Off the beaten track to see the beaten track: Via Flaminia Antica

If you are spending more than just a few days in Rome, it can be enlightening to journey away from the ‘classic’ sights and the hordes of tourists to visit places rarely seen. Seemingly blighted suburban landscapes can reveal hidden historical treasures – and give an insight into the true culture of Rome.

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Arriving in ancient Rome from the north, emissaries and adversaries alike would have trudged down a great road that spikes due north out of Rome alongside the Tiber.

Via Flaminia was officially created by Consul Gaius Flaminius in 220BC, though it is likely that the hardtop construction work he commissioned near Rome was merely the formalisation of an existing, far more ancient Etruscan route. However, the road’s martial turn into the Appenines, cutting into and through rock, spanning rivers and gorges with epic bridges and even tunnels, eventually to follow the Adriatic coast north-west to Rimini, were monumental things that only the Roman Empire could have achieved at the time.

The long road from the north terminates at the gate into Piazza del Popolo, Rome’s northernmost baroque piazza. Porta del Popolo is now a magnificent baroque archway embedded in the Aurelian walls that still give ingress to the city centre. The original Roman arch had all-but sunk into the ground by the time it was rebuilt in 1565 on behalf of Pope Pius IV, and then decorated by Bernini 90 years later at the behest of Pope Alexander VII to celebrate the arrival of the abdicated Queen Christina of Sweden following her conversion to Catholicism.

Though not as spectacular as its cousins – in particular Via Appia Antica – a very simple and inexpensive journey from the city centre can take you to see both the remains of its magnificence, and vestiges of the roadside civilisation that was the precursor of today’s supermarkets and office blocks. It can also remind you that Rome, both ancient and suburban, is much more than baroque piazzas and the Colosseum.

The modern Via Flaminia follows the course of the old road northwards from Porta del Popolo directly for a few kilometres before it diverges and becomes a frenetic multi-lane highway paralleled by a commuter train. Its ancient forbear rests beside it, job long done, hidden for the most part beneath the buildings that line the new route.

To follow the road, after allowing yourself a brief diversion into the 15th Century church of Santa Maria del Popolo to view two original Caravaggios, pass through Bernini’s arch to the streetcar terminus. The number 2 tram travels directly up the route of the old Via Flaminia as far as Ponte Milvio (get off at the stop marked Tiziano-Diciassettesima Olimpiade and keep going in the direction the tram was going for about 100 yards to arrive at the bridge). The Pons Milvius was the first major stone bridge to bear the Via Flaminia, built by Nero in 206BC. The original was demolished and rebuilt in 115BC, and it is this replacement that has been rebuilt and remodelled ever since. Now pedestrianized, it is a perch over the Tiber where young Roman lovers come in the evening to bill, coo, and illegally padlock their love to the cast iron lamps.

As you cross the bridge, to your right you will see the magnificent but vainglorious Ponte Flaminio, commenced in 1938, which bears outsized Fascist symbols that hark back to the Roman Empire, that was not completed until 1951.

The small piazza north of Ponte Milvio north of the bridge is a night spot for the well-heeled of northern Rome, with a plethora of pleasant bars and restaurants, and is somewhere you may want to stop for lunch or a cappuccino. The district a little to the west of here is where Mussolini chose to build the Foro Italico, the Fascist monument to sport, and where the Stadio Olimpico was later built. But most importantly this is also the site of the 312AD Battle of Milvian Bridge, which decisively established Constantine’s supremacy, and thus the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

Further north by bus we pass on the right ancient, overgrown tombs at Due Ponti, demonstrating the honour of having one’s tomb erected by an important road: Roman statutes forbade burials within the walls of the city, so to achieve prominence, patrician families erected mausoleums by the sides of major throughfares. To the left are ancient Roman clifftop caves quarried out of red tuff, the rock that gave its name both to the district of Grottarossa and nearby Saxa Rubra. Alighting at Centro RAI, the headquarters of Italy’s state TV and radio station sit squat and modern. Beneath a garish statue of a flying unicorn (or horned Pegasus) are visible remnants of the Via Flaminia antica: excavated to several metres below the manicured lawns are slabs of the road, and beside them the walls of ancient, circular multi-roomed buildings, possibly inns or temples.

The ditch bearing the excavated road continues north in front of a local school, but few dozen metres on reveals a more vivid picture of the road in its glory. Romana Auto is a car dealership which has exposed a long stretch of the old road under the length of its grounds, and by local law must allow the public to come and view it for free. Entering the dealership and standing on one of the humpback bridges over the trench we see the Via Flaminia at its full width, with its gutters and centuries-old rut marks still in alignment; their formation after decades of use must have been a blessing for the bones of those riding un-sprung carts and chariots.

At this point the road disappears into the foundations of the next building, so we will divert for a couple of minutes along Via del Ponte di Castel Giubileo to the river Tiber. Though this area is enclosed by the Via Flaminia and the Grande Raccordo Anulare – Rome’s torrential ring-road – the area immediately to the south is still bucolic: the cypress-studded hilltops may now carry the  silhouettes of high-rise accommodation, but here in the Tiber Valley a mix of sheep and cow-filled pastures surround the grassy banks of the tree-lined river where cormorants and cranes fight each other for fish. A crumbling nineteenth-century brickworks looms nearby, as impressively engineered and as neglected as any of the ancient villas of Rome. Out here is easy to imagine this place as it was when legionnaires and traders made their way along the nearby Via Flaminia.

Five minutes away near Labaro station is a mess of overpasses, underpasses and train lines and a hydro-electric power station that controls the Tiber’s capricious flow. By the dam is a small tributary that enters the river. The Cremera stream is Livy’s Fosso della Valchetta, and this therefore identifies itself site of another decisive battle, far more ancient, during which the Romans established dominance over the Etruscans in 577BC.

“…the Veientines, after summoning an army from Etruria, assaulted the fortified post at the Cremera. The Roman legions were brought up by the consul L. Aemilius and fought a regular engagement with the Etruscan troops. The Veientines, however, had not time to complete their formation, and during the confusion, whilst the men were getting into line and the reserves were being stationed, a squadron of Roman cavalry suddenly made a flank attack, and gave them no chance of commencing a battle or even of standing their ground. They were driven back to their camp at the Saxa Rubra, and sued for peace.”
The History of Rome, Vol. I Titus Livius

The thought of such events taking place in such a prosaic spot is dizzying. Moreover, nearly hidden by the concrete and steel that surrounds it is perhaps the most quietly impressive of Rome’s Flaminian relics. Crammed into just a few yards over the Cremera are: overpass, road, overpass, two-thousand-year-old bridge, train line, road, overpass. The little bridge stands unobtrusive but solid, five metres below the freeways. Though the stones of the Via Flaminia that it supported are long gone, its arches nevertheless endure, having resisted more than two millennia of floods.

Even after the battle, the route over the fast-flowing stream was strategically important: not much further north, on a hilltop above the town of Prima Porta, is the Villa of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus Caesar, whose excavations rendered up some of the most magnificent examples of trompe l’oeil the Roman world ever created. Open by special appointment only, its stunning painted treasures have instead been installed at Palazzo Massimo in central Rome.

The frescoes from Villa Livia

From Prima Porta the road runs further out of Rome, and apart from a few diversions, its freeway equivalent follows the original path (with various archaeological gems along the way) until it reaches the Appenines. Then its route becomes meandering rural lane, occasionally still using Roman engineering to carry modern traffic as it winds through Umbria to reach the other coast.

Just minutes from the crowds and the piazzas, we can find another Rome: the places where the majority of Romans actually live. The Eternal City has been occupied for so long that even those blighted suburban areas that were once considered the far reaches of beyond are packed with history, and scratching just their surface we find them brimming with ancient sites that – while not as visually magnificent as their massive urban peers – are no less significant. If you have time, it’s definitely worth an hour or two to experience something different.

The journey above can be achieved by taking the No. 2 tram and alighting at the Pinturicchio stop; it can be continued from Ponte Milvio on the 232 or 200 buses, alighting at Centro Rai bus stop (20 minutes). Commuter trains back to the city center are accessible using a standard Rome public transport ticket, and leave regularly from Labaro, Centro RAI and Saxa Rubra stations, take about 15 minutes, and terminate at Piazzale Flaminio, next to the Flaminio Metro station and adjacent to Piazza del Popolo.

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Photo credit: AFP

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