It’s my first travel book in more than thirty years (and I’ve largely forgotten about the few I wrote then in desperation as I tried to build a writing career).
And The Appian Way is about more than travel too. It covers history, society and the way our world of today has been shaped by the past. All told, I hope, in an easy, understandable entertaining way in the form of a journey along the 350 miles of the Via Appian from Rome to Brindisi.
It was an amazing journey, most of it taken last September in a different world. A trip I pine for every time I look at the photos and the map you can see here.
You can now find The Appian Way in e-book on Kindle, Apple Books, Kobo and Google Play. The print version is available direct from Amazon but should also be available through book stores and libraries (if they order it) using the ISBN 978-1-8380897-3-3.
And to give you a taste here’s my introduction to the book in full, which explains why I embarked on this journey in the first place.
The problem with history is people think it’s all about the past. Long ago when I was at school the subject seemed done and very much dusted. Everything that went before was distant, fixed, defined, as solid and unchanging as the walls of the Tower of London, the people who populated those bygone years as stiff and dead as the calcified victims of Pompeii.
It was as if those far-off times were inhabited by a different species altogether. They were primitives, especially beyond the English Channel. Relatives of ours, it’s true, but ones you felt you ought to acknowledge while hoping they’d never turn up for tea. After all, this was the second half of the twentieth century. A brave new world beckoned, one of jet travel and motorways, television and the birth of electronics. The white heat of technology, Harold Wilson, our Prime Minister, called it. A world the ancients could never begin to understand. We were modern people, civilised, settled, scientific, rational, far removed from the natives of previous generations grubbing around in the muck and blood of their squalid lives. The onward march of Darwinism was relentless as we left the primordial chaos of yesterday to evolve into… what?
That wasn’t a question you were supposed to ask. History was all about the dead and buried. The future was ours alone to invent. Why question an opportunity like that? All you had to do was wait and watch our world get better and better.
Even as an eleven-year-old, living in a council flat on the chilly coast of Yorkshire, no money in the family, no chance I might ever see another country soon, perhaps ever, question it I did. The more I looked beyond the ancient, blinkered textbooks school gave me, the more the picture they offered seemed distinctly fuzzy and wrong. We did have a black and white telly and I could see the news was full of dire warnings about the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon. Just before I went to ‘big school’ the President of the United States was assassinated in public, much like so many Roman emperors of old. The principal difference was that we knew about his savage murder in hours and could watch the bloody tragedy unfold in grainy black and white right there in front of us at home.
Our world was faster and more slickly connected than ever. But were we really different? Not if the books I kept borrowing from the public library were to be believed. While the school teachers harped on about ziggurats and hieroglyphics, rarely individuals – people – at all, my head was somewhere else altogether. First came the stories of Mary Renault who brought ancient Macedon and Alexander the Great to life. Then Robert Graves followed and I found myself in the poisonous and all-too-real court of imperial Rome as the crippled Claudius struggled to survive among his murderous, scheming relatives.
This didn’t seem like ‘history’ at all. It felt like real life. And yes, Renault and Graves were novelists who took liberties with their source material to tell a cracking tale. All the same, in between Latin lessons, I could go back to that same library and the books they read, the histories of Tacitus and Livy, Sallust and Cassius Dio, the endless letters of the voluble Cicero who had an opinion on everything under the sun, and one day would pay for it dearly as we’ll come to hear.
A picture of Italy began to form in my teenage mind. A bright world full of colour and drama, peopled by larger-than-life characters, warmed by constant sun, rich with wine and exotic food. A place very unlike the cold, bleak coast of Yorkshire.
The more I read, something else began to form in my imagination too. It was a road, long and straight, a vital artery the Romans created. One that seemed to link everything and everyone across the centuries, tying together their stories into a web of ambition, tragedy, heroism and, above all, a burgeoning sense of civilisation.
There were drawings of this road, a narrow cobbled pavement just wide enough to take two carts side-by-side. Near the cities tombs rose by the wayside, some like small columned temples, others more tiny castles, fortresses in marble. Out in the countryside tall cypress trees took their place, standing like exclamation marks, along with avenues of stately stone pines, their leafy umbrellas shielding the highway as it stretched off into the distance.
It was called the Via Appia, the Appian Way, ‘Regina Viarum’, the Queen of Roads. One day, I promised myself, I’d take a journey along that road. Perhaps walk, ride a horse or take a scooter all the way from Rome down to the southern shore of the Adriatic Sea where it ended.
I didn’t linger in Yorkshire. Soon opportunity and ambition took me to London and a job in newspapers. Before long I was travelling the Europe I’d read about. After a while making the trek as a novelist too, a storyteller weaving fables in Rome and Venice, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, moving about as freely as I wanted, by plane, by train or car. The Via Appia was a teenage dream. We all have them. One I always remembered whenever I came back to Claudius, the fearful, stammering emperor of Robert Graves or picked up Livy or Tacitus again. But a tick on a wish list I never thought I’d get round to.
Then, one strange morning in 2016, I woke up to discover the country I thought I’d been living in – as contented as modern societies got, connected, fluid, mobile – seemed to be a myth. Instead of talking about roads and the right to move freely from nation to nation, the news concerned barriers and borders, and how my fellow Europeans were foreigners we didn’t really want or need. Before long this strange and, to me, alien mood spread across the Atlantic and the talk turned to building walls. Keeping people out instead of letting them in.
Rome has left us with so many legacies. Language and laws, architecture, religion, political structures and even a couple of months of the year named after men who died two millennia ago, one murdered by his peers, the other doing the murdering to seize the imperial crown. From what I recalled the pioneering Romans of old didn’t get there by cowering behind their walls.
So half a century after I first made that vow I finally set off on a journey to discover the Via Appia… and try to work out if I’d read it wrong all these years.
I had, though not in any way I’d expected. What I found wasn’t the picturesque, idyllic highway of my imagination, stretching out past ruined temples into a pastoral countryside of cypress trees and stone pines. That’s mostly gone. In its place I came across something more subtle and more interesting, a tale of people and places, of trade and commerce and politics that’s as pertinent now as it was when Caesar stalked the Forum and Cicero penned his bitchy letters to his friends. Those three hundred and fifty miles of cobblestones helped turn a minor Italian state into the masters of an empire that stretched from Britain to Babylon, from the Atlantic coastline of North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea.
The Italian word for ‘history’ is storia. And so’s the Italian for ‘story’ too. So this is a little of both, a journey like all stories truly are, a narrative of unintended consequences that shows we’re here today, shaped by the Romans and their love of building roads, as much by accident as planning. A story, I hope, that tells us history isn’t about the past so much as where we came from. And where we may be headed too.
It’s a tale more full of myths and shadows and mysteries than I ever expected when I finally set out on my much-delayed adventure one sunny September afternoon. Even the place we start isn’t where you might think.