‘I have walked this ancient road…’

Nicole Moffatt is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. She is spending spring and summer at the BSR as the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar for 2017. Her research project is A world both small and wide: Letter-bearers of antiquity. Here Nicole tells us about a recent walking trip on the Via Appia and how it reflects an earlier BSR tradition.

Richard Hodges, in his Visions of Rome: Thomas Ashby Archaeologist, provides an extract of a letter written in January 1920 by a young Winifred Knights, the celebrated British painter and BSR award-holder (1920-3). In it she describes a day spent with Thomas Ashby and other students hiking through the Alban Hills. Ashby, then director of the BSR (1906-25), was a keen walker, an activity he combined with research and photography of the ancient Roman remains across the Italian countryside. The occasion described by Winifred was not an isolated one, as students often accompanied Ashby on his field trips. Robert Gardener (Craven Fellow 1912 to 1914) for example took this photo of him in May 1913 at the Traiana Viaduct, on their journey on the Via Appia-Traiana.


Photo by Robert Gardner – Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive

It was only in drawing together notes and photos of a recent excursion into the Italian countryside for this blog that I came across Winifred’s description of a similar day nearly a century earlier. The following is an account of that more recent and particularly fine day, with a group from the BSR who likewise walked on the ancient Via Appia, before hiking into the Alban Hills for lunch.

Our group for the day was led by the BSR’s Finance Manager (seasoned hiker, Nick Hodgson), together with award-holders (from the left) Morgan Lewis (Scholars’ Prize in Architecture Winner), Vivien Zhang (Abbey Scholar in Painting), myself (on camera), Neil McNally (Abbey Fellow in Painting) and JD Rhodes (Balsdon Fellow). From the beginning the plan was clear: as always, coffee and cornetto first, then make our way to the beginning of the Via Appia and from there our way to lunch at Nick’s favourite place in the Alban Hills.


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

First, we took a short detour to visit the Fosse Ardeatine on Via XX Settembre. Here JD shared with us a beautiful and touching memorial dedicated to the 335 victims of a massacre by the Nazis in 1944 at Marzabotto. The monument included a magnificent mausoleum designed by architects Giuseppe Perugini, Nello Aprile and Mario Fiorentini in 1948. It consists of a massive tombstone that seemingly floated above a vast burial vault containing the granite tombs of the victims.


Photo by JD Rhodes

From here we walked on to the Porta Appia, or what is now known the Porta San Sebastiano. The gateway at the end of this road sits within a third century defence wall constructed by the Emperor Aurelian and within it the Arch of Drusus, dated to the first century AD.

The archives of the BSR house a substantial photography collections, including those of Thomas Ashby and Robert Gardener, from a period when the idea of capturing historical structures in the photographic form was still in its infancy. With help from BSR Archivist, Alessandra Giovenco, and Librarians, Morgan’s recent photo of the Porta Appia was matched with earlier photographs.

Just beyond the gateway, recessed into a more recently constructed wall, we located the first milestone of the Via Appia. We were on our way!

Three kilometres on we started to find our pace, and leaving the Aurelian wall well behind, we approached the first century tomb of Cecilia Metella (later thirteen century fortress of the Caetani family). It is around here that the texture of the ancient road began to reveal itself, competing with modern restorations.

Beyond this wall the residential area of the Appia began to fall away and we increased our pace. Walking three abreast, Morgan, JD and Vivien began the serious business of exchanging ideas, pulling apart, examining and reassembling research, issues, opportunities and life experiences.


Photo by Nicole Moffatt


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

It was not all about the walking, as this part of the Via Appia also features tombs and monumnets to ancient lives, be they catacombs, mounds, rotunda or monuments such as that of Marcus Servilius Quartus.

There were now seven kilometres between us and the Aurelian walls, and off to our left were the remains of the magnificent second century Villa Quintilius. It was the modest abode of Sextus Quintilius Maximus and Sextus Quintilius Condianus (consuls of 151 AD). The estate stretched for the best part of a kilometre along Appia and through the trees we glimpsed the aqueduct installed to meet the considerable water requirements of its lavish gardens, fountains and bath house. Cassisus Dio records that things didn’t end well for the Quintili brothers who fell afoul of the Emperor Commodus and after he murdered them he subsumed their vast estate.


Photo by Vivien Zhang

Moving on a kilometre or so down the road the Casa Rotonda loomed into sight. A mausoleum dating to the first century BC that now supports a farm house that was built in the Middle ages. This is an interesting example of the repurposing of buildings and monuments from antiquity: an emerging interest of mine. A comparison of the two photos suggests some preservation works on both buildings.

Eight kilometres on we passed the distinctive Torre Selce, a twelfth century tall-tower medieval fortress built on the remains of a first century BC tomb. The photos below record stages in its deterioration and then restoration – and the mystery remains as to the identity of the gentleman in Ashby’s photo.

Before long, monuments, tombs and crowds faded and the road stretched on (and on) through the Parco dell’ Appia Antica. To distract from aching feet, I reflected on my research and the letter-bearers for whom this road would have been very familiar. More specifically, the complaint by some writers that the contents of their letters (presumably carried by a bearer with ‘loose lips’) sometimes travelled faster than the letters themselves! The idea of information (absent of modern technology and any form of privacy) looping ahead of the person carrying, it an interesting one. Presumably the contents of a letter were being shared with any number of fellow travellers, as they walk and exchange views of a range of matters over a bag of nuts, handful of cranberries, chocolate, fruit and bottles of water … hold on, that was us!


Photo by Nicole Moffatt

At this point the cornetto and caffè of breakfast were a distant memory, and the priority was to reach Nick’s restaurant by 3pm. Its location: the picturesque town of Castel Gandolfo, also home of the Pope’s Summer Palace with commanding views of the volcanic Lake Albano. The catch: it was many, many, many metres above sea level. Still Nick’s confidence was unwavering as he pushed our group ever onwards, ever upwards through alleyways and country lanes, past orchards, an inquisitive foal and an excitable, yet singularly focused, Rottweiler.

Finally, 25km of ancient road and a hiking trail woven through the Alban Hills lay behind us. In front of us, Gandolfo and our prize … lunch. Alas, our restaurant table was not ready on arrival as earlier patrons had settled in for a languid Sunday lunch. Too weak to argue, we staggered off to a local bar and over a birra resolved to stage a ‘stretch-in’ protest at its front door. Eventually, the patrons were sent on their way and the table was ours!


The BSR archives contains a thumbnail sketch of the ancient town of Amelia, drawn by Thomas Ashby nearly a century ago. On it are various observations and a comment that has stuck with me since it was first pointed out by my colleague Jane Wade. Ashby simply wrote ‘I have walked this ancient road …’ and I might suggest it was probably with a number of students in tow. I’d like to think on Sunday the more recent edition of BSR award holders enjoyed a glimpse of this earlier Ashby BSR tradition.


BSR Archives – Courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive

Thank you to Valerie, Alessandra, Beatrice and Francesca: the generous and knowledgeable staff of the BSR library who have indulged my personal interest in Thomas Ashby, his research methods and Roman roads in general. Thank you also to Nick Hodgson, who surely went above and beyond the call of duty for a Finance Manager when he agreed to walk this ancient road with us.

Nicole Moffatt (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar)


Photo by Vivien Zhang