(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.
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.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.