Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Visiting the Via Appia and the Catacombs of San Sebastiano

A history resource article by  © 2007 & 2015

Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, near Quarto Miglio
Image courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsNote
Note: this is a crosspost from my other blog "Roman Times."

Back in 2007 I saw this nice travel piece about the Via Appia. I had hoped to see the sights listed when I visited Rome in October 2007. I planned to take the relatively new hop-on-hop-off Archaeobus to the park and spend the day exploring the catacombs, the baths of Caracalla, the tomb of Cecilia Metella, and a couple of the churches and museums (if my feet didn't give out!). I also wanted to try the spit-roasted goat they mentioned was a local specialty!

The original travel article:

"A modern-day tour of the Via Appia Antica might start at the end of the Forum, just beyond the Circus Maxentius where charioteers raced seven times around an obelisk cheered by spectators in 10 tiers of stone bleachers. Near here, weary travelers beheld Rome's golden milepost - where all roads led. Soon the pleasant road, shaded with cypresses and umbrella pines, passes scattered piles of eroded bricks that once were grand mausoleums.

A short distance brings the traveler to the dome-shaped ruins of the ornate tomb of the noblewoman Cecilia Metella. She was the daughter-in-law of Marcus Crassus, who shared the triumvirate with Pompey and Julius Caesar. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lord Byron muses whether she died young and fair or old and wise:

The remains of the tomb of Cecilia Metella along the Appian Way near Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
"This much alone we know: Metella died, the richest Roman's wife. Behold his love or pride."

Pope Urban VIII ripped up the marble floor of her tomb to build the Trevi Fountain.

At Porta San Sebastiano is the landmark Church of Domine Quo Vadis. Here legend says St. Peter, fleeing Nero's persecutions after the great fire, saw a vision of Christ heading toward the city. "Lord, where goest Thou?" he asked, and the vision replied, "To Rome to be crucified again."

Also at Porta San Sebastiano stands the largest and best preserved of the fortified gates in the Aurelian Wall that embraced the seven hills of Rome for more than a thousand years. The twin gate towers house a small museum of wall artifacts. Here you can walk along the top of the wall for postcard views of the Appian Way and the distant Alban Hills. All about are vineyards producing Rome's refreshing Frascati wine.

The Porta San Sebastiano, the best preserved of the fortified gates iin the Aurelian Wall that encompassed ancient Rome.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the narrow ancient gate, the road dips slightly into a valley covering a maze of catacombs where thousands of bodies were buried along five levels of tunnels. Rome has more than 60 catacombs, some not yet fully explored.

The two most important catacombs open to the public along the Appian Way are St. Sebastian and St. Callixtus, where most of the early popes and many martyrs were buried. Walls and ceilings have paintings and frescoes of early Christian symbols like the fish, the dove and the anchor, and scenes from Scripture such as Jonah swallowed by the whale, Daniel in the lions' den, the raising of Lazarus and, most often, the Good Shepherd.

 Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
APPIAN WAY REGIONAL PARK: Web site offers information on tours of the Appian Way; how to get there by public transportation, bike or on foot; opening times for monuments and museums, and other information. Visitor center is located at Via Appia Antica 42 (open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 2:30 p.m.-5 p.m.).

Update 3/9/2015: As it turns out, I was injured in Naples in 2007 and had to fly home for surgery rather than travel on to Rome on that trip.  However, I did manage to visit the Via Appia on another trip to Rome in March 2009.  My companion and I chose to try the hop-on hop-off Archaeobus with audio tour as I had originally planned.  However, I'm afraid, after experiencing that jarring, noisy ride, I do not recommend that mode of transportation.  The bus driver drove so fast you couldn't possibly get any good pictures of any of the sites along the way and there was so much noise that you couldn't hear what was being said using the earphones either. After lurching past the Aurelian Walls and flying past the tomb of Cecilia Metella, we decided to get off at the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano.

My companion had seen catacombs before so she decided to enjoy the spring sunshine and parked herself on a bench to wait for me to go on the tour.  These catacombs were once an area of pazzolan mines.  Pozzolan is a mixture of minerals used in the production of concrete.  Then, in the 2nd century CE, the mines were abandoned and the caverns converted into a pagan burial ground.  By the late 3rd century CE, Christians began burying their dead in these chambers as well and continued to do so until the mid-4th century CE.

The 7th-century catalogue, Notula oleorum listed three martyrs buried in the San Sebastian catacombs including SebastianQuirinus and Eutychius. 

A fifth century source states Sebastian was a soldier from Narbonne, in Gaul (modern-day France), born of a family from Milan who died in Rome under the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian. His relics were kept in the catacombs until the 9th century when they were moved within the town walls. They are now back in the Basilica standing above the catacombs.

Quirinus was a bishop of Sescia, in Pannonia, whose relics were moved to Rome by pilgrims from that region between 4th and 5th century CE.

Nothing is known about Eutychius but his grave was discovered during excavations carried out in the 20th century in a deteriorated area of the catacombs.   A poem dedicated to him, by Pope Damasus I, is now displayed at the entry of the basilica.

In 258 CE, during the Valerian persecutions, the catacombs were temporarily used as a burial site for the apostles Peter and Paul and the basilica was dubbed the Basilica Apostolorum.  But their remains were later removed to their own respective basilicas in Rome.

I was really disappointed that they would not permit even non-flash photography within the catacombs. But I found the tour very interesting, nonetheless. (The photography ban may have been lifted as I found the image below of the interior of the San Sebastiano catacombs up on Wikimedia Commons).

Floral stucco reliefs on the ceilings of the catacombs of San Sebastiano outside
 of Rome, Italy.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I saw the symbolic fish etched into the walls as we wound our way down through stuccoed and frescoed chambers until we were three levels below the entrance.  (Originally there were four levels but one level was destroyed during subsequent rebuilding efforts). We finally came upon some of the earliest Roman tombs clustered together in a round chamber known as the piazzola (initially pagan these tombs were later reused by the Christians).  These mausolea had architectural elements on their facades that, together, made them look like a small ancient city to me.

2nd century CE Mausolea in the heart of the catacombs of
San Sebastiano.  Image courtesy of then
digitally enhanced by Mary Harrsch.
"The first one on the right is externally decorated with paintings (funeral banquets and the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac) and still bears an inscription with the name of the owner, Marcus Clodius Hermes; the interior houses graves and pictures and shows a vault decorated with the head of a gorgon. 
The second one, called Mausoleum of Innocentiores referring to the funeral college to which it belonged, has a vault decorated with refined stuccoes; some recesses show inscriptions with Greek characters but written in Latin, as well as a graffito with the initials of the Greek words meaning "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior" (Ichtys). 
On the left there is the Mausoleum of the Adze, from the tool depicted on the exterior, whose decoration consists of shoots of vine sprouting from kantharoi placed on false pillars." - Wikipedia
We continued our tour and emerged into a feasting chamber called the "Triclia" where funerary feasts were celebrated, not only immediately after an interment but periodically thereafter by family members.  Here, the plastered walls were covered with over 600 pieces of graffito left by visitors across the centuries and we were left to examine them before heading to the passageway that connected the catacombs to the basilica above.

Even though I couldn't take pictures inside the catacombs at San Sebastiano, I photographed this etching of a Christ figure, Chi-Roh symbol and dove that was recovered from the catacombs that I found at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2009.
The Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le mura (San Sebastiano outside the walls) was originally built by Constantine in the 4th century.  Many of the catacomb passageways and even the piazzola were filled into to form a base for this structure. (These areas were re-excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) In 826 CE, the remains of Saint Sebastian were moved to St. Peter's for safekeeping when the Saracens threatened Rome.  The basilica was subsequently destroyed by the Saracens but rebuilt by Pope Nicholas I (858-867).  Then the martyr's altar was reconsecrated by Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) in the 13th century.  The current edifice was commissioned in 1609 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese who selected first Flaminio Ponzio to reconstruct it and, after Ponzio's death in 1613, entrusted its completion to Giovanni Vasanzio.  

I found some marvelous sculptures in the Basilica including this wonderful putto that looks very much like the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini who sculpted similar figures I have seen at the Basilica of Saint Peter's in Vatican City:

Putto in the Basilica alle catacombe di San Sebastiano
Photo by Mary Harrsch 
© 2009

Somehow I missed this moving sculpture of Saint Sebastian also said to be in one of the knaves of the basilica.

I found this video on YouTube about the catacombs of San Sebastiano.  It doesn't have many images of the catacombs either but does have some marvelous views of the basilica and its ornate ceiling.

A Kindle preview of a 2015 book on the catacombs:

Other suggested reading:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Nimes, France: One stop shopping for Gladiators!

By Mary Harrsch

Note: The following travel narrative about my visit to Nimes, France is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

I got up this morning with the bright Mediterranean sun shining through the slits around the window shutters. When we first got here I was wondering how I could get dressed in the morning with no curtains on the windows but then Richard showed me how to use the window shutters instead. So opening and closing the window shutters has become part of my morning and evening routine.

I made scrambled eggs for breakfast then we went for a walk around the farm property where

A french milk goat enjoying a lush spring pasture near
Sauve, France. Photo by  © 2013.
our cottage is located. Our hosts have a couple of milking goats so I tried to get some good pictures of them then we walked down the lane to an old converted mill by the river and I took pictures of it. 

An old olive oil mill renovated into a
near Sauve, France.  Photo by
© 2013
Our accommodations includes use of a very large and very clean swimming pool that is built out in a nearby field complete with a statue of Venus but it has only been in the high 60s and low 70s here (my kind of weather) so I doubt if the pool water is very warm.

Olympic sized swimming pool
 at our gite
 near  Sauve, France.
Photo by © 2013
After lunch we took off for Nimes. Nimes became part of the Roman Empire sometime before 28 BCE.  By the reign of Augustus in the 1st century CE Nimes had reached a population of 60,000.  

We found a car park in the center of town right beside the Place d'Assas with a very interesting sculpture of an almost Olmec-looking head at one end.

This sculpture by Martial Raysse created in
is said to represent the "male force" of
the city of Nimes, France.  Photo by
. © 2013
Designed by Martial Raysse in 1989, this head named Nemausus represents the male force of the town according to a reference I found on the web.  The water flowing between this head and another monumental head at the far end of the plaza represents Nemausa, the spring that gave Nimes its name. 

After a bit of a mixup we finally found our way to the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple originally constructed in 16 BCE. The structure was rebuilt by the famous Roman admiral, Marcus Agrippa (victor of Actium), in approximately 2 - 4 CE.  The temple was dedicated to his two sons, Gaius and Lucius, who had been adopted by his best friend Augustus so they would rule Rome one day.  However, both died tragically young (poisoned by Augustus' vile wife Livia if we believe Robert Graves' interpretation of events in "I, Claudius!") 

The Maison Carree, an example of Vitruvian architecture built
in 16 BCE now houses an information center and theater
in Nimes, France.
Photo by . © 2013
The structure is an example of architecture popularized by the famous Roman architect, Vitruvius.  It's beautiful Corinthian columns are topped with ornately carved acanthus leaves.

A pidgeon nestles into the protective acanthus
leaves sculpted on the capital of a Corinithian
column of the Maison Carrée
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
The temple survived the widespread destruction of pagan centers of worship after Rome adopted Christianity because it was converted to a church.  In the years that followed it was subsequently converted to a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house and even a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution.  It now houses an information center and theater.

Inside we bought a three day pass for all of the surrounding historical sites for only 11 Euros. It included admission to a short 3-D movie about the history of Nimes that was very well done even though Cecelia, a medieval reenactor, made fun of the less than authentic fencing in one of the segments.

I thought the segment on gladiatorial fights was quite authentic with a properly attired Roman referee and a retiarius (net man with trident) and a Secutor battling it out with little blood spilled. Each time one of the gladiators was in danger of a mortal wound the referee would step in and separate the combatants. 

Finally one of the men went down and the referee looked to the crowd for a verdict and declared the victor without any further harm coming to his opponent. In historical times that type of encounter was far more common than the blood bath seen on the Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand series. The only thing that was not quite authentic was that the men were relatively svelt. In Roman times gladiators ate an almost vegetarian diet of barley gruel to put on a protective layer of fat and often appeared rather barrel-chested.

This Roman relief  found along the Via Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella
illustrates the well fed contours of arena combatants in the 1st century BCE
Photogaphed at the Terme di Diocleziano, Rome, Italy by  © 2009
The movie was shown inside the temple so after it ended we climbed down the rather steep stairs (I had Cecelia walk next to me so if I bobbled she could keep me from falling since I promised you all I would not fall on this trip!) and walked several blocks to the Roman amphitheater. 

A Roman amphitheater now serves
as a venue for bullfights
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
Although several tiers of the structure are now missing, what remains is in very good condition. It is significantly smaller than the Coliseum in Rome, though. 

Once fortified by the Visigoths, the Nimes amphitheater was a target of destruction
by Charles Martel in 737 CE so only the lower tiers of the structure remain.
Photographed in Nimes, France by  © 2013
With the upper tiers of the structure missing I could not see any remnants of the supports for the sun shades that were usually extended to shade the spectators on a hot day. I also did not see any numbers carved into the stone above the various entry doors that matched tokens given to attendees to tell them which door to use so ingress and egress could be accomplished in a relatively short time.

Thankfully, although the sand of the arena was carefully raked in preparation for a contest, there were no bull fights scheduled today. When we explored the interior access tunnels we came upon a small museum displaying several ornate matador costumes. But that is the closest to bull fighting I would like to get.

Closeup of an ornately beaded jacket of a matador at the
small bullfighting museum inside the amphitheater
Nimes, France.  Photo by  © 2013
In the gift shop I bought my first kitchen shrine of the trip - a small snow globe containing a pair of battling gladiators atop a replica of the amphitheater. Each time I go on a trip I try to find a small souvenir that I can place on my kitchen window sill at home so when I'm cooking or washing dishes I can look at the souvenir and recall pleasant memories of a particular trip, so the snow globe fit the bill.

We stopped by a boulangerie (French bakery) on the way back to our cottage and I bought a couple of sweet rolls for evening dessert. We weren't totally tired yet so we decided to drive on in to Sauve and explore the old part of the village that is built on a steep hillside adjacent to the river Vidourle. 

Two French girls enjoy the late afternoon sun
on the banks of the Vidourle River in Sauve, France.
Photo by  © 2013
It was built centuries ago and has a bridge dating back to the 11th century along with remnants of fortifications, an oil mill, an abbey and convent. 

An olive oil mill converted to a private residence
in Sauve, France.  Photo by  © 2013
After exploring Sauve's narrow alleyways we finally returned to our cottage where Cecelia made us a delicious dinner of lamp chops, new potatoes and fresh green beans.

Tomorrow we plan to drive about an hour away to Orange and use our historical site pass to see their Roman remains that includes an ancient theater (for plays) and that medieval fortress we saw high on a rocky cliff when we were driving down on the motorway.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!
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Thursday, July 25, 2013

A quick tour of Troyes then on to Sauve in southern France

Note: The following narrative is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

We arrived in the city of Troyes yesterday evening and I was enthralled by all of the medieval buildings still in pretty good nick as my English friends always say. There were a number of impressive churches and a marvelous cathedral with flying buttresses and glowering gargoyles, too! The center of town was latticed with channels of water with the occasional sculpture that I found very pretty. 

Panoramic view of the French city of Troyes and its cathedral.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
So we got up early so we could spend a couple of hours walking around Troyes before heading south to our "gite" (a French guesthouse).  We went downstairs at the hotel and found a beautiful spread of fresh fruits, yogurts, a variety of rolls, flan and beverages. We watched the news laughing at our efforts to translate for the French announcers. 

The amazing breakfast buffet at our hotel in Troyes, France.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Then we repacked the car and headed off on foot to photograph what we could within walking distance. I tried to spot various gargoyles and get closeups of them and got a couple of nice panoramas of the town square and fountain area. 

Panoramic view of the historic town center of Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch
Carousels seem to be very popular here and they are quite ornate. Troyes had one in the town center and yesterday I had photographed one across the street from the entrance to Fontainebleau. 

Carousel lends a festive air to the center of Troyes, France.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
As it turned out the cathedral was being rennovated so we couldn't go inside but I tried to get some nice shots of the exterior.

The tower and front rose window of the Cathedral
of Peter and Paul in Troyes, France.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
Mythological creatures sculpted on the ramparts of the Cathedral of Peter
and Paul in Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
The streets of the historic district in Troyes are
lined with batted 16th century-era buildings.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
As it was getting on towards mid-morning, we hustled back to the hotel and struck out for the southbound motorway. The countryside I had seen so far was a gently undulating patchwork of green pastures and bright yellow fields of flowering rapeseed sprinkled with wind turbines but as we neared the Burgundy region the land became much more hilly and the forests were punctuated by occasional patches of evergreen trees. Soon I began seeing fat cream-colored Charolais cattle grazing in the fields and the freeway was lined by wine bottling plants. 

Français : Vache de race charolaise avec son v...
A Charolais cow and calf. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My friends told me that the evergreen trees were not native to that part of France but imported. Now they are viewed as an invasive species.  This, of course, sounded strange to me being from Oregon where Douglas fir are prized for their quality lumber.

The motorway rest areas here are very extensive with both DariMart-like convenience stores and full sit down restaurants. Some even have developed playgrounds for the children. The French must also enjoy camping as you see lots of signs depicting camp trailers and picnic tables for camping areas. I wished we would have had more time to explore some of the historical sites along the way as well. I eagerly looked for the iconic brown heritage signs as the French put pictures of the actual structures on the directional signs. There might be a castle, a chateau or even a Roman bridge depicted. But we were planning to explore Nimes tomorrow and were expected at our guesthouse tonight so we really couldn't stop as we had to drive over 400 miles today.

As we neared Orange we spotted a crenelated fortress high up on a rock formation. I think we must add it to our must visit list!

We finally turned off the motorway to head for our vacation cottage just outside of the village of Sauve. 

The village of Sauve on the banks of the Vidourle River in southern France.
Photo by Mary Harrsch

We stopped at a pretty good sized supermarket to buy some Toulouse sausages and couscous for dinner. It was my first visit to a French supermarket and it looked very similar to ours although they had some really delicious items that we don't ever see - at least not in Eugene/Springfield. Of course the French love breads and pastries so the bread section was quite extensive, many containing chocolate bits as the French are really fond of chocolate, and there were so many choices of cheese it was almost overwhelming. I was actually looking for east European-style farmer's cheese though and couldn't find any so I settled for a wedge of chaumes.

The terrain here in the south of France is much more Mediterranean looking with umbrella pines, junipers and yellowish rocky outcroppings. We found our "gite" down a narrow track that wound its way past an old mill that had been renovated into a residence then into an adjoining field.  Our cottage was a low-roofed adobe-style structure with a combination living room-kitchen space, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a separate shower room.  Actually this arrangement is quite convenient as it does not tie up the bathroom if someone is taking a long shower.  The pictures my companion had sent me showed a swimming pool and I didn't see one but a walk around the property revealed a full sized pool out in the middle of the field a short walk away.  

Our host greeted us and gave us a supply of clean towels and we found the buffet in the dining room stocked with dishware.  Cecelia had volunteered to do the cooking and soon had a delicious skillet full of Toulouse sausages cooked, sliced and added to a dish full of couscous along with some sauteed zucchini and fresh tomatoes.  It tasted so good after a long day of travel.

Tomorrow, after taking care of a few more housekeeping chores, we're off to explore the Roman amphitheater at Nimes. There is also a Roman temple and a museum of gladiator armor. I also saw an ad for a bullfighting museum with matador costumes that might be interesting but I have no plans to attend a real bull fight as this is one of the last places in France where the bull is tormented and killed for the crowd.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!

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