I HOUGHT HORACE was a sniveler. I mean Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the great Roman poet. What gave me this impression was a satire he wrote about his trip down the Via Appia 2,018 years ago. The Appia was the first and the most famous of Rome’s long-distance military-commercial highways, by which she bound her conquests to her, and it was 275 years old when Horace took his tour in 37 B. C. The Romans called it the Queen of Roads, but it is just a l’il ole road by modern standards. Only 380 Roman miles (360 of ours), it extended from Roma to Brundisium on the Adriatic, and Horace cry-babied all the way.
The mosquitoes are fearless, he wrote, the innkeepers sharp, road rough, water foul, tourists hot-tempered, dust eye-inflaming, bureaucrats pompous, hills sirocco-scorched, bread bad, rain wearying, and natives baffling.
I have now taken this trip myself. My respect for Horace as a reporter has risen. In an age when travel for pleasure had only begun, he was a pioneer tourist. The peccadilloes of tourism he recounted are eternal, as I can verify, but they are still as welcome to tourists as they really were to Horace. Without them, how could he—or we—have an amusing traveler’s tale to tell?
Horace, all in all, seemed to think the Appian game well worth the candle. So did I. The amazing people we both met made it an unforgettable experience. Horace sang of “delightful” friends and their hospitality, which he strained to the utmost, as did I. But I had a further pleasure he unfortunately missed: all those fascinating ruins, which were just plain uninteresting buildings when Horace passed by.
I started from Rome, like Horace, but I started with the ruins of what for him must have been the most grandiose avenue in all Italy. It is ten straight miles of the Via Appia Antica, or “Ancient Appian Way,” that run south from Rome’s ancient boundary at the Porta Capena toward the town of Albano. Today 4.5 of these miles are within Rome’s city limits. Along the Way you can still ride or walk on patches of the huge green-gray volcanic selce stones that Romans paved with. Ruins of Roman tombs line the Appia because rich Romans coveted burial where catacombs, San Sebastiano and San Callisto, stretch through ten miles of corridors. Chiefly used in the first four centuries A. D. , the catacombs held not only commonfolk, but, in San Callisto, six of the early popes.
Today, few funerals on the Appia, but many marriages. The big cachet is to be wed on the Appia Antica in the “Pope’s church,” the Church of San Cesareo in Palatio, near the head of the Way. Every cardinal has a “Roman seat,” and this was Cardinal Wojtyla’s before he became Pope John Paul IL
In excellent Appian restaurants near the Pope’s church occur the huge wedding parties Italians favor. My wife, Hannah, and I dropped in on the Quo Vadis for lunch one Sunday as 200 wedding guests—coatless and tieless in the October heat—were roaring toasts of “Bacio, bacio!—Kiss, kiss!” Bride and groom stood and responded with deep, serious, very Italianate kisses.
ASIDE FROM WEDDINGS, it was the many other Christian aspects of the urban Appia that most riveted me. The strip is, of course, also littered with provocative Roman ruins—and with provoking Roman litter. The Italian government and the city of Rome own different Roman monuments here, but neither has the money to restore or maintain them properly. By contrast, the Vatican owns and beautifully maintains all Christian monuments, such as the Appian catacombs.
In the little church of Domine Quo Vadis, I saw with my own eyes the footprints of Christ. Well, they were a marble copy made in 1830 of purported footprints of Christ in a selce block of Appian pavement near the church. The feet are very narrow and flat.
Today he wouldn’t have a prayer. The traffic and din are horrendous. The Appia has only two and one-eighth lanes, and Roman drivers fantasize it has three. As the would-be passers try to get round into that illusionary third lane, they beep endlessly on shrill horns. If you need to rent a car to go and see for yourself, you can do rental cars comparison and choose the best car for you.
It is no atmosphere for viewing the moody marvels of antiquity, but since the average Italian thinks ruins are to be used or abused, not viewed, little mood remains. Renaissance men built houses atop the Tomb of the Scipioni and the so-called Tomb of Cotta, or Casal Rotondo, and both are still lived in. Farmers are currently plowing up the Villa of the Quintilii brothers, a place once so luxurious that Emperor Commodus had the brothers murdered to get it. Trash dumpers ceaselessly swamp the tomb of a lovely lady, Cecilia Metella, who once knew Julius Caesar. (Dumpers engulf ruins in a weirdly specialized way: Cecilia attracts almost exclusively dumpers of old tires and defunct medical supplies.) Cars beat up what little ancient polygonal pavement remains, and their exhaust erodes the monuments. Vandals have whisked away even 300-pound selce polygons, to be sold on the “block” market for quaint driveways.