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Whatever hills you need to climb, whatever strange paths and roads you need to navigate, every difficult act you do is a monument to your extraordinary role as a human being.

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

Freezing blasts of soul-crushing wind. Huge metal monsters swirling all around me. 

And somewhere in the blustery cold, I discovered my phone was gone. 

I should have known I was in for an eventful day when I woke up sore and aching in a misty rain. I hit the road and started climbing steep hills almost immediately. When I stopped for a hot cornetto and coffee at a bar, I started shivering.

The road wormed up and up, and then the switchbacks gave way to a punishing ascent in a ruler-straight line which ended in the lofty town of Aeclanum. This had been an important city in the past, but it was mostly destroyed by the Byzantines.

I knew there would be some worthy ruins, so when I saw a sign indicating an archeological site, I took a sharp right into the entrance.

Now the rain was like a shower of arrows. They hit my poncho with an endless pelting sound. I walked my bike to a modern building in the murky distance. Half a dozen men were drinking coffee inside. I asked if I could leave my bike there while I explored the ruins. 

First they wanted to know what a guy with a foreign accent and a loaded bike was doing in Aeclanum. And they insisted I have coffee with them, which I was grateful to do.

“America!” said one of them named Roberto. “The modern empire.”

I told him that our Empire was crumbling.

“Yes, but it will take a long time to fall apart.”

I spent the next hour trekking through the wet remains of Aeclanum. The archaeologists had reconstructed a section of the road, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of dark basalt hexagons. Healthy grass grew around this marvel in rich shades of green. The rain gave the stones a slick, shiny gleam.

Roberto drew me a map and gave me directions to several other archeological sites around Aeclanum. Most of them were too far off my route, but I'll get to them someday.

“Here, I will take you to the closest one,” he offered. By now the rain had stopped, and we walked through the mud to a beat-up blue Fiat with no seatbelts. I hoped he wouldn't drive too fast on these wet and winding mountain roads.

It was only a short way to a large excavation area. Walls of tufa brick emerged from the ground. 

“This is the past coming back to light,” Roberto said, “but this is also our future. This is our petroleum.” 

I nodded as Roberto lit a cigarette. “A lot of tourists would pay to see this,” I said.

“Eh! Si!,” he answered. “Italy is not rich in silver or iron. We have a lot of good food, but a modern economy can't survive on agriculture.” 

He pointed his cigarette at the compost of ancient Rome. “Archeology is Italy's petroleum.”

It’s been many years since I had this conversation with Roberto. The next time I went to Rome, I was upset to find that I had to buy a ticket to enter the Forum. I remember the year of the Jubilee, when it was essentially a park, and you could wander in for free anytime while the gates were open.

My frustration is mixed. Whenever I see a fence around a historical monument, I try to remind myself that Italy has finally understood the value of what she has.

Still, nothing beats an ancient relic that has become a part of the wilderness, unfenced and unregulated. One of the sites on Roberto's map was a broken Roman bridge that had once crossed the Calore river. His directions were longer than the way to the Ponte degli Aurunci, and twice as complicated. 

I had to descend the steep, straight hill that had brought me into Aeclanum in the first place. This meant I would have to go back up the hill again later that day. After this, I would find a winding road that went up and down more hills and eventually crossed a highway. A series of turns would take me to a footbridge that went over a stream. After this, I would have to take a dirt road, follow it to another dirt road, turn left and look around for the Ponte Rotto.

This “Ponte Rotto” (broken bridge) was near enough that I was willing to try to find it. 

I got through the first few twists and turns. The very last part of the paved “road” was little more than a one-way track just wide enough to accommodate a single car. As I grinded my way up a slope designed to disintegrate knee joints, I met a car heading the opposite direction.

The driver rolled down his window, glanced at my bike, and said, “Duro, eh?” It's hard.

I told him I was looking for the Ponte Rotto and he gave me his own version of the route. My dirt road was up ahead, only a short distance. When I came to the second crossroad I had to turn left. There I would pass two intersections and turn right at the second one. A road would branch off to the left from there, and I had to take this branch, make the next right turn where I could, and then turn left as soon as possible after that. 

He gave me these directions in Italian, with bits of a dialect that I struggled to understand. I don't know if it was the altitude, the strain of climbing so many hills, or too much coffee. I felt like I was in the middle of a weird dream. 

The dirt roads were a labyrinth between gentle hills and green grassy fields. Sometimes I would see a sign that said “Ponte Rotto” but indicated a direction opposite of what I had been told. Roberto had warned me to ignore the signs. “People move them every year. They tell you nothing.”

My left knee was throbbing from when I fell on it the night before. I did the best I could to ignore it as I counted the intersections, trying to remember when to turn and whether it was left or right. I burrowed deeper into the countryside, wondering if I would ever find Ponte Rotto. 

Then, as I rose to the top of a slippery hill, I saw a distant row of huge, sweeping arches that stopped suddenly at a line of alders and shrubs. It was still far away, but my road led straight past it.

I got as close as I could, left the road, and wheeled my bike through damp, waist-high grass to a gigantic arch made of orange tufa bricks. It sheltered me just as the clouds opened up with another downpour.

Tall grass flashed and flickered with thousands of tiny diamond drops of water. Colorful flowers peeked through the sea of green. I leaned against the orange wall and rested in the rain. 

This was the happiest, proudest moment of my entire trip.

There’s nothing more satisfying, more empowering, than finishing a task that seemed unbearably hard.  Whatever hills you need to climb, whatever strange paths and roads you need to navigate, every difficult act you do is a monument to your extraordinary role as a human being. 

I’ve led tour groups to the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Acropolis in Athens and the statue of David in Florence. For three years I spent almost every weekend and holiday visiting some of the most famous buildings and works of art in the world. But this broken bridge meant more to me than Saint Peter's Square. 

On my way back into town, I came to an intersection and couldn't remember which way to go. I searched the ground for my own tracks, but the rain had already obliterated them. I had to guess the way. 

You probably know that I chose correctly. If I hadn’t, I would be working on a farm today and sleeping under a broken bridge.

I got back to the main road and cruised through wooded mountains for a few hours. When I stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside bar, a man driving a produce truck offered me a coffee. When I told him I had just had one he replied, “Well you'll have to have another one, then. Come on!”

He gave me a bag of oranges and beans that were still in their pods. “For the road,” he said. He showed me how to split open the pods and eat the large, pale beans inside. When I tried to pay him he pushed my hand away.

“It’s for the road,” he insisted.

I stuffed most of the fruit and beans into my pockets and panniers, but there were still three oranges that wouldn’t fit. I put them in a sack that dangled from a handlebar, swinging around whenever I turned.

It had to be afternoon by now, but the sun was hidden by the grey sky, occasional rain, and sometimes a thick fog. I was almost always climbing uphill, but I felt cold most of the time. A strong wind pushed me from my back, and sometimes I had to fight it head on. Usually the wind was blowing on my side. It chilled me and made it hard to keep my balance. Was this the Maleventum, the bad wind the ancient Romans talked about?

At one point, I came around a bend and heard a mechanical-sounding whirr, like an electric engine. It reminded me of a light rail train. This sound was joined by high-pitched squeaks about once every five seconds.

Away in the distance, I saw a towering grey shape through the fog. As I got closer, the sounds grew louder, and the grey giant was moving. It looked like a huge, deformed man running in place up in the sky. Was I about to be abducted by aliens?

A minute later a spinning sheet of metal flew out of the fog, and then I saw my monster completely. It was a windmill. 

A flat, green plain opened in front of me. There was almost nothing to see in any direction except the road ahead of me, endless grassy fields, and scores of windmills generating electricity. At least all of this wind was doing some good. It was a Beneventum after all. But I still had to ride through it.

For the next few hours I crossed an empty, green steppe. I was on a nearly flat plain, with just enough small hills to stop me from seeing what was ahead. I was riding steadily up a slight grade that never leveled off. The strong, shifting wind made pale waves on the endless fields of grass, and also made it hard to keep riding.

That’s the situation I was in when I realized my phone was gone. Maybe the constant pedaling had pushed it out of my pocket. I was lost, facing a cold demon wind, and had no communication.

It felt like I had been pedaling for several hours with no change. Just a numbing, grassy sameness to everything. I wanted the day to end, but I was worried about what would happen when it did. When the light began to fade, I thought about setting up my tent, but the wind would have made this impossible.

At dusk I came to a sign that indicated the way to Aquilonia. It was on a road that went up yet another steep hill and disappeared around a bend. I remembered reading something interesting about this town once, long ago. 

I had a map from Touring Club Italia. When I took it out the wind filled it like a sail and made a jagged rip where I held it in my hand. I had to fold it up and look at one small rectangle at a time. 

From what I could tell, there was no definite, main route through this area. But it looked like the road beyond  Aquilonia would eventually bring me towards Venosa, on the other side of the Apennine Mountains. That’s where I wanted to go.

Another blast of cold wind drove ripples through the tall grass. I needed shelter, and Aquilonia looked like my best option. 

For the last time that day, I rode up a hill towards what turned out to be one of the most memorable places of the entire journey.

This is the 16th 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.

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.

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xvi-italys-petroleum/

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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?”

“Si!”

“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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-xiv-trajans-crossroads/

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/how-to-pick-up-italian-women-or-men/

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)

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: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-v-jupiters-childhood-secret/

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.

1

Do you ever just want to leave?

All I wanted was to get on my bicycle and ride away down Via Appia to the Achilles tendon of Italy. 

But there in the dark forest where I found myself, a frightening apparition stood on the path right between me and my bicycle.

This isn’t some kind of metaphor. I was literally in a grove of trees somewhere outside Benevento on a warm spring night. I needed a place to sleep, and had just discovered that perhaps this wasn’t the best place to do so.

Unfortunately, it looked like I might not be allowed to leave.

I’m jumping ahead, though. This story began long before I set off on a bike tour. It started literally thousands of years before I was born.

Once upon a time, an energetic band of free-spirited farmers and artisans built a young republic in a sunny Mediterranean paradise. 

But they were all doomed.

A ruthless dictator from the East had his eye on the treasures and spoils of ancient Italy. He was steamrolling up the Italian peninsula with thirty thousand warriors, horses trained for war, and a score of thundering elephants. He won battles. He took villages. One by one, the tribes and colonies surrendered to him.

And then, when everything seemed hopeless, one man stood up and blocked the conqueror.

He wasn’t a hero, a warrior, or a great leader. He was just a grumpy old man with bad eyesight and selfish ambitions of his own. But he gave a moving speech which ensured that Rome would never surrender. His name was Appius Claudius, and he proved that a speech can stop an army. 

Most of the time, old Appius Claudius Caecus was an arrogant, self-serving prick. Like the driver who cuts you off in the middle of an intersection. Or the person who lets their dog run loose and defecate in front of your house, and refuses to clean it up. 

But even you have your bad days, when you laugh at something inappropriate or forget to put the toilet seat down. Likewise, the worst of us are capable of doing great things. 

Appius Claudius had questionable ethics, but he made a speech that galvanized young Rome against her enemies, and he said one thing in this speech that has lasted for millennia: 

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

This story is mostly about my attempt to be the architect of my own fate. But I’ll also tell you a lot about the conqueror, the elephants, and especially Appius Claudius.

The speech was one of his last public acts, but he is better known for what he did at the beginning of his career. When Appius became Censor, he nearly bankrupted the treasury. He devoted almost all the available funds to build a road that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, and it led directly into the uncertain wilderness of the south. 

Then, as the keystone of a career that was built almost entirely on sheer chutzpah, he named the road after himself: Via Appia.

Why am I telling you this?

Because two thousand, three hundred and seventeen years later, I was riding a bicycle on that very same road, while every motor vehicle in Italy tried to crush me like a grape in a winepress.

Just after Via Appia leaves Rome through the Porta San Sebastiano, the shoulder disappears. Two brick walls guard the road, turning it into a roofless tunnel. It is a Roman Channel of Death for cyclists, where you are nothing but a petty obstacle, a dog turd to be avoided if possible or else smeared across the cobblestones.

Commuters in Fiats, late to work, shouted vulgar curses against my ancestors. Produce trucks threatened to grind me against the walls, an olive between the millstones. Tour buses nearly pounded me like basil in a mortar.

Soon I would be mashed into pesto, olive oil, and marinara sauce. The tricolore of Italy. This adventure would end before it began, and a foreigner would become national cuisine.

But somehow I made it to the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica. At a small building that provided tourist information, I asked if it would be possible to speak to an archeologist.

A receptionist set down her lipstick-stained cigarette and directed me to Dr. Grillo. His office was up the stairs, first door on the right. The door was open, and a grey-haired man, impeccably dressed, stared at me over a tiny cup of espresso. He seemed uncomfortable that a sweaty American, dressed in shorts and clutching a bicycle helmet, would enter his office this early on a weekday.

In the best Italian I could muster, I told him I wanted to bike the Via Appia Antica from Rome to its end in Brindisi. From the surprised confusion in his face, you would think I had just asked him to circumcise me.

"Impossibile!" he protested, pronouncing the word with long Italian vowels: eem-poh-SEEEEEE-bee-lay!

Nobody knows how many millions of nobles, senators, philosophers, soldiers, merchants, prisoners, slaves, poets and bandits have traveled on the Appian Way. They've been doing it for more than 2,300 years on foot, in litters, by wagon, buggy, horse, pony, donkey, elephant, mule, and more recently in cars, motorcycles and trucks. Surely one enthusiastic bicyclist could make the journey. 

I had already decided to take this trip, with or without anyone's help. But I wanted some advice and encouragement from an expert, if I could get it.

I wanted to see marble columns rising out of misty fields in the dawn. I wanted to remember what the Romans forgot when they became too powerful as an empire and too weak as individuals.

Dr. Grillo assured me that it could not be done. He warned me of floods and swamps and mountains. Much of Via Appia was buried on private property.  Also, there are many places where we simply don't know which way Via Appia went.

But I knew I had him when he asked why I would ever want to do such a thing.

This is the hardest question to answer, even in English. I did my best to explain my fascination with ancient Mediterranean history.

Archeologists will never finish scraping the ancient world out of the soil and gluing it back together. There's still an energy you can feel when you're alone in these ancient places.

Grillo understood. Or at least he no longer looked like he was planning to call security or throw me out himself.

When you travel by bicycle, I tried to tell him, you don't just "see" things behind the glass of a museum display or a windshield. You feel the air and the moisture and the contours of the land. You talk to the people and you’re exposed to the weather. You get the feeling of the place.

This is why, after staring down a 2,300-year-old highway, I found I could no longer try to run a business or be a teacher or fulfill any of the other roles the world put before me until I rode my bike to the end of the road, just to see what would happen.

Many Italians are gifted with a powerful intuition. Even if you don't know the right words, if you speak with passion they will read your mind and give you exactly what you want. Before I could finish, my new archeologist savior was nodding vigorously as he opened the squeaky drawers of his file cabinet, pulling out maps, old photos, and drawings.

He gave me a stream of directions and names and numbers in rapid Italian. I scribbled as much as I could understand in my notebook. I wasn't looking for perfection, I told him, just adventure and learning and new experiences. If I couldn't retrace all of the Appian Way, I would still cover the distance and do the best I could.

Dr. Grillo assured me once again that I was attempting something impossible. But he still shook my hand and said, “In bocca al'lupo.” In the mouth of the wolf, a Roman way of saying “good luck.”

Traditionally when someone says this, you're supposed to answer, “Crepi lupo,” which implies that if a wolf tries to eat you it will find you to be poisonous. You will kill the thing that tries to kill you.

However, an Italian friend explained to me that a mother wolf, like the legendary wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, carries her young by holding them in her mouth. If you are “in boca al’lupo,” you are protected by the mother wolf. You certainly wouldn't want the wolf to die.

Either way, I was about to set off into the unknown, on the back of a bike, in the mouth of a wolf.

Dr. Grillo wasn't the only person who said it couldn’t be done. Others predicted I would be robbed, kidnapped, bitten by snakes, infected with malaria and maybe trampled by water buffalos before I reached Terracina. One well-meaning blog reader sent an email to warn me, “The cobblestones will destroy your arse in the first 10 kilometers.”

Everything they told me was true. Via Appia is fraught with peril. It’s a 450-mile gauntlet of knee-grinding climbs, bone-cracking potholes, sheer drops in the fog, bad weather, hostile natives, robbers, murderers and things far worse than that. When you venture along the jugular vein of ancient Rome you’re going to encounter the best and the worst of Italy.

But there’s a reward for trips like this, something you know intuitively before you begin. A journey like this is going to change you. It must. There are too many lonely miles for it not to happen.

Hey, friends and readers,

After years of procrastination, I made a promise to myself that I would self-publish my Via Appia Book during the summer of 2020. But as I post this in the spring, we are all locked down in our homes. So I'm putting this out, chapter by chapter, in a bunch of places. I'll read it out loud on YouTube so you can listen to it while you wash the dishes or disinfect your house. Click here to read the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/fulfill-your-bucket-list-while-your-bucket-is-still-full-chapter-ii/

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.