Roadside Attractions: On John Keahey’s “Following Caesar”

By Mike RodelliJanuary 10, 2024

Roadside Attractions: On John Keahey’s “Following Caesar”

Following Caesar: From Rome to Constantinople, the Pathways That Planted the Seeds of Empire by John Keahey

THERE IS a saying about Roman roads, usually used to comment on the cultural dominance of cities—or at least certain kinds of cities. Less appreciated is what it says about military expansion and dominance.

In the new travelogue Following Caesar: From Rome to Constantinople, the Pathways That Planted the Seeds of Empire, John Keahey details the meaning of byways in the ancient world. Keahey focuses on three roads in particular. The Via Appia, begun in 312 BC, went down Central Italy and is the most famous of them. The Via Traiana, begun in 109 BC, paralleled the Via Appia, and went down the eastern side and coast of Italy. And the Via Egnatia, begun in 145 BC, was located across the Adriatic Sea and went further south beyond Italy through Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

These three roads were built to allow the Roman armies to march south and east both to better protect Italy from incursions and to open the conquest of lands in faraway Greece and Turkey.

Keahey initially follows the path of a journey taken by the satirist Horace in 38 BC, which took place only in part on the Via Appia. Horace soon headed east along a flatter route toward Brundisium in Southern Italy for treaty negotiations involving the emperor Octavian and his co-ruler, Mark Antony. The book, in fact, might have been more appropriately titled Following Horace, but Caesar has better name recognition.

There are many references to the writings that Horace left behind detailing his long journey by foot and donkey to Southern Italy. In one, he describes his overnight stay at a Beneventum villa (modern-day Benevento), stating that the “busy host nearly burned the inn turning lean thrushes over the fire … You saw scared servants and famished guests snatch food and everyone tried to extinguish the roaring blaze.” Passages like this allow the reader to participate in Horace’s journey.

Keahey also dedicates significant time to the magnificent bridges, temples, theaters, and arches built in antiquity, which now exist as ruins, albeit incredibly durable ones. “As I looked toward the farmer’s house sitting on those ancient, well-placed Roman stones, I could see a narrow ditch running east through the bottom of the depression,” he writes in one typical passage. “The river has shrunk over the centuries, and now the edge of this once wide and mighty course is used to move water for irrigating crops.”

In the second part of his journey, Keahey follows the Via Egnatia, which takes him southeast of Italy into Macedonia, Greece, and, ultimately, the city of Byzantium, the ancient name of Istanbul before it was ever called Constantinople. This journey is complicated by COVID-19 restrictions in various countries; in fact, the pandemic prevents the author from entering Albania altogether, leaving northern parts of the Via Egnatia unseen.

Keahey is an accomplished wordsmith and enlists the help of local guides, whose knowledge of the ancient roads, buildings, and bridges in their areas add much color to the narrative. Famous figures such as Alexander the Great, as well as lesser-known names of both people and gods, litter the text in intriguing ways.

For example, Keahey writes of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt and the Moon. The way elites described her probably did not match the way she was regarded in the countryside, where smaller anecdotes were appended onto the official story. Along the way, Keahey wanders the ruins of the various temples devoted to her, a connective thread on this journey.

Keahey is dogged in his quest to get close to the “mud of protohistoric Italy,” but he acknowledges the humility of his placement in time: “Years of traveling in Italy suggest that I can only lightly brush against it all,” he writes. This humble approach only makes it a more excellent read for someone who wants to deepen their knowledge of Roman history or gain a better geographical context.

LARB Contributor

Mike Rodelli is a researcher and author of the book In the Shadow of Mt. Diablo: The Shocking True Identity of the Zodiac Killer (2021). He is currently writing a book on the unsolved case of the Monster of Florence, Italy.


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