There are roads that are as storied as rivers, though the reasons for their notoriety are much more varied. The Silk Road (which was really a collection of roads) stands forever as a conduit, of goods and ideas, between East and West. The Tokaido lives on, in the prints of Hiroshige, as a pastoral passageway connecting Kyoto to Edo. South Asia’s Grand Trunk Road—of which Kipling wrote, “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”—is famous today for being if anything even more manic. Route 66, though decades defunct, remains a symbol of Americans’ love affair with the automobile, and our 20th-century movement toward the sun.
The road that probably resides deepest in our memories is the Appian Way. We learn about it in school—along with the Forum and the Colosseum—and so we see it as both a relic and a precursor, a history-laden exemplar of a modern-day necessity, a distant, glorious ancestor of I-95.
Famous roads begin by carrying people and end up carrying travel writers. Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road appeared in 2007, 10 years after Anthony Weller’s Days and Nights on the Grand Trunk Road. Stories about following old Route 66 are a staple of Sunday travel sections. The Appian Way has now attracted the attention not of a travel writer but of a professor of classics: Robert A. Kaster of Princeton. It is fitting for a road that survives more vividly in the past than it does in the present.
In the opening pages Kaster enumerates the reasons for his fascination. It was, he writes, “the first great road of Europe . . . and it remained for centuries a model of the engineering that was among the Romans’ greatest achievements.” Because of its reach—stretching from Rome to Brundisium (Brindisi)—it aided in the unification of numerous and diverse regions. Kaster presents the astounding statistic that the Roman Empire’s public roads ultimately covered a total of 75,000 miles—compared to the slightly over 46,000 miles of our Interstate Highway System!
Those are some of the more practical attractions. But Kaster was also drawn to the Appian Way because it was a “road of power,” spreading and consolidating the empire’s influence, and also a “road of death,” as tombs of the elite and the lowly lined both sides. In a culture that didn’t believe in an afterlife, Kaster explains, building a monument along the continent’s most-traveled thoroughfare was a way to ensure that your name and memory didn’t die with you. The greatest act of self-engendered remembrance was that of Appius Claudius Caecus, who ordered the construction of the road and promptly gave it his name. (Starting a practice that became the norm at the time.) Rome’s first aqueduct was another of his eponymous achievements, both public works undertaken “allegedly without the senate’s sanction and at a cost that depleted the treasury.” (Kaster inserts a very funny bit of dialogue from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which a complaint about the Romans’ voraciousness is met with a begrudging acknowledgment of their invaluable gifts: the aqueduct, the sanitation, and the roads. He then notes that two of the three were “initiated by Appius Claudius Caecus . . . in 312.”)
The road was the more massive project. Pliny the Elder compared the Romans’ roads to the Egyptians’ pyramids, noting that the roads had the additional distinction of actually serving a purpose. In its 353-mile length, the Appian Way crossed mountains, marshes, and rivers. Kaster spends a page and a half on the roadbed and the paving, which were dug and laid by “slaves and criminals, who were not expected to survive the experience.” Then there is a fascinating digression on Roman slaves, as Kaster explains the differences between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the house. The latter, for one thing, had an extremely good chance of gaining their freedom, a gift that the Romans, unlike the Greeks, bestowed frequently.
Taking a stroll with his wife, their backs to the capital, Kaster recalls the impressions of others who have traveled the Appian Way, notably Charles Dickens (whose descriptions he finds a bit breathless) and Henry James. And of course, he includes his own: He delights in the rows of old stone pines, reads inscriptions (his Latin is considerably better than his Italian), and, near the ninth milestone, runs into prostitutes who remind him that some things haven’t changed along the ancient highway. Though he doesn’t meet up with any witches.
Midway through the book, the Kasters travel to Brindisi to follow the road as it leads, aphoristically, to Rome. Or, more precisely, led: There are scant traces of the paving stones that once stretched so triumphantly across the peninsula. A photograph of a field on page 61 carries the caption: “Via Appia, Aeclanum.”
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
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
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.