Holidays with the ancients
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?