Yesterday and Today on the Appian Way


Old and new converge on the landscape of the Ancient Appian Way, the southern road leading into Rome in an era when all roads led to Rome.

Armies, tradesmen, and pilgrims moved up this path in route to the Eternal City. From the stones of the ancient path, one can see modern houses climbing up a hillside, as civilization advances away from the Roman road to new heights. Pieces of Imperial era tombs dot the old road, now a walking path with the occasional Sunday afternoon hiker crossing my path. One can strain to hear the echoes of the past, yet the wailing of an airplane descends above this road to land at the nearby Ciampino Airport. Old and new converge in my mind in a contrast of yesterday and today, in anticipation of the contrast of today and tomorrow.

On this road, memories of previous trips with students come to mind. Study abroad students and this prof rented bicycles to trek down the stone lane to explore a world that is no longer within reach. Memories of hiking alone on this road return to me, with a bottled water and journal, to search for signs of another era in the hopes that the old and new would intersect…even if in my imagination. Yet, these students and these hikes are in the past—they are gone—like the primitive lives of the people who travelled this road in the ancient world. The students now travel the path of their careers, but I hope that from time to time the memories of a trip to Italy refresh them on difficult days. They are the same people, just older. The prof who hiked this path several times before is now older, a slightly different individual, with a different agenda on my life formed by the experiences of prior years. The stones are but reminders of prior treks—those of my own or those of others—on a journey to a city that serves a metaphor to the journey of life.

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The old and the new converge constantly in this ancient city and on this ancient road. As I wander around the large sepulcher named La Mola, a circular first-century burial tomb with a 75 foot diameter and hosting a Greek-cross shaped chamber. The sun sets behind the stone edifice with its thick, thorny plants, while new plants cover the old stones like the nighttime seeks to cover this day. Yet, I climb on in the hopes of one discovery of an old artifact that is picture worthy on this day. My effort is rewarded, as the mound provides an entrance in its side that seems like a door into the first century. I cannot go in, but I can see the past here in the present. It provides enough curiosity to wonder about the person, the funeral, and the plundering that likely visited this tomb. It provides a sliver of a gateway into an ancient world, enough to satisfy the modern man who sought it out.

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As the signs of dusk begin to appear, they bring a reminder to me of a convent curfew and the next day’s responsibilities. They cast a shadow of expediency on the moment. Yet, I realize how old and new converge again to close the day, as the sun yields the darkness to end this calendar square and reach to the next one. When it does, it reminds us of the temporality of life. As old and new, ancient and modern intersect in our minds, we come to realize that that they equally typify how our own yesterday and today intersect in the same way, at the same time.

Cicero once wrote, “History is….the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger of antiquity.” On the Appian Way, the antiquity messages a life of memory and becomes the teacher of life. And it might have been on the Appian Way that the Roman Cicero trapped this insight for us.