(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)
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.
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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-x-the-sad-and-perpetual-compromise/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.