Nearly two millennia ago, Roman scholars, families, emperors, and a few
well-heeled women kick-started what is now considered the world's largest
industry — travel. Tourism was born in part because Augustus had
rid the Mediterranean of pirates, highways were safe for travel, and inns
and guides could be found throughout the ancient world's wonders —
all of which made the exploration of Italy, Greece, Asia Minor (now Turkey),
and Egypt possible for the first time ever.
Surprisingly, as Australian author Tony Perrottet discovered,
the Mediterranean's sights, and sightseers, have changed little since
A.D. 100. Following everything from ancient guidebooks to letters excavated
from Egyptian sands, Perrottet was able to view this premier vacationland
through the eyes of its original tourists, and to discover the Mediterranean
anew [Read "Playground of the Gods" in the March 2003 issue
The account of his four-month tour, Route 66 A.D., comes
out in paperback next month as Pagan Holiday. Here, Perrottet explains
what it's like to take what may be the world's oldest package tour.
NGA: Can you describe what an average ancient
Roman holiday was like?
Wealthy members of society, [who were] very educated, very sophisticated,
chose an itinerary based on the great wonders of history and myths they'd
read about all their lives. The grand tour would start in Rome, then [proceed]
to Naples, the seaside resort of antiquity.
Then they would go over to Greece, which was like the Old
World for the Romans. They loved to go to Athens and to see where Socrates
lived, where Plato debated, to the Parthenon and the Acropolis.
After Greece, you could go to any port and negotiate directly with the
captains of merchant ships going across the Aegean. So you'd sail anywhere
The Romans weren't very interested in the Greek islands,
which were inhabited by shepherds and fishermen. [Most travelers would
head directly for] modern Turkey (Asia Minor in antiquity), one of the
wealthiest provinces in the empire. All the great spas were there.
But the whole aim of going to Turkey was to visit to the
ruins of Troy. Homer was like Shakespeare, [and the Iliad and Odyssey]
were regarded like the Bible. Going to Troy was like a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Priests would show off the armor of Achilles or the sword of Hector —
completely spurious [artifacts], but there were also war graves of great
heroes to see.
Then they would get a boat down to Egypt. Alexandria was
an extremely exotic place for Romans, it was a crossroads of Africa and
Asia and Europe. They would go to the Pyramids and take a Nile River cruise,
stopping at tombs along the way.
[The tours took] two to five years. Two, just for the sheer
logistics of it, was about the average.
NGA: Why would ancient Romans take this tour?
It was very much like the grand tour of the 18th and 19th century.
These were aristocrats — antiquarians or poets or writers or lawyers
— who had a great deal of money, and it was considered part of your
education to go.
You weren't really a complete person until you'd seen these
amazing things, very much like the English nobles of 18th century who
felt that they had to see Paris and Rome and Florence.
The Romans thought that they should go and meet the philosophers
of Athens, see the Acropolis, the Pyramids. Which is still one of the
reasons people travel today.
NGA: Does anyone still take two-year trips?
Well, Australians will go away for two years, commonly. When you finish
college, you'll [often] go off and bumble around Asia. But it is considered
part of your education or part of your growing up.
I think in America, it's much more puritanical, and employers
will look askance if on your resume they see you've wandered around for
two years — whereas in Australia, they'll actually be concerned
if you haven't seen the world.
When you come back you're more of an informed citizen, and
you don't have that sort of endless longing of having missed out on something,
which I get a lot from Americans, like, "Oh man, straight from college
to schlepping along." And then before you realize it, it becomes
harder and harder to go off on one of these trips.
NGA: Your inspiration for your trip was the
"world's oldest guidebook"?
Yes, it was a book called The Description of Greece, written by a guy
named Pausanias around A.D. 160. There were actually hundreds of these
guidebooks, and this is the only one that survived intact.
Pausanias traveled very widely — he was actually born
in Asia Minor — but he spent ten years wandering around Greece,
describing every great sight. Some of it is incredibly turgid, because
he gets into every sort of obscure mythological argument, [like] why a
statue in Olympia is clasping a piece of fruit, and it will go on for
pages and pages.
He was very precise — no guidebook writer today would
spend ten years writing a guidebook. It's actually a paragon of the art,
and archaeologists have actually gone back and used this book to
excavate Delphi and Olympia.
When I saw this, it made me realize that you could actually
use this today, because all the places he went were the places I wanted
to go to. I wanted to go Olympia and climb the Acropolis and look at the
But one of my dreads was to just find piles of rubble overrun
with tourists — so it occurred to me that you could look at the
ancient world through Pausanius [and other writers] and see it with this
double vision, and get back to the ancient reality of what it must have