Ancients abroad

The idea of 'the holiday' is a recent phenomenon – did the Ancient Greeks and Romans travel for pleasure?

Roman fresco depicting a panorama of a port.
Roman fresco depicting a panorama of a port. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

A clutch of articles appeared during the holiday season debating the value or otherwise of travel and tourism. These are now such widespread and broadly commended pursuits that it’s easy to forget that the idea of travelling for pleasure is a relatively recent phenomenon. The exhortation ‘Join the army and see the world’ sums up much of the experience of foreign travel in ancient Greece and Rome. The majority of those who marched and sailed beyond the confines of their native cities and nations are likely to have been soldiers on campaign or colonists seeking out new settlements abroad, generally with large numbers of women and enslaved attendants in train.

From around 1000 BC, ancient Greek ‘colonists’ – mostly organised groups of settlers with peaceful intent, who occasionally came into conflict with local tribes – had sought out new lives away from their strife-torn, overpop­ulated, or drought-blighted mother cities on the mainland. They struck across the Adriatic into Southern Italy and Sicily, founding cities such as Naples (from Greek Neapolis, ‘new city’) and Syracuse; and across the Aegean Sea into Asia (Greek Ionia, modern Turkey), where they founded coastal cities, such as Miletus and Ephesus.

Like the stereotypical ‘Englishman abroad’, however, early Greeks appear to have exhibited an attitude of cultural superiority that made them evince little interest in honouring non-Greek customs, cultivating new lifestyles, or taking on foreign ways. (When Alexander the Great, centuries later, imitated Persian customs, many Greeks responded with disapproval.) The locations they sought out for settlements were much like those they had left behind: easily accessible from the sea, well irrigated by local streams, enjoying moderate weather for most of the year, and endowed with fertile land for growing vines and olives. In due course, such settlements led to a constant trickle of visitors to and from the mother cities, with which they retained close contacts.

Travelling was, however, always a difficult and hazardous enterprise. Overland travel involved walking for miles in simple footwear on unpaved paths or bumping along in uncomfor­table carts drawn by pack-animals. Travelling by sea was apt to send a shudder down prospective travellers’ spines: the poet Hesiod (eighth century BC) speaks of the time he sailed across the Euboean strait to take part in a song competition, but warns ‘it is hard to avoid disaster… and a horrid thing to die in the waves’. Directions would have been rudimentary; we hear next to nothing of maps, though these were used increasingly for purposes of warfare across the centuries. The kind of itinerary a hopeful traveller might be expected to compile is illustrated in the fifth-century comedy, Aristophanes’ Frogs, where Dionysus asks for directions to the Underworld from Heracles, who has been there and returned safely: ‘Tell me about the harbours, bakers’ shops, brothels, and rest stops,’ asks Dionysus, ‘the side-roads, springs, roads, towns, customs, and the inns with the fewest bugs.’

Hesiod grumbled that sailing was a necessary evil for purposes of trade: ‘making money is life itself for wretched mortals’. The creation of Greek settlements was largely based on pre-existing trading interactions with the territories selected. The Greeks of the eighth century had inherited a network of trade routes that had been hitherto plied by Phoenicians, adventurously mercantile people based on the Levantine coast (today’s Lebanon and Syria), whose great foundation was the city of Carthage – Phoenician qart-hadasht, ‘new city’ – on the coast of northern Africa. In Homer’s Odyssey, an epic tale of adventure that reflects conditions in the early centuries of the first millennium, the hero speaks of Phoenicians as traders bearing ‘innumerable novelties’ in their dark ships. Odysseus himself had travelled to Asia as part of the Argive expedition to avenge the theft of Helen and destroy Troy – a story that, as Hittite records suggest, reflects centuries of intermittent political and military engagement, both friendly and hostile, with Hittite rulers in Asia and on adjacent islands such as Lesbos (Hittite Lazpa).

In addition to handicrafts and material novelties, the Phoenicians bequeathed to the Greeks the letters of their alphabet, alif bet etc. It was to be adapted from the eighth century BC into the writing system used by Greeks, then adopted by the Etruscan inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, and subsequently taken over by the Romans, after they came into contact with the Etruscans from the seventh century BC onwards, in the form of the Latin alphabet still used today. The Greeks appear to have been curiously uninterested in applauding cultural borrowings of this kind, and it is rare to read of travellers seeking to learn foreign languages or even going abroad for pleasure. In the fifth century BC, the ‘father of history’ Herodotus travelled widely to acquire information about the world of non-Greeks, including journeying to Egypt and Persia. He projects a notably Greek outlook when describing foreigners and their customs, and reveals his lamentable lack of linguistic expertise by stating an erroneous ‘fact’ about the Persian language.

Herodotus tells in his Histories the story of the Athenian politician Solon, who after reforming the Athenian constitution took leave of Athens for ten years and travelled widely ‘for the love of learning and to see the world’. The notion that one’s knowledge might be enriched by travel is clearly present, and Solon’s interlocutor Croesus explicitly appeals to the wisdom Solon has gained from his voyages. The Greek word theoria, used for ‘sight-seeing’, was the regular word for going on a pilgrimage to a sacred site, such as the oracle at Delphi, from which one might expect to return enlightened.

A sardonic comment in the New York Times of 1884 – ‘Foremost among the countless blessings of war is its power of teaching geography’ – could well be applied to Greece’s imperial successor and conqueror, Rome. The Romans’ military conquests were enormously aided by their advanced techniques of road-building, evident in the many thousands of miles of roads based on ancient Roman highways, which today stretch across Britain and from Western Spain through to North Africa and the Middle East. Such roads made travel more efficient and comfortable, and allowed for a culture of tourism among Romans infatuated by the culture – poetry, music, theatre, sculpture, architecture, and more – that the conquered Greeks had brought to their largely agrarian and martial world. ‘Captured Greece captivated its fierce conquerer’, wrote the poet Horace ‘and introduced art to rustic Latium.’ In return, upper-class Romans visited Greece to absorb their intellectual traditions and gaze on their artistic treasures. In some cases, such as that of Verres, the rapacious governor of Sicily denounced by Cicero, such tourism was simply a prelude to the wholesale looting of cultural treasures.

For most Romans, travel, especially by sea, remained an unappealing prospect. ‘The first person to entrust himself to the cruel waves in a fragile boat’, wrote Horace when his friend Virgil set off for Athens, ‘had nerves of steel’ (literally ‘of oak and triple bronze’); mortals should not tempt fate. But what about the benefits of exposure to different sights and different perspectives? What about the pleasure of a good rest in a pleasant beauty spot? Horace is forthright: ‘Reason and good sense relieve anxieties, not a place that commands an expansive view of the sea. People who speed across the ocean change their location, not their state of mind.’ As Thomas à Kempis, the fifteenth-century author of the Imitation of Christ, was to phrase the sentiment: ‘Wherever you go, you take yourself with you, and you will always find yourself.’


Armand D'Angour