A Drive Around The Roman Empire By Fiat

Will space humans float their hovercars down Interstate 90 to have space coffee next to Mount St. Helens in the year 4000? It's a little early to tell but you can do something very similar today. Go for a long drive in Italy!

There is one rule of long-distance driving in Italy. Don’t think about what you’re paying for gas. Or highway tolls. Gasoline in Italy costs $9 a gallon. The money you leave at a toll booth after a few hundred miles on the autostrada will buy you a plane ticket between most European cities. Which makes this great big extension of Southern Europe one of the most expensive places to cross by automobile.

I’d long harbored fantasies of driving in Italy in my friend Larry’s big old Lamborghini Espada. No more. The daily ritual of $100 gas bills to fill a city Fiat which gets 45 miles to the gallon puts the thirst of a 4-liter V12 with capricious carburetors in a whole new perspective. At a pleasant Italian cruising speed of 100 MPH, the Espada would rack up a fuel bill of $240 every two hours. Which is money better spent on researching the ice cream consumption limits of a white Caucasian male.

It’s very easy to break the one rule of long-distance driving in Italy. On the other hand, if you have any money left after gas and toll and ice cream, it’s just about the greatest way to spend a Sunday. Or a Monday, for that matter. Get in the car in Genoa after a slice of focaccia and an espresso and you’ll be on the Strada Statale 1 by mid-morning. SS1 is a splendid drive across Tuscany and Lazio on the Ligurian and the Tyrrhenian coasts. The road is, delightfully, toll-free, and it also happens to be 2,453 years old.

A Drive Around The Roman Empire By Fiat

Strada Statale 1 was constructed in 241 BC as the Via Aurelia, one of the major roads of the Republican road system, connecting Rome with Pisa. It’s an absolutely eerie feeling to drive down a road that old. Yeah, you’re not driving on ancient Roman basalt stones, the modern Via Aurelia is surfaced with asphalt, but the route is the same, the buildings say Via Aurelia and are marked with Roman miles, and you can’t help but come to the conclusion that everything around the road was pretty much the same all those years ago. The same hills, the same Mediterranean sun, the same olive trees, the same birds. Only marching legions instead of Fiats and Alfa Romeos.

Via Aurelia terminates above Rome, where a fine meal can be had in the town of Torrimpietra. Roman roads in their original condition, like the Via Appia, can be observed around Rome, but to see an entire city of them it’s best to hit the modern highway between Rome and Naples and see Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and buried under volcanic ash and pumice for 1,700 years.

Pompeii is remarkably big. It’s got a proper American city grid and the first thing you come across is a 20,000-seat amphitheater with pretty sophisticated access tunnels to separate the patricians from the common folk. Then, after a look at all the artifacts recovered from the city, you cannot help but wonder just how said folks spent their time when not cheering for slaves to massacre each other in entertaining ways. There are, in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, two entire rooms of Pompeiian artifacts depicting dicks. There are flying bronze dicks which have their own dicks and dick-shaped horns. There are stone dicks. The doors have dick mezuzahs! When I mentioned this to Tamas, a programmer who works for Jalopnik’s parent company Gawker Media, he asked me whether Pompeii had had a population consisting entirely of 12-year-old boys. Which would make a lot of sense! An interpretation of Pompeii as a Beavis and Butt-head holiday resort for rich Roman kids. Hey, Beavis, wouldn’t it be cool if there was, like, an active volcano next to town? Huh-huh. Volcanoes are cool. Huh-huh. Boom.

A Drive Around The Roman Empire By Fiat

Flying dick jokes aside, Pompeii—and, by consequence, the empire which built the road we used to reach the city—was shockingly high-tech. They had everything. The streets had sidewalks, gutters and pedestrian crossings. Grocery stores had sliding doors and queue management systems. Dentists had periodontal probes with knurled grips which look exactly like modern periodontal probes. Walking on Pompeii’s streets which bore the ruts of 2,000-year-old traffic, I couldn’t help but think that if they hadn’t gotten bored of running the empire, then discovered internal combustion and semiconductors, they would totally be around today. A few decades after the rich boys of Pompeii were hooning their aeolipile automobiles around Vesuvius, Roman armies would have been rolling down Via Aurelia in APC’s and hitting the Vandals from helicopter gunships.

They didn’t, of course. For all their high technology and enviable sex life, Romans made their share of stupid mistakes. If you examine a wall in Pompeii up close, you’ll see that they’re made of the same volcanic rocks which form the crater of Vesuvius a few miles away. Hint, hint. Not that this is a mistake confined to ancient times. Today, the area around the volcano is home to five million people.

Italy has its grave problems but it’s a wonderful place for a drive across both its provinces and its millennia of very tangible history. You may pay through the nose for gasoline and city traffic may require you to borrow brass balls from the archaeological museum but it’s worth every dollar and every heart attack induced by a guy on a scooter cutting you off while on a cell phone, lighting up a cigarette and eyeing up the girls.

Photos by Didier Baertschiger (road in Tuscany), Dave Hill and Margie Kleerup (intersection in Pompeii) and the National Archives at College Park, Maryland (1944 eruption of Vesuvius).