ancient Rome


I’ve noticed lately that a few people find this blog by searching for things like “ancient Roman queen.”  I am sorry to report that the ancient Romans didn’t have any ruling queens at all.  The early kings were, of course, married, but their wives played insignificant roles.  After the Republic began, Rome’s famous “no king, ever” policy ensured that any woman clever and ambitious enough to get power wouldn’t be able to do so by marrying the top dog.

Julius Caesar couldn’t have himself crowned King of Rome – remember the famous scene where Marc Antony offered him the wreath during the games and the crowd cheered when Caesar pushed it away?

Caesar did bring a queen to Rome, his innamorata, Cleopatra of Egypt.  She fascinated the Romans, but she wasn’t popular, and neither was her idea that crowned rulers were, in fact, descended from gods.  After Caesar’s murder, she decamped to Egypt.

One could argue that Livia Augusta and a few of the other Roman emperors’ wives were queens with authority, at least behind the scenes, but they weren’t called queens or even empresses.  And, certainly, any power they exercised was unofficial; Roman upper-class women were expected to stay home, not become political leaders.

So, I have to wonder why everyone’s looking for ancient Roman queens.  Is it term paper time?

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Keeping up with my running theme of search engine terms that lead folks here…

I lived across the Golfo di Gaeta from the eponymous city (Gaeta) for two years.  Perched high on a hill in Maranola di Formia, I woke up each day to a stunning view of one of Italy’s most beautiful coastal cities.  Gaeta doesn’t have a train station – it used to, but now the station’s site makes a great parking lot for Atratino’s – so it’s off the event horizon for most travel guidebook writers.  Lucky, lucky me.  Two years of living near a charming town that backpackers miss.

There are still plenty of foreign tourists in Gaeta, but they arrive courtesy of the U. S. Navy.  As the Navy draws down its presence there, we’ll eventually get to the point where the only Americans who go to Gaeta are people who were formerly stationed there, travelers who knew people formerly stationed there, or historical die-hards who love religious history and cool Italian church architecture. 

If you’re Catholic, Gaeta has special religious significance, because it was from Gaeta’s Golden Chapel that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed in 1853.  This teaching, which means that Mary, mother of Jesus, was conceived without Original Sin, was accepted and understood to be true by the Church long before the official proclamation date.  Still, it happened in Gaeta.

Another famous Catholic site in Gaeta is harder to find.  It’s Montagna Spaccata (“Split Mountain”) a formation of two high rocks, with a sharp cleft between them, that juts out into the sea.  You can only see this from a boat or by hiking up Monte Orlando to the monastery, which is now run by the missionary order of the P. I. M. E. Fathers.  This international order took over the monastery when the local diocese could no longer support it.  There’s a trail that leads out to the rock formation.

Local legend has it that Montagna Spaccata was formed on Good Friday, as Christ died on the cross.  This is why Monte Orlando is swamped by pilgrims every Easter Monday (“Pasquetta” in Italian), which is a holiday in Italy.  They trek up to the monastery to pay their respects…and kick off official Italian beach season with another type of family journey, later in the day.

Gaeta has a local pride that both typefies Italy and defies classification.  Gaeta’s ancient history ties the city closely to Rome.  Linguistically, the residents might be closer to Naples, but they cling to their status as residents of Lazio (the Italian region that includes Rome) with tenacity and what a non-Italian might call chutzpah.  They may sound like Napolitans, but they aren’t.  Quite.

This, to me, is Italy in microcosm.  Each town, each region, is special, unique and distinct.  When your history dates back over 2500 years, you have a right to local pride.  Gaetani have been fishing and sailing in their gulf for centuries; they’ve passed on family traditions to dozens of generations.  Their beautiful city is well worth a visit, I promise.

Hat tip and grateful thanks: Monsignor Bob Sable, who introduced me to the P. I. M. E. Fathers, their love of Oreo cookies, Gaeta’s history, and Rome’s presepi (Nativity scenes).

The Via Appia Antica’s no exception.  It leads you into the town of Ciampino, just outside Rome’s G. R. A. (like a beltway).  You can drive through the town or get onto the SS-7 past the airport.

I really like Ciampino Airport; it’s small and friendly, with low-cost, safe parking.  The only drawback is the lack of subway service; you have to take a bus into central Rome if you don’t have a car.  (And, trust me, you don’t want a car in central Rome!)

Once past Ciampino and the onramp to the G. R. A., you’re headed into Rome itself.  If you want to get onto the real Roman road, you’ll need to drive up SS-7 to one of the parking areas in the regional park now dedicated to the Via Appia.

Perhaps the most interesting place to stop is near the catacombs, which were ancient meeting places and burial sites for the earliest Christians.  There are a couple of different catacombs you can visit (one’s currently being restored and is closed), and you can also visit the churches of St. Sebastian and Domine Quo Vadis, where Jesus appeared to Peter.  You could spend a couple of days in this regional park, visiting monuments, exploring footpaths and riding bicycles along the Roman roadway.  The Via Appia Antica is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and families come out to hike and bike along Rome’s most famous roadway.

Although the Via Appia originally ended at the Roman Forum, you can’t get to that terminus by car nowadays.  Most people who explore the Via Appia Antica from central Rome out to the countryside begin in or near the Forum’s Palatine Hill, walk down toward the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla, and head out on Via di Porta San Sebastiano to the Via Appia Antica.

I’m planning to head back to the Via Appia Antica on my next trip to southern Italy.  Although I’ve visited some sections of this famous highway many times, I am endlessly fascinated by the history, technology and natural beauty that surrounds the “Regina Viarum.”  (Yes, the Romans called Via Appia the Queen of Roads.)

I confess to being entirely biased when it comes to travel in Italy’s Lazio region.  Not only does my favorite road, Via Appia Antica, run through Lazio, I lived in southern Lazio for two wonderful years. 

Now that my disclaimer’s out of the way, let’s return to the Via Appia (SS-7).  From Minturno, the road veers inland, away from the ancient cobblestoned street, and into the city of Formia.  Just past downtown Formia, Via Appia passes the tomb of Cicero, ancient Rome’s most famous orator, and heads inland toward Itri.  If you slow down and pay attention, you’ll notice a couple of stone markers along the SS-7.  These are real Roman milestones, built when the Roman soldiers made the road.

Off to the left of the modern paved street, a few stretches of Via Appia Antica’s cobblestoned surface parallel the SS-7.  You can walk along these old roadways, provided you can find a safe place to pull your car off the road.

Itri, where most Gaeta olives are grown, makes a great lunch stop.  Itri’s 9th-century castle perches on the side of the steep valley wall, and the small town below boasts some good restaurants and pizzerias.

Fondi, the next town you’ll pass on the Via Appia Antica, is another interesting town.  Fondi’s 14th-century castle is more substantial (OK, it’s downright bulky) than Itri’s.  Fondi’s weekly market is popular with shoppers from all the neighboring towns.

Terracina is one of my favorite Italian cities.  In ancient times, travelers complained about the incredible traffic jams.  People passing through Terracina usually stopped at the temple of Jupiter Anxur on the hill overlooking the city and sea, and the roadway leading to the summit was, and is, quite steep.  Eventually, things got so bad that the locals built history’s first recorded bypass around the base of the hill.

Nowadays, the Via Appia and Via Flacca (SS-148) converge and then split in Terracina.  From here, Via Appia becomes the straight, flat road of my imaginings.  In fact, it becomes pretty boring.

Via Appia Antica gets interesting again near Albano.  Here, in the hills outside of Rome, lies Lago di Albano (“Lake Albano) and Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of Catholic Popes since the late 1500’s.  It’s easy to see why.  The lake’s surface is incredibly blue, and the local towns sell delicious porchetta (roast pork) in restaurants and from roadside stands.

Via Appia heads downhill from here toward Ciampino Airport.  I’ll write more about Rome and the Via Appia Antica next time.

…besides the one I’m driving on, that is!

In my opinion, Italy’s Via Appia Antica (the ancient Appian Way) wins, hands down.  I used to live at the end of this famous road, in the city of Brindisi.  There, an ancient column marks the end of the first of Rome’s famous roadways.  I love standing next to that column and thinking about Octavian landing at Brindisi, his first Italian stop on the road to Rome, as he raced home to claim his inheritance from his assassinated great-uncle, Julius Caesar.

View from Brindisi's Via Appia column

With my family, I’ve traveled most of the Via Appia Antica – now replaced by the SS-7 paved road – by car.  I was working on a Girl Scout special interest patch about the Via Appia and ancient Roman life, and decided the best way to get to know the road was to experience every centimeter of it. 

I had no idea what I was getting into.  I envisioned a straight, flat road, covering the historic paths once walked by the Roman legions.  Roman soldiers built the Via Appia as they marched; they brought along tools, surveying equipment and plenty of manpower.  They quarried their materials locally.  You’d think they would take the most direct route from Rome to the Adriatic.

My analysis failed to include the mountains that run down the center of Italy.  They’re quite an obstacle, and the Via Appia Antica twists up and down their slopes.  I gained a new appreciation for those legionnaires as we trundled up hills and through narrow valleys.

The Via Appia Antica winds through Matera, where people lived in cave homes until just a few decades ago, better known now as the place Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ.  Past Matera, you travel through endless fields and up into the mountain city of Potenza, Basilicata’s regional capital. 

To me, the most fascinating part of any Italian journey is contemplating just how a group of people decided to build in a particular place.  Along the Via Appia, you can find towns stuck up against the sides of bleak mountains as well as villages in heat-blasted plains.  You’ll see regional parks with cool, dark forests and modern cities like Avellino.

One must-see stop along the Via Appia is Benevento.  This city boasts an ancient Roman arch, built by the emperor Trajan, and a theater that has been used for performances since the days of Hadrian.  Weary travelers will enjoy the gelato sold near the arch…it’s delicious.

Beyond Benevento, the road snakes past several towns and dumps you into Caserta.  If you watched Star Wars: Episode I, you’ve seen Caserta’s royal palace; George Lucas used it as Queen Amidala’s stately residence.  The Via Appia then passes through Capua, which looks quite run down but is conveniently near the ancient town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, where you can visit the ruins of a Roman amphitheater.

The road takes you over yet another mountain range and down toward the sea.  Just as you cross into the Lazio region, you’ll pass the town of Minturno.  Minturno’s worth a stop, because you can see part of the real Via Appia Antica (the ancient cobblestoned road) in the archaeological dig area near the sea. 

Next time, I’ll take you up through Lazio and to the Eternal City itself.