Hol­i­days with the an­cients

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - PETER JONES

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.

Cruises of any sort are, in fact, a 19th-cen­tury in­ven­tion.

Archimedes (as in ‘‘Eureka!’’) did build what looks like a cruise ship for Hiero II, tyrant of Syra­cuse (240BC). It had in­te­rior pan­elling of cy­press, ivory and aro­matic cedar.

Mul­ti­coloured mo­saics telling the story of the Iliad cov­ered the three lev­els. Stat­ues and art­works 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. But in fact it was a cargo boat, pro­tected by fear­some ar­ma­ments (Archimedes again), car­ry­ing 360 tonnes of grain and 450 tonnes 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.

Plutarch (2nd cen­tury AD) tells of a party go­ing around Del­phi — the guides ‘‘paid no at­ten­tion to our en­treaties to cut the talk short’’. As 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 such as silks, per­fumes, spices and pearls ran to 25 per cent. Lawyers de­bated whether cus­toms of­fi­cials could touch mar­ried women who stowed pearls in their bo­soms.

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?

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