If you’re still with me, it’s time for a bit of history before we go on.
The man responsible for building via Appia bent the rules whenever he wanted, broke the rules when he could, and made a big show of serving the people whenever it served his own ends. Appius Claudius was a prick.
Still, many people revere him for what he said almost two and a half millennia ago:
“Every man is the architect of his own fate.”
When Appius said this, he was responding to the Greek general Pyrrhus, who wanted to trample over Rome with a team of war elephants. Appius Claudius made a deliberately public response, not only to tell Pyrrhus that the Romans would never surrender, but to ensure they never would.
He was urging his fellow Romans to take the initiative, to be the architects of their own fate, to stand up to Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 hoplites and his archers and his cavalry and his elephants.
Does the speech with its outcome make Appius Claudius a hero? You could argue he was only doing it for politics, for the chance to gain something for himself. I’m willing to agree with you.
But say what you will, Appius Claudius lived by his words. When he became Censor in 312 BCE, he was determined to be the architect of his own fate. He immediately invested the taxpayer’s money for his own glory. Then he did something genius that may have decided the course of Western history.
In the time of Appius Claudius, the Romans didn’t have an empire. They didn’t even have control of the Italian peninsula. There were powerful enemies just a few days’ journey away. Appius Claudius helped establish colonies in Latium and Campagna, the territory around Rome and farther south.
These colonies acted as a buffer, protecting the city of Rome from direct attack. They provided shelter, food, and support to the Roman armies. More importantly, when a colony was attacked, Rome had a convenient excuse to move her armies farther into contested territory.
During this time, there were three major powers in Italy. One of these was Rome herself. But the lands south of Rome were populated by the fiercely independent Samnites. This league of tribes hated the Roman colonists who violated their borders, and resented the encroachment into Samnite territory.
Beyond the Samnite lands, there were well-established Greek cities. Many famous ancient Greeks, such as Pythagoras and Archimedes for example, were really inhabitants of Sicily and southern Italy. This region was called Magna Grecia, or “Greater Greece.”
Greece was not a single country, but a land of independent city-states. These cities would sometimes fight each other, Greek against Greek. But they were united by a common language, which made it easier to unite against a powerful enemy like Rome.
With the Romans, Samnites, and Greeks crowded together in the Italian peninsula, it was just a matter of time before one of them tried to dominate the others. When Appius Claudius pushed the Senate to establish more colonies, it wasn’t just a strategy. It was a provocation.
And then there was the road.
In those days, a road was just a track of dirt. Maybe the more important roads had a few logs or some gravel to get through the muddy season.
Then Via Appia came along, paved with gravel and protected from floods by a system of gutters and drainage ditches. And then this gravel was topped by two layers of basalt, a tough volcanic rock so durable that the stones look essentially the same today, thousands of years later.
The first layer of basalt was made of tens of thousands of hand-carved hexagons, all a uniform size, that locked together like pieces of a puzzle. The second layer created traction. Thick rectangles of basalt, all the same size and dimensions, were laid out in a staggered position like a horizontal brick wall, and this went on for miles.
All the work was done by hand, all the cutting and carving and digging and laying out. There was no other way. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and the cost of the road nearly bankrupted the Roman treasury.
Now, you would expect a road like that to go somewhere important, wouldn’t you? Well, it didn’t! It pointed a straight line to the wilderness, towards lands occupied by Rome’s enemies. Via Appia didn’t merely say, “we’re coming to conquer these lands.” It was the infrastructure that would make this conquest inevitable.
Without Appius Claudius, Western history could have been dramatically different. Appius Claudius took the first step that made the Roman empire possible. He invented Rome as we know it. Would the world have been any better or any worse without him? Who can say?
I’m not a big fan of Appius Claudius as a person, but I admire his ambition and the lessons you can learn from it. For example, if you have big plans or dreams in your life, think about Via Appia. Are you moving towards your goals on a dirt road, or have you built a Via Appia to get you there?
Appius Claudius did a lot to bring the situation in Italy to a head, but he is remarkable for many other reasons. He is one of the first ancient Romans who made sure to set his words down in writing. Because of this, he’s one of the earliest Roman individuals we know anything about.
Keep in mind, this was long before Hannibal invaded Italy, centuries before Spartacus led his rebellion, nearly three hundred years before Julius Caesar. But we still know a lot about Appius Claudius.
We know, for example, that he grew flummoxed whenever anyone mispronounced Latin consonants. He particularly hated the use of the letter ‘z,’ when a ‘c’ or an ‘s’ would be perfectly sufficient. The problem irritated him so much that he wrote a long treaty on Latin grammar.
If Appius were alive today, he might condemn the modern Romans, who stylishly cut off the final syllable of many words. He would surely be outraged by 21st century Italians as a whole for using words like “pizza,” “anzi,” and “zabaglioni” with impunity.
Appius Claudius tried to give power to people who were usually barred from politics. For example, slaves who were set free didn’t have the right to vote. Appius Claudius couldn’t help them directly, but he arranged for their children to become full citizens. Their descendants would have a say in the government forever after.
Appius Claudius was also one of the first politicians to fight for transparency in government. He published the legal proceedings of the Senate, so they could be examined by the public. Nobody had done this before him.
But as I said before, he was mostly just a power-hungry elbow swinger.
Critics say Appius Claudius worked to win the trust of the people so he could abuse it. He packed the Senate with citizens who would embrace him as their patron. These tactics got him elected for the office of Censor in 312 BCE.
These tactics also annoyed the hell out of his colleagues.
The Censor was a sacred office. The job was to oversee the activity of the government, especially the finances. In order to prevent corruption, there were supposed to be two Censors. But the co-Censor working with Appius resented all of the political manipulation, and resigned in frustration.
This made Appius Claudius the only Censor, and he didn’t hesitate to push the limits of his authority. He allocated funds to build Rome’s first aqueduct, and named it after himself: Aqua Appia. But of course this isn’t his best-known project.
As I followed his road towards Brindisi, I realized that it’s possible to dislike someone and also list them as one of your heroes.
This is the 4th chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me from a Life of Quiet Desperation. If you want to read it from the beginning, here’s the link to Chapter I. I’ll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I’m also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you’re shut in.
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Originally published at https://bicyclefreedom.com on April 2, 2020.