Of all the roads that led to Rome, Via Appia Antica (begun in 312 b.c.) was the most famous. It eventually stretched all the way from Rome to the seaport of Brindisi, through which trade with Greece and the East was funneled. (According to Christian tradition, it was along the Appian Way that an escaping Peter encountered the vision of Christ, causing him to go back into the city to face martyrdom.) The road’s initial stretch in Rome is lined with the monuments and ancient tombs of patrician Roman families—burials were forbidden within the city walls as early as the 5th century b.c.—and, below ground, miles of tunnels hewn out of the soft tufa stone.
These tunnels, or catacombs, were where early Christians buried their dead and, during the worst times of persecution, held clandestine church services. A few of them are open to the public, so you can wander through musty-smelling tunnels whose walls are gouged out with tens of thousands of burial niches. Early Christians referred to each chamber as a dormitorio—they believed the bodies were merely sleeping, awaiting resurrection (which is why the traditional Roman practice of cremation was not tolerated). In some of these the remains of early Christian art are visible.
The Appia Antica Park is a popular Sunday lunch picnic site for Roman families, and is closed to cars on Sundays, left for the picnickers and bicyclists and inline skaters. See www.parcoappiaantica.it for more on the park, including downloadable maps.
To reach the catacombs area, take bus no. 218 from the San Giovanni Metro stop and wait at the bus stop on the opposite side of the road to the Basilica. Around 2 or 3 services per hour run during daylight hours. This bus bumps along the cobblestones of the Appia Antica for a bit and then veers right on Via Ardeatina at Domine Quo Vadis church. After a long block, it stops at the square Largo Ardeatina, near the gate to the San Callisto catacombs. From here, you can walk right on Via delle Sette Chiese to the Domitilla catacombs or fork left on Via delle Sette Chiese to the San Sebastiano catacombs. Insider’s tip: This bus service can be unreliable. If you are in a hurry to accommodate your visit to the catacombs, opt for a taxi.
The most impressive of the monuments on the Appian Way itself, is the Tomb of Cecilia Metella ★, within walking distance of the catacombs. The cylindrical tomb honors the wife of one of Julius Caesar’s military commanders from the republican era. Why such an elaborate tomb for a figure of relatively minor historical importance? Simply because Cecilia Metella’s tomb has remained and the others have decayed.
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