Building of the Appian Way Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Appian Way, a major highway, improved transportation of people and goods within the Roman Empire.

Summary of Event

During the first centuries of the Roman conquest of Italy, there were no major roads to connect the growing city on the Tiber River with other areas on the peninsula. Whereas the Persians had created a partially paved road system through their wide domain, Italian travel was limited before 300 b.c.e. In the early fourth century, short gravel or dirt trackways reached out from Rome to Alba Longa 12 miles (19 kilometers) to the south, and east to the salt beds in the mountains. Among his many duties, the Roman magistrate known as the censor was charged with maintaining such roads. Claudius Caecus, Appius Trajan

The earliest paved highway of any length in Italy was begun in the year 312 b.c.e., when the censor Appius Claudius Caecus took the initiative in projecting a military highway south from Rome. Appius was a vigorous patrician and two-time consul who was also credited with constructing Rome’s first aqueduct and with enrolling plebeians in the senate. His chief monument, however, was the road he began, which was named the Via Appia in his honor.

The Appian Way.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Surveyors laid out the first 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the road on a straight southwest line paralleling the seacoast, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) inland. Rapid military access to the coast may have been one purpose for the highway. Its chief original objective, however, was the key city of Capua, in the heart of the fertile Campanian Plain. Capua had recently been captured by Roman armies, and Roman military colonies had been founded in strategic sites near Capua.

Less than 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the new road was paved immediately. On this section, laborers dug a trench 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide and 3 feet (0.9 meter) deep. Lining this with layers of loose gravel and small rock, they carefully fitted large slabs of polygonal stone into place as a surface. This segment of the road climbed to a ridge, from which it provided panoramic views of flat lands toward the sea as well as the Alban Hills to the east. An old village, Bovillae, was the first post-station at the end of the original paved area in 292 b.c.e.

Climbing and descending more steeply, travelers reached the village of Ariccia, where many travelers, including the poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.), spent the first night out of Rome. At such points, the road was intersected by a crossroad, used by farmers to bring produce to a village market. Beyond Ariccia were the broad Pomptine Marshes, where it was necessary to drive in wooden pilings to raise a causeway 6 feet (1.8 meters) above the swamp land. At a trade center called Forum Appii, the road ended temporarily. Travelers could take boats 20 miles (32 kilometers) to Terracina or choose a long detour inland.

South of Terracina were mountains, forcing a zigzag route until a sea-level road was cut into the cliffs during imperial times. A four-arch brick bridge crossed the Liri River, and at Sinuessa the road turned sharply eastward along the Volturno River until it crossed on another massive bridge into Capua, 132 miles (213 kilometers) from the Roman Forum.

Too blind to see the finished project, Appius was said to have walked barefoot on the road to feel that the stones were well placed. Later, the highway was stretched out to Venusia, a colony settled by twenty thousand inhabitants. By 264 b.c.e., the road reached the sea at the ports of Tarentum and Brundisium, a total of 366 miles (590 kilometers) from Rome.

Other highways later shared the traffic, but the Via Appia remained the chief route south of Rome well into imperial times. About 250 b.c.e., milestones were placed at intervals measuring 5,000 Roman feet (approximately 4,860 feet or 1,480 meters). Trees planted by the roadside shaded travelers. In ancient times and later during the medieval period, rich Italians built tombs alongside the road, which eventually became lined with markets, towns, temples, monasteries, and other landmarks. One famous location was the Quo Vadis Church, where, according to legend, Saint Peter was said to have met his Lord and turned back during his flight from Rome.

Significance

Finally paved to Brundisium by the emperor Trajan in 114 c.e., the Appian Way was called the Queen of Roads by the poet Statius (c. 46-96 c.e.). By that time, a complex web of roadways, built to the same pattern, crisscrossed the Roman Empire. Built to last and constructed on deep-set roadbeds resistant to flood or frost, these roads bound together Rome’s conquests. Although originally used as military passageways, these roads served many other purposes. Roman civilians, such as Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.), and provincials, such as the apostle Paul (c. 10-c. 64 c.e.), traveled on these roads. It could be argued that these roads, which ensured direct, relatively easy travel between cities and among provinces, were a key element in administering and maintaining the imperial bureaucracy over such a huge territory as Rome commanded at its height.

In paving their 53,000 miles (85,500 kilometers) of roads, the Romans used many local stones. The most common type of stone found in Italy was the hard green-black volcanic basalt used along much of the Appian Way. Although floods or cultivation have obliterated the old road in many places, long stretches are still usable, paralleling more modern highways. The fact that modern highways do parallel the Roman roads is a testament to the Romans’ efficiency in plotting out the most efficient route between two points.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamblin, Dora Jane. The Appian Way, a Journey. New York: Random House, 1974. Part travelogue, part history, this work provides a highly readable introduction to the Appian Way. Short but useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKendrick, Paul. The Mute Stones Speak. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Expertly combining archaeological information with historical and social insight, this work contains a valuable short survey of Roman road construction, including the Via Appia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paget, Robert F. Central Italy: An Archaeological Guide. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Press, 1973. In addition to providing a wealth of archaeological information about Italian prehistory and Villanovan, Etruscan, Samnite, Italic, and early Roman remains, this work also discusses the ancient Roman road system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scullard, Howard Hayes. A History of the Roman World: 753-146 b.c. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Lavishly detailed and comprehensive in scope, this book places the construction of the Via Appia in its context of Roman economic, military, and social history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staccioli, Romolo Augusto. The Roads of the Romans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An amazingly detailed study of the road system of the Roman Empire, starting with the streets of Rome itself and moving outward to discuss the construction, maintenance, and importance of roads throughout the empire.
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