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The Appian Way, in ruins

The Appian Way, the world’s first highway and 350 miles long at that, was built 312 years before the common era (BCE) so that the capital city of Rome might be more closely connected to the southern seaport at Brindisi, both for the purposes of enabling trade and the operations of the Roman army.  It still exists for miles at a time, still paved for long stretches with the massive paving stones originally laid.  The road passes near Naples (south of Rome), and for 62 kilometers it is designed straight, still a European road-building record.  Those stones, which were set on top of a leveled dirt road, were so closely laid that it was said that a knife could not penetrate the gaps.  The Way played a significant role in helping Rome to consolidate its Italian territories in the Samnite Wars against its neighbors.

Centuries later, in 1784, Pope Pius VI ordered that some parts of the road be restored for modern use.  And during World War II, Allied forces having landed at Anzio (called Antium in the classical period) hoped to follow the Appian Way right back into Rome but instead faced German counterattacks pouring down the Way from the north.

But the road also survives in the popular imagination:  it was along the Appian Way that something like 6,000 followers of Spartacus were crucified (declared rebels they were found to be in violation of the slavery “contracts” and put to death), and tourists still follow the ancient paths now made practically irrelevant by the construction of more modern roads, often stopping to picnic along the roadway.  One tour guide, writing recently in the Guardian (UK), noted that along the route he still “spotted milestones inscribed with some long-lost consul’s name, mossy stone bridges and aqueducts and more roadside tombs.”  The park created to encompass the old route includes access to the San Sebastian catacombs, said to have held the human remains of the Christian saints Peter and Paul (tombs were built along the road since they could not legally be built within the city limits).  Peter was said to have been on the Appian Way leaving Rome to escape persecution when he saw a vision of Christ who instructed him to turn around and face martyrdom.  And the road extending north from Rome, the Via Flaminia, heads all the way to Ravenna (close to Bologna); Ravenna is said to be a gorgeous little town filled with 6th century architecture, and in the fifth century the emperor Honorius moved the Roman capital there since it could be more easily defended against the Barbarians.  It was in Ravenna that Julius Caesar assembled his forces as he prepared to cross the Rubicon and head south to claim the republic as his own.

Today the road is in disrepair and close to existing in ruins.  This is partly the case because it is not particularly well maintained or even in some places marked, despite the creation in the late 1800’s of the Appian Way Archeological Park (Parco Regionale dell-Appia Antica) and its 1988 expansion.  Yet still the contemporary period leaves the Appian Way alive in the popular imagination:  in the 1960’s the area immediately south of Rome on the Appian road became a destination locale for Italian movie stars who build homes there.  This consequences of this period has compounded the present developmental headaches, since according to the New York Times roughly 90 percent of the property is privately held, and only roughly $1.5 million a year is expended on preservation.

SOURCES:  Simon Heptinstall, “The Appian Way,” Guardian, 26 April 2008, pg. 9; Cullen Murphy, “The Road From Ravenna,” Atlantic Monthly, September 2006, pgs. 127-132; Elisabetta Povoledo, “Past Catches Up With the Queen of Roads:  The Appian Way and Its Treasures Run Into Modern Problems,” New York Times, 5 April 2008, pgs. A19, A23.


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