Robert Kaster’s The Appian Way, Ghost Road, Queen of Roads was my companion for a day here in the woods, in between spurts of gardening and writing. The book is short – 120 pages – and generally delightful. It consists of some scattered historical anecdotes and observations coupled with a few bursts of travel writing. Kaster walked a few of the more atmospheric bits of the ancient road and drove the rest – hardly the most thorough job by adventure travel standards, but a road does not ask you to be thorough – a portrait of it is built up not by a single exhaustive journey but by the tesselation of many. The slant of Kaster’s book is intriguing in many ways – Kaster is a lifelong academic, and the book unintentionally but necessarily is a portrait of an academic classicist venturing out of the library into what in theory should be his own field, but in truth is somewhat unfamiliar territory for him.
I encountered this phenomenon my freshman year at Princeton, when I thought I would use my Princeton connections to get me excellent lodging in Rome, and I found that the Classics professors had no particular connections in Rome, and many had never been to Rome or Italy at all. Kaster was not there at the time, but the phenomenon is widespread, and his personal version of it is here:
Though teaching the language and literature of ancient Rome has been my life, I had spent little time in Italy, and virtually none in Rome itself, since the summer of 1973, when I endured several sweltering weeks in the Vatican Library as a graduate student doing research for my dissertation. That had not been a happy time: Laura, my wife, had just finished law school back home in Boston and was studying for the bar exam, and we were both lonely in our separate routines. (3)
In college this kind of academic distance was an incredible disappointment to me – I wanted to incarnate knowledge, not merely collect it – and it made me very suspicious of academic “expertise.” This is in general a salutary suspicion. And it is always astonishing to me that people have professions which are by no means obviously appropriate to them – can a Latin scholar really go through life without a fire in his belly for Italy? – but now this sort of thing is so normal to me that it is not a disappointment so much as an oddity, or even a mystery.
And one of the pleasant things about Kaster’s book is that he combines the erudition of an old classicist, with four decades of teaching behind him, with the excitement of a college freshman discovering that travel can actually be really fun, and Italy can be, like, really amazing, especially if you, like, have an interest in history. This is odd in real life and could in other circumstances even be a little sad, but in Kaster’s case it is entirely endearing and works very well on the page. It is very pleasant to see the old professor having to grapple with the world a bit – and the book is delightfully humble and honest, while of course featuring the occasional and wonderful displays of expertise you would want from an Ivy League professor. It’s not every person that can point out things that have been in my Latin field of vision for two decades but I’ve never noticed before – for example, that the Appian gens is the only Roman gens that named things after their praenomen (Appius), not their nomen (Claudius) – as strange as if the Jefferson Memorial, among all the monuments of Washington, was called “the Thomas Memorial” – and yet I had never noticed it before. This kind of discussion of the finer points of Roman history is coupled with Kaster being a neophyte tourist in Italy – amazed that old Italian strangers on the street would speak passionately to him about how terrible it was that the Samnites let the Romans get out of their grip in 312 B.C. This is the kind of thing that happens every single day you talk to old strangers in Italy, and a seasoned traveller would expect nothing less, but in fact, it’s pretty amazing and should be mentioned and even marvelled at.
But of course sometimes it treads on his academic presuppositions. On the regional nationalism he found in Samnium:
Very well, we thought, perhaps it’s a generational thing… So back at our hotel, after determining that the twenty-something clerk at the front desk was a native of Benevento, we asked her if she knew about the Forche Caudine [the site of the battle between the Romans and Samnites]. Of course, she said: “After all, I am a Sannita.” Hearing a modern young woman declare that she is a Samnite in the opening years of the twenty-first century – well, that really required some effort to get my mind around. Taken literally, as a declaration of ethnicity, it’s of course complete nonsense, no matter what definition or criteria of ethnicity you want to apply: a citizen of Minnesota in the year 4000 might as well declare that he’s a Swede. (98-9)
This is such a strange statement – after all, Benevento is the capital city of the region of Italy called Sannio. Its local museum is called the “Museo del Sannio.” All its local government documents have the word “Sannio” written on them. Hence for her to call herself a Sannita is unlike his example, and more like a native of Rome in 2012 calling herself a Roman, or a native of Britain in 2012 calling herself British. In a fairly indisputable way, the statement is true, as true as any statement of ethnicity ever is. Whether she has any ancestors who fought at the Battle of the Caudine Forks is another question – but of course she very well may. Every single person alive today has an ancestor who was alive in 312 B.C. It’s odd to see armchair classicists actually see the words they guard in their books meaning something in real life – for them, oddly, it’s like a kind of joke, or a kind of sacrilege, that these words should have a real referent – that the Samnites should have existed, and have descendants, and not be gone away.
But this is me picking a fight with the classicists, which is by no means necessary. I enjoyed Kaster’s book immensely, and the little portraits he gives of the Italians made me smile to think of what wonderful people they are (even the language – my, how lovely to my ears is the word Sannita, feminine and beautiful and lovely). I was also mentioned in the book, which of course disposes me to like it – namelessly in the following passage:
Cycling from Rome to Brindisi is an option, one taken up not long ago by a graduate student in my department and her husband, who made the trip in twelve days [fourteen in fact, but only twelve biking days, so this is accurate]. But that route is for people younger, fitter, and bolder than we are, and I assume that most readers who are tempted to make the trip will have the same point of view. (120)
I did indeed bike the road, with my ex-wife, in 2005, and afterwards I wrote up an 18,000-word account of the trip, in a detail I cannot admire enough now (I’d forgotten many of the details, and the beauty of these trips so often resides in them). I wrote the book entirely in Latin (what better language to write about the Via Appia?). Kaster helped to remind me that I should do something about this little book, of which I am in fact quite proud. One of the things you can generally rely on academics to know is the bibliography, and Kaster indicates that there really aren’t very many travel books about the Via Appia. I presume that I’ll have to do an English version of the book, but that in itself is an interesting exercise, to write the same story in two different languages. I recently reread the Latin version, and thought about how much would be lost in translation – of course the Latin version is filled with echoes of the classical authors, necessarily and naturally, without any special effort – a difficult thing to replicate in English, and perhaps not even desirable. Anyway, it’s another project, si modo vita supersit.
I adduce the following passage from Kaster’s book because it made me laugh out loud – because it’s so Italian and so utterly senseless – on the obstinate refusal of the Italians to make change. It’s really true, and really does need to be explained someday by someone (this is the kind of stuff people should be writing dissertations about):
I should note a regional peculiarity that you will encounter every day [really true!], one that I found puzzling and annoying [this is also true!], if finally a bit endearing [yes!]. It concerns the interaction of people and euro notes. If you offer to pay a $12 tab with a $20 bill in a shop or eating place in the States, it will be taken as an obvious thing to do; in fact, if you try to pay a $2 tab with a $20 bill, you will be met by nothing more than the occasional, “Got anything smaller?” But try to pay a 12-euro tab with a 20-euro note in any establishment in southern Italy: looks of hurt and reproach as employees empty their own pockets in search of change, then perhaps a dash to the shop next door. As for 50- or 100-euro notes: please, be serious. One evening in Benevento, when I tried to pay for our 40-odd-euro dinner with a 100-euro note, the grandmotherly owner, with whom I’d been chatting on and off throughout the meal, recoiled and raised her hands in a defensive gesture, as though I’d drawn a weapon. But when we’d settled up and I put down the 5 euro note that is the conventional token of thanks for service above and beyond the cover charge, she quickly scooped it up and added it to a sheaf of notes, two inches thick, that she produced from her apron pocket. It was then that I decided, well, something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear… Whatever the cause of this quirk, I mention it on the chance that doing so will save you from spending an outsized chunk of a morning as I did, waiting on line in a bank to get change for some larger denomination notes. When you buy your euros, insist on nothing larger than 20-euro notes. (123)