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Ancient Rome’s Appian Way, Catacombs, and an Aqueduct

Rome, Italy

Lining the Appian Way, the major road leading east out of Rome, are grandiose tombs and memorials built by big shots. But early Christians, short on funds, dug catacombs instead to bury their dead. Nearby in a park is an aqueduct that once piped water to the thirsty city.

Complete Video Script

For a little early Christian history, we're heading outside the city for a look at the catacombs.

Rome's ancient wall stretches eleven miles. It protected the city until Italy was united in 1870. From gates like this, grand roads fanned out to connect the city with its empire.

The Appian Way — Rome's gateway to the East — is fun to explore on a rented bike. It was the grandest and fastest road yet… the wonder of its day. Very straight — as Roman engineers were fond of designing — it stretched 400 miles to Naples and then on to Brindisi, from where Roman ships sailed to Greece and Egypt. These are the original stones.

Tombs of ancient big shots lined the Appian Way like billboards. While pagans didn't enjoy the promise of salvation, those who could afford it purchased a kind of immortality by building themselves big and glitzy memorials. These line the main roads out of town.

Judging by their elegant togas, these brothers were from a fine family. This is the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, whose father-in-law was extremely wealthy. While it dates from the first century BC, we still remember her to this day… so apparently the investment paid off.

But of course, early Christians didn't have that kind of money. So they buried their dead in mass underground necropoleis — or catacombs — dug under the property of the few fellow Christians who owned land.

These catacombs are scattered all around the city, just outside the walls. And several are open to the public.

The tomb-lined tunnels of the catacombs stretch for miles and are many layers deep. Many of the first Christians buried here were later recognized as martyrs and saints. Others carved out niches nearby to bury their loved ones close to these early Christian heroes.

By the Middle Ages, these catacombs were abandoned and forgotten. Centuries later they were rediscovered. Romantic age tourists on the grand tour visited by candlelight and legends grew about Christians hiding out to escape persecution. But the catacombs were not hideouts. They were simply low budget underground cemeteries.

Further along the Appian Way is Rome's Aqueduct Park and a chance to see how the ancient city got its water. With its million people, Rome needed lots of water. These ingenious aqueducts carried a steady stream from distant mountains into the city. And they still seem to gallop, as they did 2000 years ago, into Rome.

These aqueducts were the Achilles heel of Rome. All you had to do to bring down the city was to knock out one of these arches. In fact, in the 6th century, the Barbarians did just that. Without water Rome basically shriveled up.

Today, the park is a favorite with locals for walking the dog… or burning off some of that pasta.


With its imperial might and all the stories of persecutions and hungry lions in the Colosseum, it's easy to forget that the last century of the Roman Empire was Christian.

In 312, the general Constantine, following a vision that he would triumph under the sign of the cross, beat his rival, Maxentius. Taking power, Emperor Constantine then legalized Christianity. This obscure outlawed Jewish sect ultimately became the religion of the empire.

In the year 300 you could be killed for being a Christian and in 400 you could be killed for not being a Christian. Church attendance boomed and Emperor Constantine built the first great Christian church right here — San Giovanni in Laterano… St. John's.

It opened as a kind of "first Vatican." St. John's — which has been rebuilt over the ages — was the original home of the bishop of Rome, or Pope. High atop the canopy over the altar, a box supposedly contains bits of the skulls of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The church is filled with symbols of Christianity's triumph over pagan Rome: For instance, tradition says these gilded bronze columns once stood in pagan Rome's holiest temple. And what better doors for this first grand church than those which once hung in ancient Rome's Senate house.

The adjacent Holy Stairs are a major stop on Rome's pilgrimage trail. Many credit Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, for her son's conversion. She brought home wagonloads of relics including these stairs — believed to be from the palace of Pontius Pilate. For 1700 years pilgrims — believing Jesus climbed these stairs on the day he was condemned — have scaled the Scala Santa on their knees.

The influence of ancient Rome is everywhere. Its noble ruins tell a tale of power, politics, and imperial egos; of pagan gods now forgotten; of public art on a grand scale; and of enduring engineering feats. It’s a story of colossal achievement and monumental failure.

By the year 500, the over-expanded, corrupt and exhausted Roman Empire had fallen. But the grandeur of the Roman Empire lived on in the Roman Church. Over time, Trajan's column was capped with a Christian saint, the Pantheon became a church, Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum became the Pope's fortress, and the tomb of the Apostle Peter, a man the Romans executed, was crowned by the grandest building in the city — St. Peter's Basilica.

Today visitors to Rome find fascinating layers of history and culture: early Christian, baroque, and modern. But it all sits upon a solid foundation of the ancient city which was, for many centuries, the capital of Western Civilization. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time… keep on travelin'. Ciao.