The romance of the classical – on the Appian Way


To the heart of youth the world is a highwayside.
Passing for ever, he fares; and on either hand,
Deep in the gardens golden pavilions hide

R. L. Stevenson, Songs of Travel

No youth, but a man in his 40s bareheaded under merciless sun. Nor were there any golden pavilions anywhere in the whole baking expanse of Lazio. Yet standing on one of the most famous highways in the world on that torrid timeless afternoon, I felt I had all of history at my command.

I stood between tombs below cypresses, challenged by countless cicadas. Under the trees was a soft and fragrant carpet of dropped pine needles and divulged cones, and low tumbled walls over which there were wide views of panting fields and the sere stage-set of the Alban Hills. The heat-hazed black basalt stripe of the Appian Way extended before and behind, empty of movement yet echoing with phantasms and fantasies of countless ceased comings and goings, passing and re-passing for ever on expired errands.

I was staring southwards, the direction northern Europeans most like to look, down, down the spinal cord of Italy towards the unseen Mediterranean – that inland ocean of significant islands, storied coasts and once-tributary continents. Another few steps, and I felt I would cross a threshold, and be committed irrevocably to the journey.

Such a perfect prospect and such breathless moments had been vouchsafed to countless imperial adventurers, who exported and expended themselves in return for the world’s wealth – that traffic monitored, as I felt I was being monitored, by unsleeping ancestors in sarcophagi, hovering and whispering forever about the Way as if not even death could arrest their interest in imperial affairs. The compact between the quick and the dead was never more obvious than there, that Sunday, in that classical contrast between then and now, them and us, arrival and departure, anticipation and regret.

I had seen earlier an ancient inscription fixed into a later wall, a three-line fragment of an otherwise lost valediction cut in elegant three-inch capitals, flanked on the right by a downwards-pointed blazing torch to symbolize the flickering-out of life and the dissolution of a once-loved person:




Broken as they were – because they were broken – the teasing words seemed to assume a larger size and a wider meaning, as if they had been written not about one person, but about the whole of the Way, the fabulous panorama of the Western Empire. Letters and lines lost, remains dismembered, names disremembered, dreams dissolved – again and again along this road which had carried soldiers, merchants, farmers, pleasure trippers, pilgrims, defeated Spartacists pinned up on crucifixes, and above all countless funeral processions of dictators, censors, senators, magistrates, priests, generals, old families and arrivistes lent respectability by ancientness. Here on “the queen of the long roads” the dead won’t stay quite dead, and the living are never fully awake. It’s pleasant to daydream about death when you’re on the Appian Way, and it may be inescapable on such a road on such a day when no-one else appears to be moving anywhere in Europe.

The early Christians buried their pre-departed outside the Aurelian Wall in accordance with Rome’s rules, with the huge undulating gecko-stalked fields I had seen earlier drum-like with semi-explored catacombs, successive burials cut counter-intuitively deeper into the soft tufa until the last interments of all were carried out at the bottom of towering trenches of tombs.

To those who believed, or even slightly believed, the idea of resting in proximity to Saint Cecilia and proto-popes, adjacent to the great road along which Peter had been taken in chains in AD 56 (purportedly the same chains displayed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli on the Esquiline a few miles to the north) was probably not such a frightening fate to those thereby assured of rising and reigning with the just. These huge and hollowed charnel-houses where so many unknowns have been waiting so long for translation are only faintly sad, as though some trace element of the hopes deposited here and the libations poured out for so many centuries at the shrines of saints had lodged in corners of the complex.

The Via Appia epitomizes the Empire’s evolution, emerging into history in 312 BC, a definite line leading out from the City and the tangled brambles of myth through magnificence to decline. Rome’s cultural catalogue calls across centuries to anyone even half-aware of being European – Aeneas escaping ruin, enigmatic Etruscans, twins suckled by wolves, tyrants tamed, bridges held, geese waking the guards, Gauls pulling the senator’s beard to discover if he were man or monument, brick becoming marble, the patient placing of ruler-straight roads across dizzying distances, eagles elevated and legions lost, empurpled eccentrics, king-makers and king-takers, provinces gambled in games, frontiers farmed out to mercenaries, and that final shabby century, when Goths came unresisted from the north to mow the crop of the debased citizenry – irrupting in at the Salarian Gate, opened by slaves who thought it was time they were masters, as Roman civilization ebbed out for ever to the south – the saddest Appian Way funeral procession of all.

After the sometime imperial subject Alaric finally took Rome for his own in 410, St Augustine wrote The City of God to emphasize the vanity of even imperial earthly aspirations – infuriated, according to tradition, by meeting Roman refugees whose chief concern now they had apparently witnessed the end of days was not to entreat the vengeful Lord but merely to locate Hippo’s theatres. The catastrophe of the Caput Mundi has provided Europeans ever since with a majestic narrative on which to hang huge historiological theories and from which they can derive endless melancholic pleasure.

As if this were not a sufficiently large donation to history, the transplanted Roman sun rose brilliantly again and shone for 1,043 years in Constantinople, the bulwark on the Bosphorus protecting Europe from the thronging East. When Constantine made his lamentable, lion-hearted exit and the longed-for “Red Apple” dropped at last into the eager hands of the Turks, Europe shivered as if it were 410 all over again.

Europe’s fear for the future was admixed with increasing respect for the past now finally consigned to the recorders and the raconteurs, the dramaturges and dreamers who sought classic examples to help them comprehend their own ages. As one such romantic, the Norfolk squire Sir Thomas Browne, wrote in his Hydriotaphia, Urn-burial of 1658 after Roman cinerary urns were unearthed by workmen on his estate:

Run up your thoughts upon the ancient of days, the antiquary’s truest object, unto whom the eldest parcels are young, and earth itself an infant.

That is just what one cannot help doing on the Appian Way – thinking about what Browne called “the Nations of the dead,” and how short a distance there always is between times and things – glory and vainglory, triumph and defeat, youth and age, life and death and sometimes back again.

Dehydrated, dusty, dirty and with blistering feet – but with the whole waiting whispering Way and West seemingly to myself – I wanted never to stop walking.


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