Ancient Roman Road’s Beginning Will Remain a Mystery for Now

ROME — It’s a question that has long eluded an answer: where exactly was the beginning of the Appian Way, the ancient Roman thoroughfare so famous that it was known as the “regina viarum,” or queen of roads.

Remains of the original Appian Way, named for Appius Claudius, a Roman consul, and begun in 312 B.C., are still visible (and make for a great walk) within Rome. But traces of the so-called first mile remain buried some eight meters, or 26 feet, below the street level of contemporary Rome.

Last July, a team of archaeologists began a hunt for the lost starting point of the Via Appia by excavating a site in front of a row of ancient shops — still visible — that were once part of the monumental entrance to the thermal baths that the Emperor Caracalla built in A.D. 211.

A section of an ancient wall unearthed in the search.Credit…Fabio Caricchia/Italian Culture Ministry, via Reuters

Digging down through Rome’s millenary history, archaeologists and historians collected plenty of information and data to crunch. They found traces of the farmland and vineyards that occupied this area for more than 1,000 years, until Rome rapidly modernized and expanded after it was named capital of Italy in 1870.

And they unearthed the remains of a 10th-century road, and even older buildings, finds that suggest that from the sixth century A.D. through the high Middle Ages, this was a busy district. Archaeologists think the structures might have been shops serving pilgrims who stopped in the Christian sites that are believed to have sprung up in the area in that time.

“Urban excavations provide vital information to better understand the topography of an area during various eras,” said Mirella Serlorenzi, the scientific director of the excavation, which is being carried out by the Special Superintendence of Rome, a branch of the culture ministry, and Roma Tre University.

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But the excavation was hampered — and ultimately stalled — by a powerful flow of groundwater that even modern pumps couldn’t keep up with.

“Unfortunately, because of the groundwater, we can’t go any further down,” said Ms. Serlorenzi, who is also the director of the Baths of Caracalla. She pointed to a section of excavated earth with a wide gash through which gushed a sizable stream of water. “We risked losing knowledge and information,” she said, so the excavations were stopped when archaeologists reached a level about a meter and a half above the Roman-era street level.

Digging down through millenia of earth trying to find the starting point of the “queen of roads.”Credit…Fabio Caricchia/Italian Culture Ministry, via Reuters

“It was an extremely complex excavation,” echoed Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, a professor of Medieval Archaeology at Roma Tre who worked on the site on a daily basis.

The location was selected on the basis of a series of preliminary studies that began in 2018, using European Union funds. And the initial evidence suggests that archaeologists could be on the right track.

Ancient sources report that in the vicinity, Septimius Severus, who was emperor from 193 to 211, had a broader thoroughfare — 100 Roman feet wide — built to accommodate the growing Roman population. Known as the Via Nova, the road is marked in the Forma Urbis Romae, the great third-century marble map of Rome. Debate continues among archaeologists over the interconnection between the Via Nova and the Via Appian — whether they were side by side, whether the Nova was placed directly above the older road, or whether Septimius merely widened the Appia to create the Nova.

The walls of the shops found in the current excavation stand about 30 meters — or 100 Roman feet — from the still-visible shops in front of the Baths of Caracalla, meaning that the road that passed in between would correspond with the exact width of the Via Nova. So there are compelling signs that a road existed where the digging took place, “but we still can’t say whether this was or wasn’t the Appian Way,” Ms. Serlorenzi said. New excavations will depend on whether funding can be found.

Artifacts unearthed during the excavation point to many centuries of occupancy, including pottery dating to various epochs, a marble head of a boy dating to the third century, tiny Roman-era bronze coins that archaeologists described as “spare change for minor expenses” and a more precious square coin minted between 690 and 730, at the time that papal power was rising in Rome.

The marble head from a statue of a boy dating from around the second century.Credit…Fabio Caricchia/Italian Culture Ministry, via Reuters
Medieval coins found during the excavations.Credit…Fabio Caricchia/Italian Culture Ministry, via Reuters

The dig was chronicled on a regular basis for the general public, who could follow developments via a Facebook page. For specialists, more detailed reports were available on a government website.

Professor Santangeli Valenzani noted that the water problem had been known since ancient times, when the area was known as a “public pool.” Before Caracalla built his baths here, two other emperors had also built thermal structures in the area. “The water problem just got worse when they stopped maintaining local sewers in the 5th century,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Appian Way in its entirety, all 341-odd miles from Rome to Brindisi, a city on Italy’s southeastern coast, was pitched as a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“This excavation is a good fit for the candidacy, said Daniela Porro, Rome’s special superintendent.

It’s good for the city, too, experts say.

“One of the merits of this dig is to shine the spotlight on an area where the history of Rome is stratified,” said Daniele Manacorda, a retired archaeology professor at Roma Tre who has extensively researched the elusive first mile. “It’s a tract that thousands of people pass by each day, distractedly driving their car. They probably have no idea where they are.”

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