving things that make it possible to have more experiences like the journey I was on now. I was becoming a petty caricature of Appius or Pyrrhus. 

Years ago, I stumbled on via Appia and lusted after the chance to follow it all the way. I thought it would give me bragging rights. I thought it would be fun and glorious all the time. Maybe someday I could write a book about it. 

 But most of the time I’m so fucking full of myself that I miss the best part of the journey.

This is the 12th 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:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

In 43 BCE, all the roads and wildlands in this area were alive with soldiers. The troops were hunting for several people officially listed as The Enemies of Rome. At the top of the list was a man named Marcus Tullius Cicero.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

I don’t want to gloss over Italy’s problems, but on this bike tour I tried my best not to notice. 

Way too much of modern Italy has been overrun with ugly, grey, boxy buildings. In fabled cities such as Rome, Florence, and Milan, graffiti covers the walls and trash covers the ground. Italy has the same modern problems of  crowding, urban sprawl, and pollution as any country, anywhere in the world.

But I came here specifically looking for the surviving crumbs of Italy’s historic beauty and greatness. I could enjoy all the pollution I wanted back in Los Angeles. I set off with the hope that via Appia would still guard some last shreds of Rome’s celebrated past. 

It’s easy not to notice Italy’s problems when you’re zooming downhill to Formia in the springtime.

May is the best month to ride a bike through the Italian countryside, and the meandering mountain route between Terracina and Formia is one of the most beautiful and scenic sections of the Via Appia. Tall, thick grasses waved at me as I passed. Bright-colored flowers flashed and shimmered in the morning sun. 

When I thought it couldn’t get any better, a thick, broken pillar of stone made me squeeze my brakes and stop to look. It rested on a wide, low pedestal in the brush next to the road.

It was a milestone. 

The Romans set up these ancient markers to show travelers how far they were from the city. If a stone had the number IX engraved upon it, you knew you were nine miles from the center of Rome. If the milestone had the name of another city, you were nine miles from the city named.

Today, we don't know exactly where most milestones originally stood. Over the centuries, collectors have sequestered them in private gardens, homes, and museums. Road builders in the Middle Ages recycled old milestones to mark the distances on newer roads. Farmers and other practical people sometimes moved these stones just to get them out of the way.

Today you can still see a few odd milestones on Via Appia. But if a stone says “Mile 35,” for example, that doesn’t tell you anything significant. Once upon a time, the stone was 35 miles from somewhere. But in which direction? The best we can do is compare the materials in the milestone to the quarries in different locations. 

Augustus built a great Milliarium Aureum, or Golden Mile, which once sat in the Roman Forum. It was said to be a milestone made of bronze or gold, inscribed with the names of all the cities in the empire. Now it’s lost, along with any record of its exact location.

This road sign was probably in or near the Temple of Saturn, in what was supposed to be the navel of the world. This was the center from which all the other milestones marked their distances. But nobody knows what happened to this Golden Mile.

Today there is a “First Mile,” a stone pillar that marks the zero point of all roads leading to Rome. It's on the Capitoline Hill, a few hundred feet above the Temple of Saturn. Nearby, we’ve found fragments of marble with inscriptions that could be part of the Milliarium Aureum. But so far, no bronze or gold.

The Byzantines had a similar zero point, the Milion, which can be verified. In modern Istanbul, you can still see a fragment of this stone near Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Remains of the Milion, Istanbul's Mile Zero

None of this information did me any good as I stared at a milestone on the side of the road outside Itri. Tall, thick grasses and purple flowers grew all around it. The green brush chattered in the wind, but wouldn't tell me anything about this milestone. I got back on my bike and rode on.

The milestone is an impressive site, but if you ever travel this way, you’ll see a more sinister relic from the past. Somewhere along this part of the Via Appia, a state-sanctioned murder took place.

In 43 BCE, all the roads and wildlands in this area were alive with soldiers. The troops were hunting for several people officially listed as The Enemies of Rome. At the top of the list was a man named Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Somewhere on the via Appia, between Itri and Formia, Cicero took refuge in a villa. When soldiers asked around, peasants and servants denied seeing him. But the hunters knew he was hiding somewhere very near.

My understanding of Roman history isn’t perfect, but let’s use Star Wars as an analogy. 

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a Republic where the rulers were the servants and representatives of the people. It wasn't perfect, but almost everyone cooperated with a commitment to fairness and justice.

Then came the Dark Times. The Sith appeared, Palpatine took over the Senate, and the Republic became an Empire. 

The Emperor ruled with an iron hand, subjugating more worlds every day. Soon the old Republic was just a dream kept alive by a few Jedi and other rebels scattered across the galaxy. That's Star Wars. 

What does this have to do with Cicero, and with ancient Rome? 

Long ago, in a galaxy where I was now coasting downhill on my bike, a similar story unfolded. There was a Republic, and if there were no Jedi, the people at least had senators, consuls, and censors to guard truth and justice. It wasn’t perfect, but it was arguably much better than what came later.

In a shift that was similar to Star Wars, the Republic became an Empire. The process was slower and more complicated, but when you think of Darth Vader the warrior and Palpatine the statesman, you will see analogies in people like Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus.

Caesar and Augustus were not categorically evil, certainly not like the bad guys in Star Wars. But the outcome was almost the same. George Lucas knew his history.

Far north in modern-day France and Germany, Julius Caesar had a string of military victories. He gained wealth, recognition, and a loyal army. Meanwhile, he manipulated the Senate to increase his political power. 

Caesar was ambitious, but he was not entirely evil. He won the love of the Roman people through generosity, showmanship, and often by doing what was right. 

He also made political enemies who wanted his head. 

There was only one thing to do: Caesar led his army across the river Rubicon, which was the border of the Roman republic. This violated the law against bringing an army into Roman territory, and the punishment was death. 

By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar took an all-or-nothing gamble. Either he would gain absolute power and change history, or he would die shamefully. This move triggered a civil war, but there was relatively little fighting. Almost nobody resisted him. Caesar marched triumphantly into Rome, where he secured his power for life.

Soon after, the Roman Republic only existed in appearance. Caesar was the absolute ruler in all but name. After his assassination, there were a few unsteady years, but then Augustus stepped in to consolidate the coup that Caesar had started. 

Under Augustus, Rome was technically still a republic, but everyone knew that the word of Octavian Augustus was law. From then on, Rome would be an Empire ruled by an Emperor.

During these stormy times, an eloquent voice spoke out for democracy and reason. Marcus Tullius Cicero was popular among the educated classes. His writing skill turned the rigid Latin language into poetry. He has been called the Shakespeare of  Latin, and his words have become the model for students and scholars for centuries.

Cicero spoke out against Caesar and his tyranny. It's worth noting that Caesar admired Cicero, and spared his life when he could have easily ordered his death.

But in 43 BC., Caesar was dead, and three men took power: Octavian Augustus, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. One of their first acts was to make a list of their enemies, The Enemies of Rome. At the top of the list, Cicero became Rome's Most Wanted. 

They hunted him more aggressively than anyone else on the list, perhaps because he was the hardest person to catch. Thousands of Romans refused to cooperate with the search. 

Somewhere outside Formia, along the Appian way, Cicero was caught while trying to flee a villa. He was probably making for the port at Formia, where he could catch a ship and escape the Italian peninsula. In another version of the story, he had already been aboard a ship, but bad weather had made an escape impossible, and he had asked the sailors to put him back on the land.

Either way, Cicero knew the game was up. He didn’t want to endanger the servants who tried to protect him. He ordered them back and calmly offered himself to a centurion. 

“There is nothing proper about what you do,” he told the soldier, “but please try to do it properly.”

When the deed was done, the centurion cut off Cicero's head and both of his hands. These grisly trophies were displayed on the rostrum in the Roman Forum. Cicero's tongue, which had spoken eloquently against injustice, was pierced with spikes. The hands, which had written about freedom, were nailed down next to his head.

They say Cicero was the Shakespeare of Latin. But unlike Shakespeare, Cicero was more than just an entertainer. He translated the works of ancient Greek philosophers into Latin, and added his own thoughts and commentary. He felt that philosophy was one of the highest human callings, and his most important work.

Cicero's writings on law, politics, and philosophy were an inspiration for Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Some scholars even say that the Renaissance was, above all, a broad rediscovery of the work and thought of Cicero.

Cicero’s influence outlived his killers. But we live in a concrete world where most people disregard philosophy and poetry. We need something solid we can put our hands on. This is why a small tower outside Formia is called the Tomb of Cicero.

Almost nobody really believes Cicero was buried here. But the location is close. It's likely that he at least set foot somewhere near this area. It’s possible that Cicero’s blood stained the ground beneath my bicycle tires.

I’m giving you all this history because this little route between Itri and Formia is my favorite part of the Appian Way.  

But as I got closer to Formia, even as I stood at the so-called Tomb of Cicero, I was starting to feel anxious. I didn’t give the town of Formia as much time as it deserved. I let my fear get the better of me.

I’ve always had the fear of missing out on something. In this case, it was a very specific fear concerning something I might see a bit farther down the road, in Minturno. I had been warned about this years ago, in a book written decades ago. 

I got back on my bike and hurried on. 

This is the 9th 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 link to the next chapter:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

If you went back 1,000 years, the State Route SS7 between Rome and Terracina would probably look almost the same as today. 

It was the morning of my second day out, and I was pedaling through a thick fog. Shining yellow globes rushed towards me, then turned into the headlights of ubiquitous Fiats, as hundreds of commuters drove to their jobs in Rome.

Instead of tombs, I passed umbrella pines and brush, with an occasional old marble column or relic. The bushes sometimes opened onto farmland and pastures. In true Roman fashion, the road pressed on in a perfectly straight line. 

It looked like somebody just poured a layer of asphalt over the ancient Via Appia, and let the cars in.  

The straightness of the road is an example of the stubborn spirit of ancient Rome. On the way to Terracina, Via Appia crosses a swampy region called the Pontine Marsh. The Romans could have built their road around the swamp. Nearby, the newer via Latina avoids the worst of the swamp by hugging the hills near the coast.

But the ancient Romans insisted their road would run in a straight line. They refused to budge even a single degree off course. And they were Romans, after all.

First, they diverted the water into canals. This had the side benefit of opening acres of fertile soil for cultivation.

Next, they drove wooden piles into the soft, muddy earth. Once they had this wooden base, they built the road right over it.

We know that in Julius Caesar's time, a canal ran alongside this section of the Via Appia. In addition to draining the water, the canal could also support a boat. Mules would walk along the Appian Way, pulling the boats by ropes. 

This was like replacing an 18-wheel semi-truck with a motorcycle. Instead of crowding the road with carts and wagons, large volumes of cargo could be hauled through the canals on barges, while the mules took up just a small amount of space on the road itself. The canals multiplied the capacity of Via Appia.

This swampy section of the road required a lot of maintenance, and that problem hasn't gone away. In the 20th century, the Italian government had to create new public works to drain the marshes and support the road. The city of Latina was founded by Mussolini for water reclamation, and today the work goes on. You'll see endless drainage ditches, feeding the farms while keeping the way clear.

I pressed on through a misty tunnel of pine trees, past these water-filled ditches, until the fog melted away.

As the sun conquered the mist, dewdrops sparkled on the leaves, grass, and flowers. I was finally out of the modern metropolis of Rome, and the countryside was showing her colors. A happy German shepherd jogged after me on the opposite side of a canal. I passed a herd of water buffalo, the fabled animal whose milk is used for true mozzarella cheese.

The source of authentic mozzarella di bufalo

There were no longer any tombs here, but every now and then I would ride past a cross planted in the dirt. These crosses usually had flowers piled at their base, and sometimes a votive candle. These monuments mark the sites where people have died in traffic accidents along the road. 

A truck roared past me, honking wildly, and I wondered whether someone would plant a cross for me in the near future. There was no shoulder here where I could retreat from a speeding motor vehicle. My only hope would be to squeeze between the umbrella pines that grew along the road.

I don't know who planted these trees, or when. But much of the Appian Way is lined with Rome’s iconic umbrella pines. These trees are almost definitive of via Appia.

From Rome to Terracina, I was nearly always under their shadow, and the shade may have been created to protect travelers from the Mediterranean sun. If you look down from the Temple of Jupiter Anxur in Terracina, the pines form a dark green line that stretches for miles across the Pontine Marsh. Later, in some of the nearly treeless plains of Basilicata and Puglia, I would still see an occasional umbrella pine, assuring me that I was going the right way.

Far ahead, a temple crouched at the top of a rocky hill. A dozen arches fit into a broad, boxy rectangle. This was the Temple of Jupiter Anxur, built in the 1st century CE. The Via Appia once led to this peak, but in Imperial times the Romans cut through the rock down by the sea. This made the journey at least half a day shorter, and we'll get back to that.

Jupiter, as you probably know, is the Roman version of Zeus, the philandering deity of thunder and lightning, always seducing mortal women. The name Anxur tells a better story. 

Anxur is the name for Terracina in the language of the Volsci, an ancient tribe of central Italy. But it's also the name of Jupiter when he was a child, and this has some important implications.

Jupiter's father was the titan Chronos, Time itself, who devoured his own children. When the goddess Rhea gave birth to Jupiter, she tried to save him from becoming her husband’s next meal. Rhea wrapped a stone in a blanket and gave this to Chronos to eat instead. The ruse worked, and Rhea was able to hide Anxur until he grew up and became Jupiter.

As an adult, Jupiter led the other gods in a successful revolt against Chronos and the titans. Jupiter became the supreme ruler of the gods. But in the temple of Anxur, the name implies he was worshipped in his child form. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

The Temple of Anxur was built about 100 years after the birth of Christ, at a time when Christianity was gaining traction, but the persecutions were far from over. The worship of a divine child in Anxur may have been a subtle, deliberate nod to the new religion: The secret worship of a hidden babe who would one day change the world.

I once spent an evening in Rome listening to a drunk philosophy student talk about the parallels between Greek/Roman mythology and the Bible. Zeus and the gods rebelled against the titans and imprisoned them in the underworld, while the rebellious Lucifer and his demons lost their fight and were cast out of Heaven. In the epilogue to the Greek version, a Christ-like titan named Prometheus is essentially crucified for his efforts to save humanity. 

Is there some connection, a prophesy from our collective unconscious? Who rebelled against whom, and who really won?

These thoughts make my head spin, and it’s hard to ponder it all with an empty stomach and a brain deprived of caffeine. So when I reached Terracina, I immediately found a bar and got some badly-needed espresso. 

This is the 5th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here's the link to Chapter I. 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. Click here to read the next chapter:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One:

If you’re still with me, it’s time for a bit of history before we go on.

The man responsible for building via Appia bent the rules whenever he wanted, broke the rules when he could, and made a big show of serving the people whenever it served his own ends. Appius Claudius was a prick.

Still, many people revere him for what he said almost two and a half millennia ago: 

“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

When Appius said this, he was responding to the Greek general Pyrrhus, who wanted to trample over Rome with a team of war elephants. Appius Claudius made a deliberately public response, not only to tell Pyrrhus that the Romans would never surrender, but to ensure they never would.

He was urging his fellow Romans to take the initiative, to be the architects of their own fate, to stand up to Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 hoplites and his archers and his cavalry and his elephants.

Does the speech with its outcome make Appius Claudius a hero? You could argue he was only doing it for politics, for the chance to gain something for himself. I’m willing to agree with you. 

But say what you will, Appius Claudius lived by his words. When he became Censor in 312 BCE, he was determined to be the architect of his own fate. He immediately invested the taxpayer's money for his own glory. Then he did something genius that may have decided the course of Western history.

In the time of Appius Claudius, the Romans didn't have an empire. They didn’t even have control of the Italian peninsula. There were powerful enemies just a few days’ journey away. Appius Claudius helped establish colonies in Latium and Campagna, the territory around Rome and farther south.

These colonies acted as a buffer, protecting the city of Rome from direct attack. They provided shelter, food, and support to the Roman armies. More importantly, when a colony was attacked, Rome had a convenient excuse to move her armies farther into contested territory. 

During this time, there were three major powers in Italy. One of these was Rome herself. But the lands south of Rome were populated by the fiercely independent Samnites. This league of tribes hated the Roman colonists who violated their borders, and resented the encroachment into Samnite territory.

Beyond the Samnite lands, there were well-established Greek cities. Many famous ancient Greeks, such as Pythagoras and Archimedes for example, were really inhabitants of Sicily and southern Italy. This region was called Magna Grecia, or “Greater Greece.”

Greece was not a single country, but a land of independent city-states. These cities would sometimes fight each other, Greek against Greek. But they were united by a common language, which made it easier to unite against a powerful enemy like Rome.

With the Romans, Samnites, and Greeks crowded together in the Italian peninsula, it was just a matter of time before one of them tried to dominate the others. When Appius Claudius pushed the Senate to establish more colonies, it wasn’t just a strategy. It was a provocation.

And then there was the road. 

In those days, a road was just a track of dirt. Maybe the more important roads had a few logs or some gravel to get through the muddy season.

Then Via Appia came along, paved with gravel and protected from floods by a system of gutters and drainage ditches. And then this gravel was topped by two layers of basalt, a tough volcanic rock so durable that the stones look essentially the same today, thousands of years later.

The first layer of basalt was made of tens of thousands of hand-carved hexagons, all a uniform size, that locked together like pieces of a puzzle. The second layer created traction. Thick rectangles of basalt, all the same size and dimensions, were laid out in a staggered position like a horizontal brick wall, and this went on for miles.

All the work was done by hand, all the cutting and carving and digging and laying out. There was no other way. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and the cost of the road nearly bankrupted the Roman treasury.

Now, you would expect a road like that to go somewhere important, wouldn’t you? Well, it didn’t! It pointed a  straight line to the wilderness, towards lands occupied by Rome’s enemies. Via Appia didn’t merely say, “we’re coming to conquer these lands.” It was the infrastructure that would make this conquest inevitable.

Without Appius Claudius, Western history could have been dramatically different. Appius Claudius took the first step that made the Roman empire possible. He invented Rome as we know it. Would the world have been any better or any worse without him? Who can say?

I’m not a big fan of Appius Claudius as a person, but I admire his ambition and the lessons you can learn from it. For example, if you have big plans or dreams in your life, think about Via Appia. Are you moving towards your goals on a dirt road, or have you built a Via Appia to get you there?  

Appius Claudius did a lot to bring the situation in Italy to a head, but he is remarkable for many other reasons. He is one of the first ancient Romans who made sure to set his words down in writing. Because of this, he's one of the earliest Roman individuals we know anything about.

Keep in mind, this was long before Hannibal invaded Italy, centuries before Spartacus led his rebellion, nearly three hundred years before Julius Caesar. But we still know a lot about Appius Claudius.

We know, for example, that he grew flummoxed whenever anyone mispronounced Latin consonants. He particularly hated the use of the letter 'z,' when a 'c' or an 's' would be perfectly sufficient. The problem irritated him so much that he wrote a long treaty on Latin grammar.

If Appius were alive today, he might condemn the modern Romans, who stylishly cut off the final syllable of many words. He would surely be outraged by 21st century Italians as a whole for using words like “pizza,” “anzi,” and “zabaglioni” with impunity.

Appius Claudius tried to give power to people who were usually barred from politics. For example, slaves who were set free didn't have the right to vote. Appius Claudius couldn’t help them directly, but he arranged for their children to become full citizens. Their descendants would have a say in the government forever after.

Appius Claudius was also one of the first politicians to fight for transparency in government. He published the legal proceedings of the Senate, so they could be examined by the public. Nobody had done this before him.

But as I said before, he was mostly just a power-hungry elbow swinger.

Critics say Appius Claudius worked to win the trust of the people so he could abuse it. He packed the Senate with citizens who would embrace him as their patron. These tactics got him elected for the office of Censor in 312 BCE. 

These tactics also annoyed the hell out of his colleagues.

The Censor was a sacred office. The job was to oversee the activity of the government, especially the finances. In order to prevent corruption, there were supposed to be two Censors. But the co-Censor working with Appius resented all of the political manipulation, and resigned in frustration.

This made Appius Claudius the only Censor, and he didn't hesitate to push the limits of his authority. He allocated funds to build Rome's first aqueduct, and named it after himself: Aqua Appia. But of course this isn't his best-known project.

As I followed his road towards Brindisi, I realized that it’s possible to dislike someone and also list them as one of your heroes. 

This is the 4th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here's the link to Chapter I. 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:

If you enjoyed this article, you'd be crazier than a young Caligula not to sign up for the newsletter. When you do, I'll send you a free copy of my travel notes from the latest bike tour along Via Appia.

A few thousand years ago, something happened at a place in southern Italy called Maleventum. 

Roman soldiers facing a charge of elephants at Beneventum--Public Domain
Pyrrhus' elephants. Public Domain

Maleventum means a bad wind or a bad event. At Maleventum, the Roman republic had its final confrontation with Pyrrhus. 

Pyrrhus was a conqueror who wanted to turn the Italian peninsula into his own private dictatorship. He beat the Romans in several battles.

Pyrrhus was the only thing that kept Rome from realizing her vision for a true republic.

The Romans never defeated Pyrrhus, but at Maleventum they put up enough resistance to convince him that conquering Italy wasn’t worth the cost. He packed up and left for greener pastures.

This is the origin of the term “Pyrrhic Victory,” and Maleventum was renamed to Beneventum, or “good event.”

Your own personal Pyrrhus

You have a personal Pyrrhus that is holding you back. Pyrrhus is the obstacle that is keeping you from your destiny. 

Your Pyrrhus could be your self-talk. Your fears and insecurities. It might be a real, tangible disadvantage. 

Your Pyrrhus could be something you were born with, or something that happened to you. Your Pyrrhus probably seems like something you can never overcome--and that’s the key.

You can fulfil your destiny as soon as you realize you don’t actually have to defeat Pyrrhus.

How to rise above any obstacle

In 279 BCE, Pyrrhus sent envoys to Rome, demanding they surrender. 

Appius Claudius delivered Rome’s answer, and it’s one of the most memorable things he did. In a public speech that promised Rome would never give up, Appius Claudius said, “Every man is the architect of his own fate.”

Romans were inspired to rise up, to be the best that they could be. So they kept on fighting Pyrrhus, but they also kept on building roads and aqueducts, growing crops, trading and farming and legislating. 

They became so good at being Romans that Pyrrhus eventually didn’t matter. The battles he won didn’t have any significant impact on the lives of most Roman citizens. So Pyrrhus left, undefeated but ineffective.

You, too, can rise above an unbeatable obstacle. Do the best you can, be the best you can, wherever and whenever you can. Your problems won’t go away, but they will become far less important. 

You obstacle might be a huge stone that refuses to budge. But you can become a surging river, flowing right over and around the immovable stone. Does the river even notice the stone?

Your Pyrrhus doesn’t matter. It has no power over you.

When you discover you are no longer held back by Pyrrhus, you are having your Benevento Moment. You have endured and prevailed. You have found your fire.

My Benevento Moment

Arch of Trajan Italy bike tour

Benevento is the crossroads where I had to make a choice and a commitment.

One of the most famous monuments in Benevento is Trajan’s Arch. It commemorates Trajan’s victories and accomplishments, but it also marks the beginning of a new road that branches off from the Appian Way.

This new road is the via Traiana (Trajan’s Way), and it follows the Adriatic coast to Benevento. This is a flatter, shorter, and easier route. The way is better known and more clearly marked. There are more places to find food and lodging, and you’re never far from a beach!

I was tempted to take via Traiana the rest of the way. It would mean a safer, easier, possibly shorter route. 

I’m a timid traveler. I usually favor comfort and security over the unknown. But my goal for this journey was practically the opposite. Did I want to shorten my trip, get back to Rome a few days early, just to wander around old paths I’d been down many times before, trying to relive my youth and my past?

It only took a few minutes to move beyond the temptation. I continued on the most uncertain and remote part of the Appian Way, into the Apennine Mountains. This choice led to some of the most memorable parts of my journey.

A decision awaits you at your Benevento moment. What choices will you have to make? You may be tempted by an easier, safer path. Will it bring you what you want?

An ancient love story may help you in 2018. In 161 A.D., someone had a brilliant idea.

This story hides a secret to productivity. And it may also be one of the best examples of fiscal responsibility in the history of western civilization.

If you’re ever in Rome, you’ll probably (hopefully) visit the ruins of the Roman Forum.

There, you’ll see a well-preserved temple dedicated to Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Near the top of the temple you’ll see two lines inscribed in travertine marble:

Divo Antonino et
Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.

The story goes that the emperor, Antoninus Pius, deeply loved his wife. When she died, he asked the Senate to make her a goddess, and he built a lavish temple in her honor.

He spared no expense. You can still see the marks left on the pillars by looters who tried to steal the rare cippoline marble. 

But they couldn't tear the building down.

In fact, the temple was built so well that it survived through the centuries and was even made into a church. The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo, who may have been martyred on the alter at the base of the temple.

But I'm getting off topic.

On the front of the temple, Antoninus Pius carved the first dedication, “Divae Faustinae Ex S.C.” This means “The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree.”

Some years later, when Antoninus passed away, the Senate was left with the burden of making him a god just like his wife. Her temple had been costly, and the emperor’s own temple would have to be its equal or better.

But then someone had a brilliant idea.

Instead of building a new temple, they simply added a new inscription above the old one: “Divo Antonino et.” The translation: “The God Antoninus and.”

Now the full inscription read:

The God Antoninus and
The Goddess Faustina by Senatorial Decree

The immortal emperor and empress are together for all eternity, while the Roman taxpayers were spared the cost of shiploads of marble and thousands of man-hours of labor. Everyone was happy, except the family who owned the marble quarries.

Build your house with bricks

There’s a lesson here, and it’s not about finding ways to cheap out.

If the Romans had build Faustina a cheap temple, Antoninus would have required a new, better temple.

In other words, this money-saving trick never could have worked if the original temple hadn’t been built as well as it was.

So, the real lesson: If you do something really well, it’s easily worth twice as much as if you do an “okay” job. Spend more time, money, effort up front and you’ll ultimately get twice as much done in half the time at half the price.

Whatever you do in 2018, challenge yourself to make it bigger and better than it needs to be.

It was like the battle of the Caudine Forks all over again. And I was about to get burned.

What’s your best New Year’s Eve memory?

One of mine is getting a spumante shower in Villa Borghese. But it was too late to save me.

If you were walking the streets of Rome tonight, everyone would greet you with the word, “Auguri!”

This means something like congratulations and good luck, rolled into one. Congratulations, I assume, because you survived another year in Italy. Good luck, because you still have to make it through the night.

You see, if you were walking the streets of Rome tonight, you would probably be trapped in a narrow cobblestone alleyway, packed like a sardine with hundreds of other people. It would be the battle of the Caudine Forks all over again.

While you crept forward, locked in a human glacier, people would throw fireworks out of the windows above you. One time, a firecracker hit me and burned my hair (and you thought I shaved my head to look cool).

At midnight, the Romans eat lentils and grapes. This is supposed to make you rich in the coming year. It hasn’t worked for me yet, but maybe that’s because I drink my grapes.

What about you? What are you doing tonight? Whether you’re cheering on the streets with all humanity, cracking your head at your favorite club, or staying warm and comfortable under a roof, I wish you all the best for an awesome 2018. I know you’ve got this.

Buon Capo d’Anno. And thanks for reading.


Jacob Bear

Shortly after I lost my hair, I took a long bike tour along the route of the ancient Roman road, via Appia. A book about these misadventures will come out in 2018, but in the meantime you can get my original travel notes, including a map that was hand-drawn by an Italian archeologist. Grab your free copy in the top right corner of this page (you might have to scroll up to see it). Thanks for reading!