All great cultures and civilization have one essential thing in common. They all have great road networks. Roads, like rivers, are the viable arteries of life forces that transmit the elements of civilization. Roads carry travelers, armies, wanderers, and true believers. All of this is so very true of the Via Appia Antica as it leads out of Rome, extending with other Roman roads to the farthest reaches of the empire, throughout Italy and Europe, into the British Isles, and even in North Africa.
One can see and walk the Via Appia just south of Rome. It is very much as it was 2000 years ago. Because some parts of it are used by local people to get to and from their homes, sections have been covered over with asphalt. But if one walks far enough the original Roman road with its large basalt paving blocks appears once again. As of ancient times, the Via Appia is lined on both sides with marble monuments, some newer residences, pines and cypresses, and very large farms with impressive manor houses.
The emperor Augustus was the minister of road construction, and he set up the “milarium aureus” near the temple of Saturn in Rome. All roads were thought to begin at this gold gilded, bronze monument. In addition, the major cities and distances to them were listed on this golden mile stone. Constantine called this golden milarium the Umbilicus Romae. This is a fitting name, umbilicus, because it is the point from which the Roman Empire takes its birth. Constantine liked this golden milestone so much that he had a similar monument set up in Constantinople, the “Milion”.
At one time, the Roman roads had milestones every 4, 841 feet, 5 feet tall and weighing 2 tons, and had the distances inscribed at eye level, the most important being the distance to the Milarium in Rome at the Roman Forum and the Campidoglio.
I have seen and walked the Roman roads in the south of England. They are as straight as an arrow because the Roman engineers wasted no time and effort in creating a road from one point to another. Sometimes, they had to accommodate the course of the road by snaking around hill and mountains, but primarily they wasted nothing in effort and material. The Roman soldiers built most of the 80,500 miles of the Roman roads—a good thing because they had years of practical road building experience.
As I walked the Via Appia, I remembered how the roads were built. First, a 23 feet wide ditch was dug at least three feet deep. This width could carry two carts in each direction. The base of the ditch was lined with massive foundation stones, mortared in place, and on top of this, scrabble, pebbles, small rocks and gravel were placed until to top of the road (composed of very large granite or basaltic stones) was reached; it had a camber or curve to allow water to run off, a drainage ditch at one side, and a verge of earth at the other side that served as a foot path.
All of this construction is so amazingly perfect and accounts for the permanency of these roads, many of which are in use today. They are bumpy to drive on, but some locals do it, and some like to have them asphalted, which in the course of time has its own mortality—but the large stones seem eternal like Rome itself.
When my wife and I walked the Via Appia, it was a cold rainy day, the very early wild flowers were beginning to bloom and a few flocks of sheep grazed in the adjoining fields. It could have been in ancient Roman times, and it was that for me. I thought of the Roman soldiers marching to their appointed destinies. Where were they headed, would they survive to return, and how changed would they be? The ancient Romans respected the Janis head that they placed at the top of the arches straddling the roads.
Janis is the god who faces two ways, backward and forward, the past and the future. I want to add that he is the archetypal image symbolized by the gate hinge Cardea that opens and closes in both directions. So, I thought about the soldiers, the travelers, the saints, the adventurous wanderers who all walked this road. They exchanged so many ideas, feelings, and stories. They were all on an adventure, and they were compelled to do it.
I finally concluded that roads, again like rivers, are alive throughout the land, and they exist in the human psyche. Why else do we travel?
Have you seen the bronze and stone scallop shells embedded in many sidewalks and streets of major European cities? I saw them in Rome, Venice, and Antwerp. Look for them—they are there. They all lead to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain by way of the “trail of stars”, another great road that leads to the shrine St James the Great. Every year thousands of students and peoples of all kinds walk these trails because I am, they are compelled to do so. And this is why I always carry a shell as I travel.