Catherine Fletcher introduces her new book, “The Roads to Rome: A History”

Catherine Fletcher introduces her new book, “The Roads to Rome: A History”

Via Appia
Via Appia

I first came to Rome in 2001, for a summer course in Italian before starting my Masters degree. In doing so, I joined millions of travellers who make the journey to the city every year: an estimated 36 million in 2023. Since then I’ve returned on multiple occasions, including as a Rome Fellow in 2009-10 and as Balsdon Fellow in 2023-24.

 

In The Roads to Rome I set out to tell the story of travel to Rome and on the ancient Roman road network over the course of two millennia. This isn’t only a conventional history. I also incorporate stories of my own travels, undertaken as Europe slowly opened up following the Covid restrictions of 2020-21. From Scotland to Cádiz to Istanbul I followed routes including the ancient Watling Street in England and the Via Augusta in Spain. I took the Via Diagonalis or Militaris from Vienna to Istanbul via Sofia and Plovdiv, before heading back towards Italy through Greece and Albania on the Via Egnatia. Seeing for myself the geography of the Roman road network–not least the landscapes it traversed–gave me a new perspective on its legacies.

Via Appia in Rome, 2023, photo by the author

There is, of course, a long history of study of the ancient world through travel. In the fifteenth century, Pope Pius II included observations on Roman sites in his Commentaries. In the sixteenth, Michel de Montaigne and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda noted down inscriptions while making journeys. In the seventeenth and eighteenth, as the Grand Tour expanded, guidebooks directed travellers to ancient sources that could inform their appreciation of present-day landscapes.

 

From the nineteenth century, as practices of history and archaeology became more professionalised, this type of activity only increased. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Cambridge historian G. M. Trevelyan wrote an account of Garibaldi’s campaigns, he set out to travel ‘the whole route traversed by Garibaldi’s column’. Thomas Ashby, an early director of the British School at Rome, produced an important photographic record of the roads out of Rome, cycling or walking for the best views of the campagna. Indeed, central to the work of the BSR is the idea that residence in Rome and the possibility of observing the city directly offers insights that one cannot gain at a distance.

Via Appia in Rome, 2023, photo by the author
Via Appia in Rome, 2023, photo by the author

On the other hand, the accounts of those who did travel also enabled those who did not (or could not) to enjoy something of the experience even from miles away. This has long been true of books, but there were (and are) other means too: the collection developed by John Ruskin for the working people of Sheffield, or the lantern slide lectures of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, some of which survive in the BSR’s archive (my thanks to Zoe Langer for showing us). Today, TV and other audio/video content spreads the sounds and images of Rome well beyond the city itself.

Via Appia in Rome, 2023, photo by the author
Via Appia in Rome, 2023, photo by the author

Catherine previewed her book in a lecture for the BSR in autumn 2023: watch here.

She’ll be speaking about it in person at the Manchester Histories Festival on Sunday 9 June (book here), and at Blackwells Manchester on the evening of Thursday 13 June (book here). If you’d like her to speak at a local history/classics event, please get in touch: catherine.fletcher@mmu.ac.uk.

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