‘Queen of the Highways’
DO YOU like history? If so, you may have observed that it is not always easy to find a reliable historical source. Ancient historians, for example, often exaggerated, or related obvious myths and impossible legends as truth.
A noteworthy fact that many people do not realize is that the Bible is an exception to this pattern. Although it is a book of ancient history, time and again the details it gives about events and places of interest have proved to be reliable and accurate. An ancient road leading to Rome from the south is an example. It is called the Appian Way.
Constructed around the year 300 B.C.E., the Appian Way was already well used when the apostle Paul trod its hard, lava stones about the year 59 C.E. Paul traveled quite a bit of this road, called by Roman poets longarum regina viarum, or “queen of the long distance highways.” Would you like to retrace his journey?
Arrival at Puteoli
Leaving Malta, where they had been shipwrecked, Paul and his companions traveled on with an army officer, for Paul was a prisoner who had appealed his case to Caesar Nero. They arrived in Italy at Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli, near Naples). The account says: “Here we found brothers and were entreated to remain with them seven days.”—Acts 28:14.
The army officer evidently did not object. Should we be surprised? No, because ancient Puteoli was a resort area, “a favorite watering-place of the Romans, as its numerous hot-springs were judged efficacious for the cure of various diseases.”—M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia.
While Paul was with them, the Christians in Puteoli may have explained to him that the road to Rome, although famous, was not an easy one. If you look at a map of Italy (see illustration) you might think that Paul would travel straight up the coast to Rome. But this was not possible. While a coast road would be built a generation later, under Emperor Domitian, a detour inland was needed in Paul’s day. After going inland to Capua, Paul would take the ‘queen of the highways’ to Rome, 132 miles (212 km) away.
Capua to Tarracina
When he arrived in Capua, Paul had reached the original ending point of the Appian Way. Long before Paul’s day, however, the road had been extended east to Beneventum, where it underlies the modern highway used today. From Beneventum (modern Benevento) the Appian Way continued southeast through Venusia (Venosa) clear down to Tarentum (Taranto) and Brundisium (Brindisi), harbors in the “heel” of the Italian “boot” 230 miles (370 km) away.
Indeed, it was these seaports that made the Appian Way so important to the Romans. The Appian Way became the first leg of any Roman trip to Greece. As the Roman Empire expanded eastward there was intense traffic on the ‘queen of the highways.’
Paul, of course, would not be traveling east to Beneventum and on to Brundisium and Greece. He was going west and north to Rome. What was his trip like?
Perhaps the beautiful scenery would have compensated for the bumpy road as Paul left Capua, passing through the hills of Campania toward the Italian coast. The road was bumpy because it was paved with hard polygonal blocks of lava stone, somewhat like giant cobblestones. But the stones did not tell the whole story. Underneath them the Romans had removed the topsoil until a solid foundation was uncovered. Then on this, several layers of material were placed—large stones, crushed stone and gravel mixed with mortar. Finally, the surface of the road was paved, being slightly crowned so water would run off. Roman roads were built to last!
As Paul approached Tarracina (modern Terracina) the road began to run along the coast, and a stupendous panorama was seen as rocks plunged down to the sea amid beautiful vegetation. The 68-mile (109-km) trip from Capua to Tarracina doubtless took several days, but lodging was available. Major Roman highways featured posting stations, called mansiones, every 15 miles (24 km) or so. Here the weary traveler could get a meal or could stay overnight, even changing horses or repairing his wagon.
Public taverns, called tabernae, were also found on the road, but they had a reputation for rowdy patrons. The tabernae “were full of pickpockets, commodities were lacking and the clientele comprised the scum of the Empire,” says the book Great Roman Roads of the World.
Like Puteoli, Tarracina was a resort town in Paul’s day. Perhaps someone pointed out to him the luxurious villa built there for Emperor Tiberius. Today ruins of that villa can still be seen, as well as once sumptuous temples, baths and theaters. Paul could hardly have avoided noticing the great temple of Jupiter Anxur, which dominated the city.
Tarracina to Three Taverns
The Appian Way meandered a bit in the hills between Capua and Tarracina, but from Tarracina to Rome it ran straight as a ruler. Of course, straight roads in hilly country are often steep, and near Tarracina the Appian Way was very steep indeed, especially in Paul’s day. Later, in the days of Emperor Trajan, a cliff was cut away to a depth of 120 feet (37 m) to avoid the steep climb over the mountain on which Tarracina stood.
Paul’s sharp descent from Tarracina brought him to a swampy, lowland area called the Pontine Marshes, a very unpleasant portion of his journey. Roman poet Horace, who made the trip about a century before Paul, complained eloquently about “the stench of the water,” which “made war on my appetite,” as well as the “marsh frogs and angry mosquitoes.”
Perhaps Paul’s Christian brothers in Rome realized that he would likely be fatigued and uneasy after this disagreeable leg of his journey as a prisoner to Rome. So the Bible account tells us that, rather than waiting for Paul in the comfort of their homes, the brothers came to meet him on the road. We read: “And from [Rome] the brothers, when they heard the news about us, came to meet us as far as the Marketplace of Appius and Three Taverns and, upon catching sight of them, Paul thanked God and took courage.”—Acts 28:15.
The Marketplace of Appius was just at the entrance to the Pontine Marshes, some 43 Roman miles (63 km) from Rome. Three Taverns was another 10 Roman miles (15 km) down the road toward Rome. Truly, these early Christians exerted themselves to travel all that way to encourage their brother Paul.
On to Rome!
Paul did not need the brothers from Rome to tell him just how far he was from the city because the Appian Way had enormous stones every Roman mile (1,480 m or about .9 of a modern mile). These gave the distances to major cities, compass directions and other information. Indeed, the milestone at the Marketplace of Appius still exists. From the unpleasant marshlands the road climbs along the Albani hills toward Rome, descending again as it nears the city. This final part of the Old Appian Way has been preserved as a public park and time seems to recede as we retrace Paul’s footsteps.
Every so often stretches of the original paving stones can be seen in this section, worn but intact after 2,000 years! Some cypresses and many pine trees border the roadside, conferring on everything an atmosphere of grave serenity. Ruins of redbrick walls can be seen, with marble slabs on which a few Latin words can still be distinguished. Seen, too, are occasional time-worn, broken statues. Still closer to the city are two of the famous catacombs, where early Christians hid in times of persecution. They are outside the city walls as Roman Law required, but Rome is very close now.
Perhaps Paul’s Christian brothers pointed out some of the sights and monuments to him, although he was hardly coming to Rome as a tourist! Of course, many of the monuments we see in ruins today were built somewhat after Paul’s time. But the great circular tomb of Cecilia Metella, large enough to serve as a fortress (as it did in the Middle Ages), doubtless caught Paul’s eye as it catches ours.
Soon Paul and his companions passed through the Porta Campena and entered the city itself. There, just ahead on the left, was the enormous Circus Maximus, a giant racetrack that could hold 250,000 spectators. Here ended (or began) the Appian Way, some 362 miles (583 km) from the seaport of Brundisium. If you visit Rome and wish to retrace Paul’s footsteps for yourself, be sure to find the Old Appian Way, as the New Appian Way is a busy auto route.
These historical details are not merely interesting for their own sake. They give us good reason to trust the Bible. However, the Bible is a book about the future, as well as the past. If your interest in the Bible has been stimulated, why not consider what it promises for the future? What it has to say is not only reliable but comforting and heartwarming.
[Map of Appian Way on page 21]
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Marketplace of Appius