Rick Steves' Europe: Time travel on Rome's ancient Appian Way

Rome's Appian Way offers visitors a glimpse of the city's historic past.
BY RICK STEVES Modified: July 27, 2012 at 12:16 am •  Published: July 29, 2012
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The Appian Way — Rome's gateway to the East — was Europe's first super highway and the wonder of its day. Built in 312 B.C., it connected Rome with Capua (near Naples), running in a straight line for much of the way. Eventually it stretched 400 miles to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt.

While our modern roads seem to sprout potholes right after they're built, sections of this marvel of Roman engineering still exist. When I visit Rome, I get a thrill walking on the same stones as Julius Caesar or St. Peter. Huge basalt paving blocks form the sturdy base of this roadway. In its heyday, a central strip accommodated animal-powered vehicles and elevated sidewalks served pedestrians.

Fortunately, about the first 10 miles of the Appian Way is preserved as a regional park called Parco dell'Appia Antica. In addition to the roadway, there are ruined Roman monuments, two major Christian catacombs and a church marking the spot where Peter had a vision of Jesus.

Getting here from the center of Rome is easy; it's a short Metro ride and then a quick bus trip — catch No. 118 from either the Piramide or Circo Massimo Metro stops. It's best to come on a Sunday or holiday, when the whole park is closed to car traffic, and it becomes Rome's biggest pedestrian zone. You can rent bicycles — and enjoy a meal — at a nearby cafe.

As you stroll or bike along the road, you'll see tombs of ancient big shots that line the way like billboards. While pagans didn't enjoy the promise of salvation, those who could afford it purchased a kind of immortality by building themselves big and glitzy memorials.

One of the best preserved is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, built for the daughter-in-law of Rome's richest man. It's a massive cylindrical tomb situated on the crest of a hill. While it dates from the first century B.C., we still remember her today ... so apparently the investment paid off.

But of course, early Christians didn't have that kind of money. So they buried their dead in mass underground necropoli — or catacombs — dug under the property of the few fellow Christians who owned land. These catacombs are scattered all around Rome just outside its ancient walls, including two inside this park.

The tomb-lined tunnels of the catacombs stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes.