Friday, June 9, 2017

The Circus of Maxentius - And the Appian Way rolls on

Our party stop yesterday notwithstanding, the Appian Way has a somber feel to it.  It combines a sense of fallen glories of Rome with a succession of burial places.  Perhaps none is grander or sadder than the complex known as The Circus of Maxentius.

The Roman aristocracy liked to be ostentatious in both life and in death.  Grand palaces and villas.  Grand tombs to show the prominence of the family.  And for the Emperor it was all dialed up a notch.

Maxentius reigned from 306 - 312 AD.  He came to power via The Tetrarchy, one of history's least successful experiments in governance.  Feeling that the Empire had grown too large for one man to effectively run, Diocletian decided that it would be divided into East and West halves.  One Emperor for each.  One subsidiary ruler called a Caesar in East and West.  In theory the latter was the understudy for the former. When an Emperor died or as actually happened, retired, there would always be a ready, non opposed successor.  In practice this would be like dividing the US at the Mississippi River, having a President and Vice President on each side, and no defined method for picking a new Veep.  Intrigue, death and Civil War ensued.

As mentioned the other day, Maxentius got a bad rap from historians of an earlier era. But he seems to have been an energetic ruler and a great builder.

Then as now politics makes men very rich, so Maxentius in short order acquired an earlier villa on the Appian Way and went on to build something that looked like this:

A huge "circus" as chariot racing tracks were called then.  Second only to the Circus Maximus this venue could hold 10,000 spectators. 

Today it is an open grassy field with parts of the stands here and there. 

I took this picture standing at one end of the spina the center part of the track.  The word means "spine" and in ancient times it would have been decorated with various water features, statues and right in the middle, a big ol' obelisk.  In fact, we have seen this obelisk previously.  It is a rather well traveled artifact for something this big!

The circus has a lonely feel to it.  And perhaps more than that of empty fields and ruined, empty bleachers.  Because the only time it seems to have been used was for a memorial service.

Maxentius does not get much respect from contemporary Christian writers.  But he is remembered as a loving father who grieved for the death of his son and presumptive heir, Romulus.  The inaugural games at the Circus were dedicated to his memory.

And here in the now familiar round format is the adjacent Tomb of Romulus.

Its a spooky place.  These niches were not for statuary but were intended to be the final resting places for a dynasty that Maxentius hoped to create.  But after a few short years he was killed in battle, his head shipped off to rebellious African provinces to prove he was really gone.  Romulus was the only one ever buried here.

On the day we visited we just missed a choir performance in the crypt.  That would have been something to experience.


So as promised, some practical advice for visiting the Via Appia and its many monuments.

1. Via Appia Day happens once a year in mid May.  Lots of places open that are otherwise hit and miss or "good luck".  But also lots of crowds.  It was very difficult biking. There were pluses and minuses for sure but in general I would pick another day.

2. On Sundays there is no automobile traffic allowed.  Given the overall kamikaze nature of Roman drivers this has some appeal if you decide to bike it.  But to be honest in many places there are paths along the side of the road that are where you would be biking anyway, those ancient cobble stones are murderous.  On weekdays you will probably have these impromptu bike lanes to yourself.

3. We rented bikes from Top Bike rentals.  Nice folks but the location near the Coliseum means you have to get yourself out of town.  Another option is to get the bikes at the "Punto Informativo" .  Cheaper and you would have a bit more time to explore with the closer drop off point.  The 118 and 218 bus will get you to there. This is right at the Tomb of Priscilla/Quo Vadis location.

4. You should take in a catacomb.  We did not, all of us having visited at least one before.  Good options listed below.

5. It might be a good plan to go to the far end of the Appian Way and walk back in.  It would be four or five miles if you did the whole route.  Getting there could be a little tricky.  Use Villa of the Quintilli as the farthest out point.  Taxis in Rome are actually fairly cheap.  Or, it looks as if there is a train station at Torricola out there.  I should caution that I have not read of anybody actually using this option.

The further out sections of the Appian Way are much less visited.  Ruined tombs all over the place.  It would be a very nice walk.

6. Here is a rough listing of the major sites, going from the far end in towards town, and what days they appear to be open.  Note of course that there are on and off seasons and that Italy is not the most consistent or well run place on earth.  Double check!

Villa dei Quintili this is a site I would have liked to visit.  It is/was an especially grand villa.  Open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  And maybe some other days, the website is vague.

Mausoleum of Caecelia Matella again open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  There also seem to be exceptions.  A single ticket can be purchased for this, the Villa Quintili and the Baths of Caracalla.

Circus of Maxentius.  Tuesday to Sunday 10 - 4.  This site might be for hard core enthusiasts only. 

Catacombs of San Sebastiano 10 - 5 Monday through Saturday.  I have not seen this catacomb but it looks to be one of the best of them.  There is a strong association with Saints Peter and Paul.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This one I have visited.  Its huge.  Catacombs are always nice and cool on a hot dry day.  Open daily except Wednesdays.

Tomb of Priscilla does not appear to have any scheduled opening times.  You can try and get a peek from around back of the restaurant.  It was open specially for Via Appia Day.

I should probably mention Roma Sottererrana, an organization that delves into all things underground in Rome.  Their headquarters is on the Appian Way.  If you were in Rome for a longer time check out their events and classes.

The Museo della Mura  is in the gate house of the Porto San Sebastiano.  This was in fact named for the nearby church and catacombs.  The museum appears to be free and open every day but Monday.

Tomb of the Scipios and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas are open only to groups and by special arrangment.

There are a few things not far off the main Via Appia axis.  The Parco Aquedotti is a bit to the east.  On our previous bike jaunt we rode through it.  It has great aqueduct ruins of course but is also a very popular place for locals to picnic.

The Fosse Ardeatine memorial is near the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.  This was the site of an infamous WWII massacre.  Free.  8:15 to 5:45.

Because there is so much to see in the four or five miles of the Appian Way from Villa Quintili on in I have a hard time recommending an actual sit down meal.  Bring snacks. Several places closer in have the nice drinking water fountains that you find so frequently in Rome.  Bathrooms are hit and miss, there is one at the bike rental place near the Tomb of Priscilla.  And of course all the sites you pay admission to will have nice facilities.
Well.  This winds up an ambitious week of posting about an ambitious day of travel. Next week another "History in a place" feature but a bit less hectic.

1 comment:

JayNola said...

This was really good. Informative and entertaining. Thanks very much.