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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in January 2015.

Porta S. Sebastiano (Book 1) (Map A4) (Day 5) (View C11) (Rione Ripa) and (Rione Campitelli)

In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Today's view
Porta S. Sebastiano
Arco di Druso
Sepolcro degli Scipioni
Domine Quo Vadis?
Tomba di Priscilla and Cappella di Reginald Pole
The walls between Porta S. Sebastiano and Porta Ardeatina
Porta Ardeatina
Bastione del Sangallo
The walls between Bastione del Sangallo and Porta S. Paolo

The Plate (No. 10)

Porta Capena, the gate of the Republican walls from which Via Appia started, was located at the south-eastern corner of the Palatine. The new gate built by Emperor Aurelian retained the name of Porta Capena, but was more commonly called Porta Appia. Later on it was called Porta S. Sebastiano with reference to the basilica dedicated to that saint along Via Appia and today this is the prevailing name. At Vasi's time the gate had minor importance because of the opening in the XVIth century of Porta S. Giovanni and of a new section of Via Appia which replaced the old one (hence Via Appia Antica).
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below which shows: 1) Porta S. Sebastiano; 2) Arco di Druso; 3) Porta Ardeatina; 4) Bastione del Sangallo; 5) Sepolcro degli Scipioni. The dotted line in the small map delineates the border between Rione Ripa (left) and Rione Campitelli (right).


The view in August 2008

Porta S. Sebastiano has always been regarded as the most imposing of the ancient gates and this has helped its conservation; the sections of walls at its sides are among the most evocative ones and they have not been breached to allow an easier flow of traffic. Unfortunately however the Mayors of the City of Rome have not had the strength to impose the total closure to cars of the urban section of Via Appia which starts at S. Cesareo in Palatio.

Porta S. Sebastiano

(left) The gate; (right) a "posterula" (a small opening in the wall) very near the gate

Originally the gate had two entrances between two round towers; the latter were strengthened by Maxentius and their lower sections were given a square shape during the reign of Emperor Honorius; at that time the two entrances were replaced by a single one and the gate was linked by two short walls to nearby Arco di Druso; in this way Porta S. Sebastiano became very similar to Porta S. Paolo which still retains the appearance of a small castle.

(left) Apotropaic bumps; (centre-above) relief portraying St. Michael and inscription celebrating a victory; (centre-below) a 1779 "I was here"; (right-above) cross on the key stone of the inner gate; (right-below) a religious inscription

Apotropaic is a word deriving from the Greek and meaning "which turns away/averts"; the bumps on the marble facing of the towers are thought to have been placed with the purpose of averting bad luck, although a more practical explanation suggests that they were used for measuring the work completed by stone cutters.
The walls of the gate are covered with inscriptions: some of them are merely graffiti which show that this bad habit has ancient roots, but two inscriptions/relief are linked to historical events:
a) on St. Michael's day (September 29) 1327 the Romans rebuked an attempt by Neapolitan troops to enter the city; the episode is part of the long fight for supremacy in Rome between Colonna and Orsini during the period the popes were in Avignon: in this instance the Colonna were among the defenders and the Orsini among the attackers;
b) it is generally thought that a cross with a Greek sentence thanking the Lord and Sts. Conon and George, patrons of the army, was placed in the VIth century by one of the Byzantine generals (Belisarius and Narses) who conquered Rome during the Greek-Gothic war. During this period another storey was added to the towers and to the wall between them.

(left) Gallery along the internal side of the walls; (right) a private house seen from the top of the gate

Today Porta S. Sebastiano houses a small museum on the history of the Walls of Rome, but the main reason for visiting it is that it allows walking along a well preserved stretch of the walls; from the terrace of one of the towers it is possible to see some private houses along Via Appia; many of them are residences of ambassadors (you may wish to see other such residences in Parioli).

Arco di Druso

(left) The arch; (right) the same seen from the top of the gate

Via Appia was very often the scene of the triumphal entrance to Rome of a victorious general or emperor returning from the eastern provinces of the empire. For this reason the crossing of Via Appia by the branch of an aqueduct built by Emperor Caracalla to supply water to the baths he built was given the appearance of a triumphal arch. It is unclear why the arch was subsequently associated with Drusus, a name born by many members of the family of Livia, Emperor Augustus' third wife and in particular by a brother and a son of Emperor Tiberius.

Sepolcro degli Scipioni

(left) IIIrd century AD house and medieval tower which were built above the tomb; (right-above) one of the underground rooms; (right-below) a funerary relief and a cinerary urn

The laws of Rome did not allow the construction of funerary monuments within the pomerium, the city boundary, but when the Scipio family built a large complex for their dead, Via Appia was entirely outside it. The small necropolis which was made up of several large underground rooms was first discovered in 1612, but was not investigated in a more professional manner until 1780. It was founded in ca 280 BC by Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, whose sarcophagus is one of the earliest examples of Hellenistic art in Rome. The Scipio family is best known for the role its members played during the Macedonian Wars (the link leads to other images of Sepolcro degli Scipioni).

Sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (Vatican Museums)

Domine Quo Vadis?

(left) Façade; (right-above) copy of a relief showing the imprints of two feet; (right-below) stoup decorated with a bee, the heraldic symbol of the Barberini

Quo Vadis is a historical novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz which in 1951 was adapted to the screen for a film by the same name starring Deborah Kerr, Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov. During the persecution of Emperor Nero St. Peter was fleeing from Rome by Via Appia when he met Jesus Christ whom he asked Domine quo vadis? (Lord, where are you going?); the answer was Venio Romam iterum crucifigi (I am going to Rome to be crucified again). St. Peter understood he should not try to escape his fate and returned to Rome. The episode is described in the Acts of Peter, an apocryphal text.
In the IXth century a small chapel was built on the site where a slab with a relief showing the imprints of two feet was found; a copy of the relief is kept in the chapel, while the original is in Basilica di S. Sebastiano with other holy relics, as the feet were thought to be those of Jesus Christ; most likely the relief was an ancient ex-voto for a happy return.
The chapel was rebuilt in 1637 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII.

Tomba di Priscilla
and Cappella di Reginald Pole

(left) Tomba di Priscilla; (right) chapel built by Cardinal Reginald Pole

Opposite Domine Quo Vadis there is a Roman circular tomb upon which the Caetani, the family of Pope Boniface VIII, built a round tower. It is called Tomba di Priscilla, the name of one of the first martyrs and it is one of the many Roman monuments along Via Appia which were modified during the Middle Ages. The lower part shows evidence of opus reticulatum (see a page on Roman Construction Techniques), while the upper one is medieval and it was built with stones taken from other tombs.
A chapel was built near Domine Quo Vadis in memory of another encounter which occurred in 1539 between Cardinal Reginald Pole and the assassins sent by King Henry VIII of England. In 1521 the king had been granted the title of Defensor Fidei by Pope Leo X, but later on his relations with the Church of Rome turned sour. The cardinal managed to escape from the ambush and as an ex-voto he built the chapel; the king took revenge on him by executing his mother in London. The use of brickwork pillars was maybe inspired by a nearby ancient tomb, known as Sepolcro di Annia Regilla.

You may wish to continue your walk along Via Appia Antica by visiting the following pages:
Via Appia Antica from Basilica di S. Sebastiano to Cecilia Metella
Via Appia Antica from Cecilia Metella to Torre in Selci
Via Appia Antica from Torre in Selci to Frattocchie.  

The Walls between Porta S. Sebastiano and Porta Ardeatina

Walls between Porta S. Sebastiano and Porta Ardeatina

The walk along this section of the walls is very interesting and it offers great views: the walls are south facing and not overwhelmed by nearby buildings. The towers are placed at a distance of a hundred Roman feet (the Roman foot is very slightly shorter than the English one). This measure was a module for Roman architects in the sense that it can be found in many buildings and also in the design of castra, the square military encampments.

Porta Ardeatina

(left) Porta Ardeatina and in the foreground a section of the ancient road leading to it; (right) Porta Ardeatina, the arches opened for Via Cristoforo Colombo leading to EUR and in the distance Bastione del Sangallo

Porta Ardeatina is in between a gate and a posterula: it did not have the size of a major gate, but it had some sort of decoration and it actually had a road departing from it; Via Ardeatina today branches off Via Appia Antica at Domine Quo Vadis, but in the past it started at this point. It led to Ardea and to Antium, where Emperor Nero had a villa by the sea.

Detail of a mosaic (IIIrd century AD) found near Porta Ardeatina, now at Museo Nazionale Romano

Bastione del Sangallo

(left) Bastione del Sangallo; (right) coat of arms of Pope Paul III between those of the Senate of the City of Rome (left) and of Camera Apostolica (right), the board of finance of the Papal State (both institutions contributed to financing the construction of the bastion)

The Sack of Rome in 1527 by the German mercenary troops of Emperor Charles V led the Popes to worry about the defence of Rome. The Aurelian walls not only were ruined at many locations, but they were built before the development of gunpowder and cannon and they could be easily breached. In 1536 Pope Paul III entrusted Antonio da Sangallo the Younger with the task of upgrading them. Sangallo, with the assistance of military experts, built a large bastion as a real life sample of the new wall; it is actually a very imposing and elaborate construction which can be regarded as the state-of-the-art of Italian military architecture. It had only one drawback: its cost. The idea of surrounding the whole city with new walls was abandoned in 1542, but the walls around the Vatican were rebuilt according to the standard set by this bastion (starting from Porta S. Spirito).

The Walls between Bastione del Sangallo and Porta S. Paolo

Views of the walls between Bastione del Sangallo and Porta S. Paolo

The section of the walls between the bastion and Porta S. Paolo is very picturesque; fragments of ancient Roman buildings can be spotted on its towers and some of the restorations made by the popes are celebrated by coats of arms; today the walls protect S. Saba, a very peaceful neighbourhood, from the chaotic traffic of modern Rome.

(left) Coat of arms of Pope Innocent X (now in the Museum of the Walls); (centre-above) coat of arms of Pope Nicholas V; (centre-below) coat of arms of Pope Pius IV; (right) walled fragments of ancient buildings

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Porta Capena, o di s. Sebastiano
Teneva un tal nome questa porta, perchè portava al tempio o bosco delle Camene fatto da Numa, o secondo altri alla città di Capena, che Italo fabbricò presso Alba; in oggi però prende il nome dal cimiterio e basilica di s. Sebastiano, che poco più di un miglio le sta discosto. Da questa porta principiava la celebre via Appia, lastricata da Claudio Appio Censore fino a Capua, e poi da altri distesa fino a Brindisi in Calabria, spianando monti ed inalzando valli, per renderla agiata e comoda a' passaggieri, e alle spedizioni, che continuamente facevansi per levante; e però vi erano ad ogni miglio poste delle colonnette, che indicavano il numero delle miglia, come oggidì si costuma; ed ogni tanto vi erano de' seditori di marmo e comodi opportuni, e sopra tutte era ornata di magnifici edifizj di tempj, e tombe sepolcrali di nobili famiglie. Or camminandosi per questa via, si trova in primo luogo la piccola
Chiesa di Domine, quo vadis?
Appresso a questa piccola chiesa fu il tempio dedicato a Marte, sostenuto da cento maravigliose colonne, la maggior parte delle quali cadde, come dicemmo, allor quando vi fu martirizzato s. Sisto Papa. Sulle rovine di questo fu dipoi eretta una chiesa in onore della ss. Vergine col titolo delle Palme, per le palme delle quali era circondato l'antico tempio. E perchè quivi presso, come è tradizione, apparve il divin Redentore colla croce in spalla a s. Pietro, mentre fuggiva l'ira di Nerone, il quale maravigliato gli disse, Domine, quo vadis? e Gesù Cristo per istruirlo, che era sua volontà, che egli in Roma soffrisse volentieri la morte, li rispose; Eo Romam iterum crucifigi; e lasciando impresse le vestigie de' suoi santi piedi fu di una pietra, disparve; perciò conservarono i Cristiani per molto tempo quivi la memoria di un tal fatto, e la pietra colle sante pedate. Ma poi vi eressero una cappelletta, che, secondo alcuni scrittori, è quell'altra rotonda, che poco lungi si vede discosto da questa, e che nell'an. 1536. fu rinnovata dal Card. Reginaldo Polo Inglese; umilmente stando questa per cadere nel 1610. fu ristaurata, e per maggior devozione vi fu posta la copia delle pedate ricavate dalla vera, che si custodisce nella basilica di s. Sebastiano, a cui ci incammineremo.

Next plate in Book 1: Porta S. Paolo
Next plate in Day 5 itinerary Basilica di S. Sebastiano fuori delle mura
Next step in your tour of Rione Campitelli: Chiesa di S. Sisto Vecchio
Next step in your tour of Rione Ripa: Porta S. Paolo