The Magazine

Road to Rome

The superhighway that connected, and consolidated, the Empire.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By THOMAS SWICK
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There were actually two Appian Ways. The second, built by Emperor Trajan, ran from Brindisi to Benevento on a slightly northern path that pretty much paralleled the original. It was named, predictably, Via Appia Traiana. Driving slowly toward Rome, Kaster and his wife stop in Taranto, “the most polluted city in western Europe,” and find an impressive collection of Greek art in the archaeological museum. With his characteristically light touch, he lets drop that one of the city’s sons, Archytas of Tarentum, was a friend
of Plato.

The easy glide through historical periods helps make The Appian Way an edifying treat. In Gravina, Kaster visits Santa Maria del Suffragio and enlightens for several pages about “purgatory churches,” a southern Italian/Sicilian specialty of the 16th and 17th centuries. Up the road in Melfi, he’s back in the museum examining artifacts of “Italic and Etruscan and Greek influences” that tell of “the high level of material culture and affluence that the region enjoyed before the coming of Rome.” The contemporary world intrudes occasionally into the journey, most jarringly near Lacedonia in the form of giant windmills. Though he finds them unsightly, Kaster wonders if people once thought the same
of aqueducts.

There are very few interactions with locals, and those that do occur quickly conjure up the past, as when an elderly man in Benevento passionately tells the Americans of the “great battle.” Only when he passes a sign for “Forche Caudine,” an hour later, does Kaster realize that the man was referring to the humiliating defeat of the Roman Army in this place at the beginning of the Second Samnite War in 321 b.c. Later, Kaster asks the young receptionist at his hotel if she knows about the Caudine Forks, and she assures him that she does. “After all,” she says with a pride that rattles the professor, “I am a Sannita.”

Formia, 82 miles from Rome, introduces Cicero into the story, for it is the site of his so-called tomb. Kaster presents a deft, succinct portrait of the man, showing his two sides, and concludes that he “wrote some of the best prose ever composed in any language, with the same impact on the future of Latin that Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible have had on English.” Not for the first time in The Appian Way you’re glad you’re traveling with a professor of classics.

Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.