Often referred to as the first ever built highway, the Via Appia Antica (Appian Way in English) is a perfect example of the might of the Roman Empire and of how masterful Roman engineers were.
Today, the Parco Regionale dell’Appia Antica is one of the most interesting places to visit in Rome, whether you wish to get away from the typical crowds of the historic center, or you are simply interested in learning more about the history of the city.
As you can certainly imagine, I have explored the Appian Way many times, so I thought I’d share what I have learned with you, putting together (in a much simplified version) its history, and highlighting the best attractions you can see there. Let me however start by pointing out where the Appian Way is actually located.
Where Is The Appian Way / Via Appia Antica?
It might be an incredibly long route, but working out exactly where the Appian Way lies might be a bit confusing at first. It starts at the Roman Forum, but you won’t really see much evidence of it.
Ten miles of the road are protected by the Parco Regionale Appia Antica (Appian Way Regional Park), which clocks in at around 4,580 hectares in the area — Europe’s second-biggest urban park. Part of this includes the Parco della Caffarella, extending to the southeast of the city, which makes up part of the larger regional park.
You should also read my post The Nicest Gardens And Parks In Rome.
The History Of Via Appia Antica
The Appian Way was the Roman Republic’s earliest and most strategically important road. Connecting Rome, the center of power, with the southeastern coastal city of Brundisium (today’s Brindisi) — a significant port to this day — and passing through many towns along the way such as Capua (near Naples), the road was integral to the development of the Roman Empire.
The Appian Way was first begun by the Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BC (hence the name “Appia”). A descendant of the Sabine people, Appius Claudius became censor, a magistrate in charge of certain upper levels of government, that same year, and used his power to advocate for the common people.
One of the ways in which he planned to help the people of Rome was to embark on a series of public works, often without the prior approval of the Roman Senate.
These public works were specifically designed to solve the problem of the supply chain to the city of Rome, in terms of goods and trade. An example of these works is the Aqua Appia, an aqueduct that would become famed for its scale, bringing fresh water from the mountains to the city.
Before the construction of the Via Appia, Roman roads were far from being the famous trading routes they would later become.
They were mere dirt tracks that became impassable when wet, meaning wheeled vehicles, often carrying produce and goods to trade, were unable to get from one place to another. But things were about to change, thanks to the planning of engineers employed by Appius Claudius.
The Via Appia Antica showcases a development in road construction; starting off as a level dirt road, small stones and then mortar were laid on top, followed by gravel, on top of which interlocking slabs of dressed basalt were placed as paving.
This ensured that the road would be passable in all weather conditions, with the solid ground remaining stable and a camber in the center of the road allowing for water to run off into ditches on either side.
The stones of the Appian Way were so well placed together that the historian Procopius, writing in the 6th century, said that slabs seem to have grown together organically, rather than being artificially fitted.
Officially, the Appian Way started in the center of Rome at the Forum, passing through the ancient defensive Servian Walls at the Porta Capena as it left the city proper. It then passed through the suburbs of the city, along the route of a pre-existing ancient track, towards the Alban Hills, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Rome, cutting through the terrain rather than skirting around the hills for a more direct route.
It’s here that the route crosses the Pontine Marshes. Again, the new road-building technology saved the day, allowing for the construction of a stone causeway to cut across the boggy, stagnant waters of the marsh.
Originally, however, Appius Claudius had plans for draining the marsh entirely (but this failed). This part through the Pontine Marshes was almost constantly undergoing repair work due to the wet conditions.
The Via Appia continued onwards and hit the coastal road at Terracina, 56 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Rome. Construction of the new route here, however, straightened up the older, pre-existing road. It then continued to Capua, where it actually ended until the road was later extended to Brundisium.
There were many extensions of the Via Appia, which could only travel as far as the Romans themselves conquered.
As the empire moved towards the south of Italy, the road, too, moved with it. In 290 BC, following the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC), the Samnite people no longer held power over the heel of Italy, leaving it open for Roman conquest and development. The road eventually crossed the Apennine Mountains and was further extended to Tarentum.
The expansion to the port of Tarentum was alarming to the Greek colonies in southern Italy. They hired King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a mercenary of the Hellenistic period, who went off to fight the Romans in the name of the Greeks.
Pyrrhus and his forces were actually able to defeat the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC. However, the victory was so costly to Pyrrhus that he is said to have remarked, “One more such victory and I am lost”, giving rise to the idiom a pyrrhic victory.
The Romans then marched on the Greek city of Reggio, in present-day Calabria, and massacred the population. In revenge, Pyrrhus rampaged up the Via Appia straight to Rome — the road that had made it so easy for Rome to conquer further was now being used against it.
What followed was the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, before the Romans eventually drove Pyrrhus away, helped by the advantages of the Via Appia.
With the Greek threat essentially dealt with, in 264 BC, the Via Appia was finally able to reach Brundisium — the harbor where ships arrived from (and left for) Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Appius Claudius died in 273 BC, almost a decade before the road reached its end goal, but his name remained forever attached to the history of this groundbreaking route.
Throughout the Roman Republic and Imperial Rome, the Appian Way was a witness to many historic events, including the crucifixion of Spartacus’s army in 71 BC.
Spartacus started an enormous slave rebellion in 73 BC, and won several victories against Roman forces. However, eventually, he was defeated and he, alongside 6,000 slaves, was crucified along the 200 kilometers (120 miles) of the Via Appia between Rome and Capua to both serve as a warning and showcase the power of the Roman state.
The Via Appia was in constant use for several centuries, with maintenance regularly carried out to ensure that nothing ever hampered trade or travel along the important route. Sadly, however, during the Middle Ages, the Appian Way fell into a period of abandonment and disuse.
But in the 14th century, the road experienced something of a renaissance. It became an integral passageway for the powerful Papal States, connecting Rome with the south of Italy. At this time, it was fully restored by both the popes and the Kings of Naples.
Several centuries later, Napoleon also highlighted the Appian Way as an essential route for his political and military ambitions.
Particularly important restoration works were undertaken in the 19th century by architects and artists. The work carried out at this time was surprisingly modern and accurate, and acknowledged just how important it was to conserve the Via Appia Antica as part of Italy’s cultural heritage.
It also led to parks being created along stretches of the road, including the Parco degli Acquedotti.
In more recent times, the Via Appia Antica has been frequently studied, with professors able to map and rediscover sections of an ancient route that had long been forgotten.
Today the city of Rome is, of course, home to a portion of the Via Appia, which plays host to a number of monuments and structures that were built along the road throughout its 2,000-plus years of history.
These showcase just how important the route was to the development of Rome, and the role that the Via Appia has played in art and cultural works in more modern times.
Best Places To Visit Along The Appian Way
Although it’s a huge stretching route, the portion of the Via Appia Antica near Rome plays host to a surprisingly dense collection of historic monuments and interesting sights. It makes for an amazing place to explore and stroll around, especially when the weather is nice.
Parco degli Acquedotti
Named after the aqueducts that cut through the park, the Parco degli Acquedotti is also part of the larger Appian Way Regional Park. Once upon a time, the park was a portion of the untended countryside, and home to unofficial dwellings, before it was made into a park in 1988.
The aqueducts that were created here once brought much-needed drinking water to the citizens of Rome. They carried water from the mountains in eastern Lazio along these feats of engineering to the center of the Empire.
Ruins of these aqueducts still remain, the most impressive being the Aqua Claudia, which was constructed between 38 and 52 AD. There’s also the Anio Vetus, which was first commissioned in 272 BC.
It’s not just aqueducts, however; here you’ll also find the remnants of another ancient Roman road — the Via Latina — as well as the remains of the 13th-century fortified Casale di Torrevecchia.
Of course, part of the Via Appia Antica also runs through the park. Today it’s a popular spot for modern-day Romans to relax on their days off; you’ll often see people going for a jog, having a picnic, or just strolling with friends.
You should also read my post A Guide To The Parco Degli Acquedotti, Rome.
The Appian Way was not just a place for transport. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, burials were not allowed within the holy walls of the city of Rome. This meant that a number of people were buried along the Via Appia, but not all of them worshiped Roman gods.
In fact, there are two major Christian catacombs that were constructed and remain below the much-traversed Via Appia. These are the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, which also boasts a 4th-century basilica, and the Catacombs of San Callisto, which was an important burial site for a number of early popes.
Here, early Christian believers were buried in what were effectively low-budget cemeteries. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Christians were buried in these catacombs. Upon their re-discovery, travelers on the Grand Tour would descend into the tunnels and explore the macabre confines of the catacombs by candlelight.
You cannot explore them independently: upon arriving you will have to join a tour led by a local guide. Photos inside the catacombs are not permitted.
Head over to my post The Most Interesting Rome Underground Sites.
Tomb of Caecilia Metella
It wasn’t only Christians who had to be buried outside the city walls. It was, in fact, a common practice for all Roman citizens to be interred outside the sacred boundaries of the city. Wealthy Romans in particular attempted to preserve their memory by creating enormous, dazzling memorials for themselves in the form of almost temple-like tombs.
The most famous of these is the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. This huge mausoleum lies at the three-mile mark along the Via Appia Antica and was built for the daughter of the richest man in Rome at the time: Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus, a consul in the year 69 BC.
It was built for Caecilia Metella and her family to be remembered and the fact that it remains today means that the wealthy Quintus Caecilius succeeded in his efforts.
Entrance to the Tomb of Caecilia Metella is included within the La Mia Appia Card, which is a combined ticket for sights within the Appia Antica Archaeological Park; this also includes Villa dei Quintili and the Villa Capo di Bove.
Villa dei Quintili
Located at the fifth mile of the Appian Way, just outside the boundaries of Rome, lies the Villa dei Quintili. This castle-like creation was constructed in 151 AD by a pair of wealthy brothers, Sextus Quintilius Condianus and Sextus Quntilius Valerius Maximus.
Once the center of extensive grounds that sprawled over a large area, the villa was almost like a town in itself.
It had its own thermae (baths), fed by its very own aqueduct, and even a hippodrome that was added during the reign of Emperor Commodus, who actually used the villa as his imperial property. Commodus wanted the villa so much that he had its owners sentenced to death in 182 AD so that he could move in.
Today, though in ruins, it’s easy to see how impressive this place once was — you can still see many friezes, the nymphaeum, and sculptures.
Entrance is included in the La Mia Appia Card.
Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis
Also known as Santa Maria in Palmis, the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis was one of the first churches to be built along the Via Appia. The small but important church sits on a crossroads of the Via Appia around 800 meters (around half a mile) from the Porta San Sebastiano, an important point of the ancient road that sees the Via Ardeatina split off towards the town of Ardea, 24 miles (39 kilometers) south of Rome.
The story goes that Peter, fleeing Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome in 64 AD, saw a vision of Jesus Christ. It’s Peter’s question about the apparition of Jesus that gave rise to the Latin phrase quo vadis.
“Domine, quo vadis?” asked Peter (That’s “Where are you going, Lord?” in English). “I’m going to Rome to be crucified once again,” replied Christ, according to legend. T
his spiritual encounter gave Peter the encouragement he needed to return to Rome to face the persecution head-on. According to tradition, it’s on this spot that the church was built in the 9th century, though the current structure dates back to 1637. It’s free to enter.
Make sure to also read my post The Must-See Churches In Rome.
How To Visit The Via Appia Antica Rome
Though it’s easy enough to travel to the Parco degli Acquedotti or the Parco della Caffarella, and simply stroll around without much purpose and discover things organically, it makes much more sense to plan your visit. That way you’ll be able to get the most out of your trip and get a more in-depth and well-rounded insight into this important ancient road.
Classic tours which include transportation in a shuttle bus are the most popular way of exploring the Via Appia Antica. Tours typically depart from the center of Rome – some will include pick up from your accommodation, but most will usually offer transportation from a meeting point.
You will then be shuttled to the various sites along the Via Appia Antica with a knowledgeable guide that will explain its history and the significance of the sites you will be visiting.
Here are some tours I recommend:
Crypts, Bones & Catacombs: An Underground Tour of Rome – my sister and I actually took this tour and truly enjoyed it. It goes to the Capuchin Crypt and then makes various stops along the Via Appia Antica, at the Parco degli Acquedotti and at the Catacombs. The guide is very knowledgeable, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
You also have the option of joining this Via Appia Antica guided tour by Touriks, which is one of the most reputable companies in Rome. I haven’t taken this tour specifically, but they are usually my go-tour operator for most tours in Rome and I know pretty much all their guide, and I guarantee they are excellent!
Finally, there’s this Catacombs of St. Callixtus and Appian Way guided tour which is a great option if want the comfort of having a guide and a shuttle. There will be plenty of chances to walk around and explore too.
Many visitors to the Via Appia Antica choose to explore it on two wheels. Having your own bike offers a chance to see more of the ancient route than if you were simply walking — basically, you can cover a lot more ground while pedaling.
Although you can obviously hire a bike yourself and explore on your own (EcoBike Roma is a great place to rent bikes and they help you plan your itinerary too), joining a bike tour offers a deeper experience. There are a number of different bike tours, all led by knowledgeable guides who will introduce you to the main sights along the Via Appia Antica.
These tours include visits to the aqueducts, the catacombs, and the old churches, and some include picnicking in picturesque countryside locations.
One such tour is this Appian Way guided e-bike tour with a market lunch of local produce.
Another option is this e-bike tour that whisks you around the classic sights, complete with an informative guide.
If you want to see more of the Via Appia Antica than simply by walking, and you’re a keen jogger or runner, then you might want to consider a running tour – one of the most reputable companies for that is ArcheoRunning.
For a running tour of the Parco degli Acquedotti with ArcheoRunning, click here.
Obviously, you need more of a level of fitness if you want to keep up with a tour like this (more than you’d need with an e-bike tour), but it’s a rewarding way to fit in a run while you’re in Rome and do some sightseeing all at the same time.
Even if you don’t opt for a tour, head to the Parco degli Acquedotti at the weekend and join locals as they run along the Via Appia with ancient aqueducts as the backdrop to your workout session.
You should also read my post Where To Go Running In Rome.
Of course, it’s possible to explore the Via Appia Antica independently; in fact, many people choose to discover the sights along the ancient road by themselves in this way.
The Rome section of the Appia Antica Regional Park can be accessed from the Colosseum by public transport. You can bop on bus 118, which takes around 13 minutes to get to the park. There’s also the option to take metro line A to Colli Albani, where you can get off to explore the park.
A good place to start your exploration is the Punto Informativo Appia Antica, which you’ll find in Via Appia Antica 60. The staff are really friendly and speak good English. They will help you with renting your own bike or e-bike and give you maps and information for exploring the park.
There are a number of specialized itineraries that you can follow in order to explore the park, including maps. These different routes focus on different aspects of the park and the Via Appia Antica, from natural sights to archeological wonders.