Peter Jones

Holidays with the ancients

Holidays with the ancients
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For most Romans, there were no such things as ‘summer holidays’. Holidays were for the rich, who went to their Cape Cod equivalent: the bay of Naples, leaving the stench, filth and disease of malarial Rome for the tideless, sheltered bay (‘bay’ derives from the local resort Baiae), cool sea breezes, healthy spas and agreeable villas. They certainly did not tour islands and coastlines by gulet, as I do every year with the sublime Westminster Classic Tours, full of Spectator readers keen to see and know everything, and hear what the ancients thought about it too.

Cruises of any sort are, in fact, a 19th-century invention. True, Archimedes (as in ‘eureka’) did build what looks like a cruise-ship for Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse (240 bc). It had interior panelling of cypress, ivory and aromatic cedar. Multicoloured mosaics telling the story of the Iliad covered the three floor-levels. Statues and art-work were scattered about, and there was a temple to Aphrodite paved with agate. The promenades were decorated with arbours of white ivy, plant beds and vineyards. It contained a gymnasium, a vast bath, 20 stables and a sealed fish-tank, packed with fish. The captain’s cabin, sensibly located next to the kitchens, was of ‘fifteen-bed’ size, with three ‘three-bed’ rooms off. Very Costa Concordia.

But in fact it was a cargo boat, protected by fearsome armaments (Archimedes again), carrying 400 tons of grain, and 500 tons each of pickled fish, wool and other cargo. Archimedes needed to invent the screw-windlass to launch the monster.

For those who did venture abroad, local guides (what’s new?) lay in wait. Lucian (2nd-century ad) pictures a tourist examining paintings in a sanctuary ‘and right away two or three people ran up to tell me all about them — for a small fee’. Nor would the guides shut up. Plutarch (2nd-century ad) tells of a party going round Delphi; the guides ‘paid no attention to our entreaties to cut the talk short’.

Since sightseers could grow weary of monuments (temples were the equivalent of our museums), locals laid on diversions. On the Nile, priests trained sacred crocodiles to open their mouths and have their teeth cleaned; at Arsinoe, anyone who brought an edible offering to the god Suchus could see the priest call the crocodile and give it to him, flushed down with wine.

Shopping was always a favourite blood-sport. In the bay of Naples, the Roman souvenir-hunter could buy little glass vials with labelled pictures of the major sights in the area: ‘Lighthouse’, ‘Nero’s Pool’, ‘Oyster Beds’. Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, made a living out of miniature replicas of the famous temple of Artemis there. When St Paul arrived, proclaiming the Christian god, Demetrius caused a riot, the town clerk intervened, and Paul and his followers tactfully left. Some things are sacred.

No one, however, escaped customs charges. The traveller presented a list of everything he had with him. Only conveyances and objects ‘for personal use’ were exempt: there was a charge even on corpses being transported for burial. Dues were low (2 to 5 per cent of value), but luxury items like silks, perfumes, spices and pearls ran to 25 per cent. Lawyers debated whether customs officials could actually touch married women who stowed their pearls in their bosom. As today’s officials nose about our luggage, we may feel, like Plutarch, ‘irritated and upset that they legally go through bags not their own, searching for hidden items’.

What, to repeat, is new?