The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads

May 24, 2012

This delightful, literally lightweight book takes you on a brief journey from Brindisi in the heel of Italy's boot to Rome; but what an engaging journey! Robert Kaster and his wife travelled the length of the Appian Way, the first great Roman road, known far and wide in its time as regina viarum, "the Queen of Roads". Eventually, the Romans went road-wild and built a 75,000-mile network criss-crossing the Empire: compare the US' measly 46,000 miles of interstate highway. That's the kind of nugget that Kaster, professor of Classics and Latin at Princeton University, uncovers at every stop along the Way. This little book fully punches above its weight.

The Via Appia was begun in 312BC by Appius Claudius Caecus, whose name still adorns it. He also happens to be "the first Roman we can fairly claim to know as an authentic historical person", says Kaster. His family was Sabine (as in "the rape of the Sabine women") and given land in Rome, where the Claudii clan flourished ever after: the Emperor Tiberius was a direct descendant. As censor, Appius excelled in firsts, building Rome's first aqueduct (the Aqua Appia) as well as the Via Appia. When completed, the Appia covered 353 miles, crossing marshes and half a dozen rivers, up and down hills and the sometimes precipitous Apennine Mountains - all, of course, dug by hand, presumably the work of slaves and criminals. Kaster's back-of-the-envelope calculation tots up their shifting 180 million cu ft of earth and stone; and, yes, this does dwarf the 91,600,000 cu ft moved for the Great Pyramid at Giza.

A journey from one end of the Appia to the other would have taken two weeks on muleback. In contrast, the wheels of a rental Fiat took the Kasters to Rome in five leisurely days. Alas, truth to tell, with the exception of a mile-and-a-half stretch in the remote Monti Aurunci park, the original paved road is nowhere to be seen: you know that the road itself must have been some 100 yards to your left or right, but it is usually hard to establish where exactly. For most of the way, you're more or less on the real track, which probably lies 6ft under the modern road. What truly seizes the imagination, however, are the layers of time visible above the ground, all the monuments of conquering peoples who left their mark on Southern Italy - Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese - as one era rubs up against another. On the Appia, to give just one example, you can leave Taranto on the coast (founded by Sparta in the 8th century BC) in the morning, pass Castellaneta (birthplace of Rudolph Valentino), and arrive that afternoon at ancient Venosa, where the poet Horace was born in 65BC. The ruins of his Roman town and later Jewish catacombs are overlooked by a Romanesque church - with two 11th-century tombs of Norman dukes - built from the stones of the amphitheatre on the site of an earlier church that had itself been built over a Roman temple. The upper town is dominated by the massive bastions and towers of a 15th-century castle built by the Roman Orsini family. Nearby, a Counter-Reformation Purgatory church, decorated with skeletons and death's heads, warns you Memento mori (correctly translated: "Remember that you are dying!").

This kind of history throws off sparks. You put down The Appian Way and think of taking out your bike. A friend of mine rode it in four days. I asked him if the mountains were difficult to climb, and he replied: "No, hardly. After the Alps, the Apennines were comparatively easy." I might rent a Fiat instead.

The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads

By Robert A. Kaster. University of Chicago Press. 124pp, £14.50. ISBN 9780226425719. Published 8 May 2012

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