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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: 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.

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: 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.

5

Somewhere between Terracina and Formia, you'll find it. There's a stark pillar along the side of a winding mountain road. I assume it's either a milestone or the remains of one of the many monuments that line the Appian way.

Italy bike tour Appia milestone ItriThe bike ride to this pillar is phenomenal, and there are at least three good reasons to make the trip. First is the "Tomb of Cicero" at one end of the bike route. Most experts agree that this isn't the really the tomb of Cicero, but it's near the spot where he died and that's enough for most people.

Better than Cicero's tomb, the bike ride from Terracina to Formia passes through a park which includes the original remains of the via Appia, as well as several ancient Roman and Medieval buildings.

In fact, if you're riding your bike on the main road, you'll pass through the park several times. The road winds up the mountain in endless switchbacks, while the Appian Way shoots up in the classical straight line, defying gravity just as easily as she defied the Pontine marshes. You can ride your bike up this way if you choose to. I didnt.

But my favorite thing about this section of the Appian bike tour is the town of Itri. I hadn't meant to stay there, but I was intrigued by the scenery, the friendly locals, and the castle. After taking a long hot shower and stuffing my gullet with fresh pizza, I spent hours wandering around the dark, twisting alleys of the immense fortress on the hill overlooking Itri.

I can't tell you much about the history of the castle, but I'll introduce you to someone who can. On our next bike tour through southern Italy, one of my local contacts has offered to hook us up with an archeologist in Itri who can give a tour of the place. I asked him how much something like that would cost and he said, "some cafe in a bar, I assume, but not more..."

So if you're up for an expert tour of Itri for the price of a cup of coffee, not to mention a zillion other great experiences that you can read about all over my blog, get in touch with me and join us on this trip. The dates are May 15th-June 1st 2010, approximate cost is $1500 plus airfare and bike (rental, purchase, or transportation of your own rig), and I'll be happy to answer your other questions by phone or email.

2

When the ancient Romans built the via Appia and other roads, they marked the way with milestones. The milestones usually showed the distance from thItaly bike tour Appia milestone Itrie nearest large city, so you could look at one and know, for example, that the Appian Way ran right at this spot, and it was 17 miles to Benevento.

The trouble is, we don't know exactly where each of these milestones stood. Throughout the centuries, collectors and even well-meaning archaeologists moved the milestones and put them in museums, gardens, piazzas and palaces.

That's why nobody really knows with 100% certainty exactly where the via Appia really went.  We do have a fairly good idea for most of it. On my own bike trips in southern Italy I try to strike a balance between following the known original route and having a scenic, safe, and interesting bike ride.

But now we know a little more.

Yesterday, a southern Italian newspaper, the Corriere del Mezzogiorno, reported the discovery of a milestone on the ancient via Traiana. Here's a quick history lesson on what this means:

Once you get past Benevento, you're in unknown territory for a lot of the Appian way. This is always the most confusing (and fun!) part of every bike tour, and things weren't much different in ancient Roman times. The via Appia was twisted and difficult after Benevento. It winded over mountains and was sometimes little more than a few cuttings on the rocks.

In 109 AD, the emperor Trajan built an alternate route, the Trajan Way--or via Traiana in Italian. This route starts in Benevento and follows the coast of the Adriatic sea to Brindisi. It's longer in the number of miles, but was easier to follow. I haven't biked the via Traiana yet (please leave a comment if you have!), but I've been to a lot of the towns it passes through. Highly recommended.

Anyway, the via Traiana poses a lot of the same challenges as far as knowing exactly where it went. This latest milestone dug up is a fantastic piece to the puzzle, one of the very few milestones for which we know the exact location and orientation.

You never know what you'll dig up.

If you'd like to bike the Appian way with me next spring, leave a comment below and I'll give you the details, which will be posted soon.