Appia longarum… regina viarum
“The Appian Way – the Queen of Roads” – Statius (45 – 96 AD)
All roads lead to Rome, but the Appian Way is a road like no other. Started in 312 BC and completed just under 50 years later, the Appian Way, or ‘Queen of Roads’ as it was known, was the world’s first major highway.
It was along this road that Spartacus and his fellow gladiatorial rebels were crucified in 71 BC, down the Appian Way that Peter the Apostle encountered the risen Christ, prompting him to ask Dominus, quo vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”), and beside and beneath the Appian Way that hundreds of thousands of the city’s deceased were buried, laid to rest in the catacombs or burial monuments lining either side of the road.
Now an expansive regional park, the Appian Way is among the best attractions in Rome. Read on to find out all about it and why you should make it part of your next trip to the Eternal City.
What was the purpose of the Appian Way?
The 4th century BC was a time of rapid expansion for Rome. Yet to come into contact with the Mediterranean powers of Carthage in North Africa or the powerful city-states of Sparta, Athens, and Macedon in Greece, the Roman Republic was confined to a small area of Italy, expanding slowly southwards down the peninsula.
Rome’s greatest threat was the Samnites, a Latin tribe to the south. Rome and Samnium spent centuries at war with one another. In fact, Rome would not fully subdue her southern neighbor until the 1st century BC. But as part of an early initiative to get the upper hand in the conflict, the Romans resolved to build a road running deep into Samnite territory, giving their army the advantage of mobility.
This monumental task was undertaken by the censor for the year 312 BC Appius Claudius Caecus - Appius Claudius ‘the Blind’. True to his name, Appius was completely blind, a disability apparently owing to being cursed by the gods. Yet his affliction did nothing to distract him from his task.
Appius the Blind oversaw (if that’s the right term) the construction of Rome’s first road, the Via Appia Antica, and Rome’s first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia.
His aqueduct would eventually inundate the city with some 73,000 cubic meters of water each day, flowing into public baths and private fountains. But it's his road he's best remembered for, which would lead all the way from Rome in the north to Brindisi in the south.
We know little else about Appius Claudius Caecus. A single sentence uttered by him survives - quisque faber suae fortunae, which you might recognize as “everyone makes their own luck”.
Yet his monumental legacy is staggering.
Appius faced a difficult task in 312 BC. Between the Samnites and Rome’s ally Capua in the south were the Pontine Marshes, a natural boundary of malaria-infested untraversable swampland. To make sure the Roman army could come to Capua’s aid, he had to devise a way of transporting them across the Marshes.
His solution was the Appian Way, which crossed the Pontine Marshes and penetrated deep into Samnite territory, branching off at Capua. Initially, Appius Claudius had wanted to drain the Marshes, just as his forefathers had drained the Roman Forum 300 years earlier. When this proved impossible, however, he settled for a 19-mile-long causeway running right across it.
The crossing was foul and the stench putrid, but it did the job.
It was an incredible success. By facilitating such ease of transport, the Romans were able to deploy forces and send supplies south with much greater speed. In 304 BC, the Samnites sued for peace, ceding much of the territory around modern-day Naples to Rome.
Construction of the Appian Way
Major construction started in 312 BC and required considerable resources. These roads were built to last, so Roman engineers came up with a way to create a durable path that anyone (from a single person to an entire army) would be able to use for generations to come.
Although the Romans had different construction methods depending on the terrain, below are the major steps that were taken to create much of the Appian Way.
First, workers would come in and dig a ditch, removing the earth that would eventually become the Roman road. Using plows and spades, the workers, and sometimes legionaries, would dig down to either the bedrock or another firm layer of ground.
This was done so that many layers of rock and sediment could be placed on top of one another, filling in the ditch to create a road that is even with the terrain.
Once the ditch was completed, the workers would start to add the layers. First, they would pack down the earth at the bottom, creating a solid base. Then an even pile of stones would be added, followed by a layer of Roman-made concrete and cement made from lime.
After the concrete, a top layer of large paving stones was added and placed in a way that would keep rainwater from pooling at the center. An elevated sidewalk would be constructed on each side, the final step to completing that part of the road.
Spartacus' Revolt and the Appian Way Crucifixion
Everyone has heard of Spartacus - not least from the Kirk Douglas movie and more recent TV series. But we know remarkably little about the man himself.
Spartacus was, we think, from Thrace in Northern Greece, and was enslaved by the Romans during their conquests in Greece during the 1st century BC.
Based in Capua near Naples, Spartacus never fought in Rome. Nor did he fight in the Colosseum, which wouldn't be built for another 150 years. What we do know is that in 73 BC, Spartacus, along with around 70 others, managed to escape from their Gladiator School in Capua, fighting their way to freedom with utensils seized from the kitchen before stocking up on heavier weapons from a cart traveling down the Appian Way.
There's an irony to the fact that Spartacus and his men were able to exploit the mobility the Appian Way afforded and use it against the Roman Republic.
Spartacus and his fellow slaves roamed from town to town, bringing more and more slaves to their cause. Considering that slaves made up around one-third of Italy's population, we're talking about no small number.
The rebels took up position on Mount Vesuvius, their numbers swelling to some 70,000, from where they inflicted several crushing defeats on the Roman legions. Eventually, the Senate entrusted the task of destroying the revolt to Marcus Licinius Crassus, who marched south with 40,000 well-trained legionaries to bring the revolt to an end once and for all.
Spartacus' forces retreated from Vesuvius, making their way towards the southern coast of Italy at Brundisium (Brindisi). But from here there was no escape. Caught between the sea and Crassus' advancing forces, and betrayed by pirates who Spartacus had begged to transport them across the Adriatic to Greece, the rebels' discipline broke down.
Crassus defeated Spartacus' men in battle in 71 BC. Most of our sources say Spartacus himself was killed in battle. His body, however, was never found. As for the 6,000 or so survivors from the rebellion, at Crassus' command, they were crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua - a stark reminder to anyone harboring ideas to rise up against Rome.
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What to see on the Appian Way
Because burial within Rome's city walls was forbidden (except if you were a Caesar), scores of tombs and burial structures line the Appian Way.From extensive catacombs and the remains of imperial mausoleums to more humble inscriptions recounting the lives of lost loved ones, many are still visible and most now open to the public. Below is a list of the main attractions on the Appian Way. Keep an eye on this page: we'll soon have separate attraction pages for each.
Where does the Appian Way start in Rome?
The Appian Way starts just south of the Circus Maximus and Baths of Caracalla on the Via Appia Antica.
Although the first part of the walk is picturesque, taking you beneath the Arch of Drusus and Porta San Sebastiano, most of the road thereafter is modern and trafficked. To get to the ancient part directly, you're best off taking one of our Appian Way tours.
How long does it take to walk the Appian Way?
To walk from Rome to Brindisi (the road's terminus) would take you 119 hours.
But because much of the Appian Way has been lost or built over, you can only walk about seven miles of it from Rome.
Depending on how often you want to stop off and explore its many monuments, villas, and catacombs, this could take anywhere between 2.5 hours to a full day. If you're going it alone, you'd do well to check the bus timetables (no. 118 from the Via Appia Antica to the Colosseum is your best bet).
What was the purpose of the Appian Way?
The Appian Way was built to improve the Romans' efficiency, first to facilitate the movement of Roman soldiers during the Samnite Wars, later to facilitate ease of trade and movement among the burgeoning citizenry of Rome and her Empire.